Igor is a triumph.
Tyler, the Creator is one of the most maddeningly talented musical artists out there, and also one of the most divisive. Ever provocative, both as the central figure in hip-hop collective Odd Future and as a solo artist and producer, he can be so provocative at times that even fans will find themselves wishing that he would occasionally tone it down, if only to make it easier for him to receive the respect and admiration he deserves. But Tyler does as he wishes, and the success he has achieved has had nothing to do with meeting anyone else’s expectations. On Igor, he continues his iconoclastic spree but not through shock tactics—rather, the most shocking thing about Igor is how unabashedly soulful and honest it is.
Igor follows 2017’s Flower Boy, an album that found Tyler in an especially jazz-/soul-inspired and introspective mood, though fans of his more abrasive side also had plenty to revel in. But whether he’s indulging horror-rap fantasies or engaging in relatively more sensitive reflection, Tyler has proven himself to be a musically eclectic and versatile songwriter-producer with an encyclopedic range of influences. And his theatrical flair has contributed a cinematic/narrative dimension to his albums that not only make them more complex as hip-hop albums, but as albums tout court, and part of the fun of following his discography is precisely that of following his vision expand. Igor has an especially taut emotional arc, which provides continuity with previous work but also distinguishes it from its predecessors.
On his latest album, Tyler takes what seems to be a bracingly fragmentary approach—it is not really until the fifth song, “Running Out of Time,” that we’re presented with the central conflict animating the emotional core of the album, namely one concerning a partner who has decided to return with his ex-girlfriend (naturally, the gender of the characters in question has inspired great speculation). Before then, we get an exhilarating, extended overture through synth-rap, soul, R&B, pop, fusion and even (briefly) spoken word. Overall, it seems like less of a rap album and more of an unplaceable, genre-fusing album that just so happens to have rapping on it. And on songs such as “New Magic Wand” and “What’s Good,” more than songs, properly speaking, what the listeners finds are extended experiments, lyrics tumbling out against a spattered canvas of unbridled musical expression, with Tyler just barely reining in the chaos, like the narrator is standing at the eye at the own emotional storm, collecting the pieces around him.
On “A Boy Is a Gun” and “Puppet,” the centerpieces of the album, old-school grooves provide the musical anchor for songs that are touching in the directness with which they present their human drama at its most elemental. Most remarkably, given the anger Tyler has seemed to express in the past, this album seems to exude a hurt, but ultimately loving outlook. On “Gone, Gone/Thank You,” Tyler marries elements from Cullen Omori and Tatsuro Yamashita to create a bouncy, Cee-Lo Green-assisted bubblegum ode to heartbreak, acceptance and gratitude, and on the closing “Are We Still Friends?” he uses an Al Green sample and guest vocals from Pharrell to craft a suitably grand closing to this chapter in his ongoing emotional saga, leaving the listener on a climax and cliffhanger, an olive branch extended but not yet accepted. These are only some of the many guests on the album, but to be clear, this is an album that is Tyler through and through—his are the musical brains behind the whole operation, and the fact that there seems to be relatively less of his actual voice is in this case a sign of maturity, not delegating as with certain other contemporary rappers. Ultimately, his feelings are front and center, whether they’re spoken or not.
In short, Igor is a triumph, another feather in the cap of an artist whose real aim has always been to emote, not provoke, and who has made his vulnerability an expansive palette from which to draw in an exploration of the shades and contours of his own emotional canvas.