The rise of idiosyncratic hip-hop collective Odd Future was unlike any prior ascent to musical stardom. Its brash founder and de-facto leader, Tyler, the Creator, led the motley crew of rappers, singers and producers from the obscurity of MySpace to the podium of the Grammy Awards. At its peak, the group included several artists considered to be among the best in their field, such as rap poet Earl Sweatshirt, alternative R&B vanguard Frank Ocean and Tyler himself. However, unlike Tyler, neither Sweatshirt nor Ocean have undertaken a comparable level of stylistic metamorphosis.
As Odd Future’s firebrand, Tyler’s work with the collective as well as his solo releases were gritty and hard-hitting, with some fans even calling Tyler’s music “horrorcore.” Tyler’s main objective on his early solo work, including his debut mixtape Bastard (2009) and first studio album Goblin (2011), seemed to be to ruffle as many feathers as possible. Laden with violent, misogynistic tales and homophobic slurs, Tyler’s anger on many of his songs was quite palpable. Goblin’s second single, “Yonkers,” is an exposé on Tyler’s ability to vent unadulterated rage on a track, as it includes more than its fair share of homophobia, misogyny and death threats toward Bruno Mars. The strangest part of much of Tyler’s early work is how deviant it was from the public persona he and Odd Future had cultivated — a group of merry oddballs who came together to make music and have fun. One would not expect a song like “Yonkers” from a man who had a sketch comedy television series, Adult Swim’s “Loiter Squad.”
While side projects like “Loiter Squad” always hinted at Tyler’s versatility, his musical metamorphosis was still a few years away from realization. Tyler’s sophomore effort, Wolf (2013), was stylistically similar to Goblin as it featured more shock-jock rap that had seemed to have become Tyler’s trademark. However, the follow-up to Wolf, 2015’s Cherry Bomb, was the aesthetic shift that many who speculated about Tyler’s protean streak were waiting for.
While Tyler retained some of his inflammatory lyricism, the musical style of the album was more alternative and melodic than his previous efforts, seemingly taking a much heavier influence from genres like jazz rap and neo-soul. The album’s extensive list of collaborating artists, from singers like Kali Uchis and Odd Future alum Sydney Bennett, to legendary rapper/producers like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, was able to tangibly contribute to the album’s sonic image and aid Tyler in expanding the album’s genre scope. One of the most apparent examples of this shift comes from the song “FUCKING YOUNG/PERFECT,” in which Tyler embraces soul music as he raps over vocal samples from both Charlie Wilson and Uchis.
Cherry Bomb was received warmly by fans and music critics alike, who widely acknowledged and praised Tyler’s musical versatility. Little did they know, Tyler would continue to embrace these stylistic attributes, taking them to an even further (and more masterful) extent on his fourth album, 2017’s Flower Boy.
Flower Boy expanded upon the elements of neo-soul and jazz rap first explored on Cherry Bomb, while adding more a robust melodic structure and more traditional hook-based songwriting using the vocals of many contributing singers to fully realize his artistic vision. Like many of Tyler’s albums, Cherry Bomb is entirely self-produced, which is especially impressive when considering the diversity of musical styles found on the album and even within individual songs.
The song “911/Mr. Lonely” is a masterclass in its combination of rhythmic rap elements from Tyler and close collaborators A$AP Rocky and ScHoolboy Q, with R&B-esque vocals courtesy of Anna of the North, Steve Lacy and Tyler’s fellow Odd Future alum Frank Ocean. However, the album’s most impressive exemplar of Tyler’s maturity as a songwriter is “See You Again,” a sunny track with a neo-soul chorus, compliments of Uchis. The song sounds like a pop track one could plausibly hear on the radio, which illustrates Tyler’s evolution from the angry young man who swore and threatened everyone on Goblin.
Flower Boy received almost universal acclaim, with many critics lauding it as Tyler’s best project yet. They noted the balance of raucous rap tracks and soft ballads, praising Tyler’s forays into singing in addition to his rapping. Tyler continued to expand on his newfound songwriting principles on Flower Boy’s follow-up, 2019’s Igor. While further emphasizing Tyler’s interest in melodic-based songwriting, Igor also displayed his ability to communicate a cohesive narrative, as Tyler tells the story of the titular character’s love triangle with his male paramour. The album also explores the Gothic archetype of the same name, which represents the more angry and detached aspects of Tyler’s personality. The Igor archetype is often associated with blind loyalty and devotion with a touch of anger and sadism, which Tyler conveys through lyrics describing the album’s protagonist’s reverence for his lover.
Igor, like Flower Boy, features Tyler and collaborators exploring majestic, maximalist soundscapes. However, in contrast with Flower Boy, several songs on Igor explore more experimental instrumental avenues. The album’s first track, “Igor’s Theme,” is a prime example of this, utilizing a sampled drum loop and distortion-heavy melodies reminiscent of a Death Grips song.
However, Tyler juxtaposes these experimental tracks with those containing more traditional production, most notably when sampling Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound” on “A BOY IS A GUN,” taking a cue from avowed influence Kanye West. Tyler’s chops prove to be just as effective as Kanye’s were, and he repeatedly calls attention to his criminally underrated production skills throughout the project. Igor’s most impressive aspect is Tyler’s experimentation with his own voice.
As he transitioned away from traditional rap, Tyler continued to improve his own baritone croon. His vocal highlights on Igor come on some of the album’s final songs, “GONE, GONE/THANK YOU” and “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” Tyler seems to have mastered the ability to elicit visceral, emotional reactions through voice and effectively convey the emotion of the narrative’s protagonist through its final stages.
Even through his evolution from angry, almost exaggerated lyrics to more mellow, emotional songs, Tyler has retained his lighthearted, goofball persona. His sense of humor often seeps through into his public appearances and live performances, and the social media presence he cultivates reinforces this image. He often displays his sardonic sense of humor in interviews and expresses disinterest in any reverence or honor he receives.
Tyler couldn’t care less about what a music writer has to say, so the creation of this article is inherently paradoxical. But that sort of idiosyncrasy has become Tyler’s trademark, so maybe he’d even find it amusing.
Daily Arts Contributor Ryan Brace can be reached at email@example.com.