Stage AE, Pittsburgh, PA

The crowd packed into and around Stage AE to see GoldLink, Jaden (Smith) and Tyler, The Creator was unquestionably ready to party. It was a beautiful night in a city that doesn’t have many of those, and the venue was all set up for outdoor mode. The age of attendees skewed young (the show was all-ages): middle-school, high-school and college students alike seemed to recognize that this was both the end of the summer and the closest Pittsburgh gets to a star-studded music festival. Yet, as the evening marched on, the vibe never quite seemed to satisfy the audience. This was (mostly) a good thing, as it revealed a surprising level of maturity and boldness from artists willing to explore their own distinctive aesthetics rather than cater to devotees.

GoldLink, who commenced proceedings, came closest to just turning the fuck up. But due to a particularly grueling security process and an extremely long line, a lot of people—myself included—were still stuck outside the gates for the first part of his set, even though we’d been queuing up since doors opened. Still, people danced their way to their chosen spots and audibly appreciated that GoldLink was in hype-machine mode. Not only did he run through some high-energy renditions of tracks like “U Say,” “Zulu Screams” and “Crew,” but he also played clips of Kendrick Lamar and Pusha T to get everyone feeling even more euphoric. It didn’t hurt that he also started a chant of “Fuck AB,” to confirm for Pittsburghers that they deserved better than wide receiver Antonio Brown’s toxicity.

Next up was Jaden, whose numbers clearly communicated that he’s no longer a novelty act by tapping into an ethos that was equal parts Kid Cudi, Frank Ocean and Fall Out Boy. While his most devoted disciples were the concert’s youngest demographic, his performance found a grown-up sweet spot between active and cerebral, comic and melancholy. His rendition of “K,” for instance, gracefully transformed its plaintive guitar sounds into the buzzing din of barber clippers, while dusky desert imagery from his visual work glowed out in diptych form behind him. I heard Tyler fans around me griping that Jaden was a “sad boy rapper,” but the complexity and diversity of Jaden’s set quickly proved them wrong.

The night’s main attraction was Tyler, The Creator, whose most recent work has drifted away from rap altogether. His hour-and-a-half-plus concentrated on material from this year’s “unplaceable, genre-fusing” IGOR. He began with “IGOR’S THEME,” during which he did his best mannequin impression in a blond(e) wig recognizable from the “EARFQUAKE” video, and low-key concluded on “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” while using his final moments in the spotlight to explore every part of the stage’s space.

It struck some concertgoers as odd that he wasn’t so much performing songs from IGOR as celebrating their sounds. Instead of doing the singing himself, Tyler allowed the majority of the album’s crooning to pipe in from the speakers while he danced and posed—and rapped, when required. (A key exception was his piano rendition of “EARFQUAKE,” the only part of the night that involved live instrumentation.) But there was something quite beautiful about the way that he inhabited the music completely and deferentially, in awe of its existence. The staging, too, was glorious. Three tiers of giant curtains hung down from above in diagonal layers, and sometimes each appeared in a different neon hue. A pearl-colored staircase, which allowed Tyler to ascend and hover like a phantom over the enormous crowd, also materialized. Additionally, sometimes his own image–in close-up or multiplied to form a kind of Tyler army–played across the scene as he partied.

He broke up the material from IGOR with, in his words, “old shit,” which provided him the opportunity to do plenty of virtuosic rapping and allowed attendees to go nuts. Attempts to mosh and crowd surf mostly failed, but it was mainly songs from Flower Boy (especially “Who Dat Boy”) and one-offs like “Okra” that successfully instigated these attempts in the first place.

The night’s most controversial moment occurred when he went even further back in his catalog to do a no-holds-barred rendition of “Yonkers,” which initially appeared on 2011’s Goblin. The tune features the kind of homophobic, body-shaming, violent language that made Tyler, the Creator a notorious figure in the first place. As he performed the track, many people shifted uneasily. “I’m really surprised that he’s even doing this song,” I heard someone say. An older couple straight-up walked out of the show. It was an uncomfortable reminder that Tyler doesn’t fit neatly into categories like “progressive” or “queer friendly.” This very much seemed the point: he wanted to demonstrate, defiantly, that he’s not some safe figure for individuals of any age to unproblematically adore.

Even as he got back into other, less troubling material and everyone calmed a little, it was difficult to stop ruminating about whether Tyler’s new music could effectively erase or transform the vile sentiments of what came before. Can we reinterpret his previous work in the light of new revelations about his sexuality? Was his performance meant to highlight some hard truths about a generation of kids taught to both love and hate their non-normative tendencies?

It seemed important, in an unsettling way, that he allowed these questions to linger and refused to let his audience consume his music thoughtlessly. Maybe it decisively prevented the concert from becoming the kind of party that the multitudes expected, but partying isn’t really the response that Tyler’s art aspires towards anyway. Instead, the show affirmed that restlessness is his forte and effectively dared us to live with bated breath in his past-tinted present.

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