Tyler, the Creator, ‘Wolf’ (Odd Future/RED)
Release Date: April 2, 2013
Label: Odd Future/RED
It’s easy to understand why the Internet swooned so hard when Tyler, the Creator first floated along and pricked our bubble. Back in 2010, hip-hop was largely a bunch of old rich dudes resting hard on their old-rich-dude laurels, whereas the Odd Future crew boasted all manner of teenage lewdness; they were fuck-you heroes with a surplus of talent and not enough dough. They were the punkest thing to happen in popular music since Jesus was a boy. And at their molten center sat Tyler, who in a span from late 2009’s full-length debut Bastard to 2011’s Billboard-charting Goblin emerged as a roach-swallowing emcee terrible seething in self-loathing, an Eminem-weaned skate rat doling out harsh tokes just for the delight of watching the olds squirm, not so much rap’s savior as its smirking Antichrist.
Last year, Tyler prepped SPIN for the evolution we should expect on his third solo outing, Wolf: Now that he’s found success, he’s gotta rap about what he’s reaping. It would be disingenuous to front like he’s still sleeping on a couch. And so we get a quick inventory of what Goblin‘s success has wrought: a four-story house, European-model pussy, QT with Bieber. He’d also grown weary of that I’m-a-rape-you steez, so there’s none of that here (it’s cool bro, Rick Ross got you covered). There’s a tangible distance from the petulant rage of an older provocation like, say, Bastard‘s “AssMilk” — the girls on Wolf are all alive and willing, at least.
The album loosely charts a discursive story involving Tyler’s alter ego, Wolf, and his id, Sam, in pursuit of a shared love interest, Salem. It’s tough to parse these characters, though Sam is a bit of a Bastard throwback, with a murderous bent and a habit of punctuating his lines with, yes, the word “faggot.” This friction generates one of Wolf‘s highlights, “Awkward”: Amid an epigrammatic love story born of a mall date, Tyler pitch-shifts his voice down to his Wolf-guise growl and gets goofy on a girl whose eyes are the color of weed, delivering entreaties for hand-holding over analog-synth ambiance. “You’re my girl, whether you like it or not,” he pouts, Frank Ocean cooing backup. What happened to our dear, beloved brat?
He soon reappears, unfortunately. As good as “Awkward” is, like much of the album, it feels like an audition; Tyler flaunts his range as a producer and MC, clearly vying to transcend the shock-and-awe rep that has preceded him. But for much of the rest of Wolf‘s woefully uneven, wildly indulgent, 18-track slog, that rep drags him, and us, back down. All that is alive and compelling here (say, the RAMP-smooth soul-jazz posse cut “Rusty”) begins to dissolve as we pass the 70-minute mark. While a duet between Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and Frank Ocean sounds promising on paper, it comes at the end of the nearly eight-minute song suite “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer,” which, by the time you’ve reached the Beiber-rejected closing third, feels like it’s about 16 BPM and slowing.
There’s a wild dexterity to some of the production: The antic “Tamale” is the sort of M.I.A. track that M.I.A. herself doesn’t make anymore, while “Trashwang” is a skittering trap-parody cut featuring Trash Talk that approximates the anarchy of vintage Odd Future. But too many other experiments wind up like “48,” a tribute to diminishing-returns-era N*E*R*D. It’s a weird look for a kid who supposedly represents hip-hop’s vanguard to be so caught up making beats whose sole purpose is to imitate and/or impress Pharrell. The album crests early with a three-song sequence: “Awkward,” manically propulsive single “Domo23,” and especially “Answer,” both the album’s best track and, unfortunately, greatest outlier. So much of Wolf is about distancing Tyler from the listener, whereas the vulnerability and melodic mirroring of “Answer,” awash in sad organ glissando and two decades of unmet emotional need, is the album’s truly shocking moment, in large part because it’s so much better than everything else. From there it’s another eight problematic songs until a pulse returns during Earl Sweatshirt’s guest verse on “Rusty.”
While it’s inarguable that Tyler has become more sophisticated as a producer, he’s clearly tangled up in trying to prove and disprove our understanding of his image, at a loss of how to orient himself now that he’s cosseted by a rabid fanbase and an awed, fearful industry that he’s spent the last few years flipping off. His whole origin story was how this skate-rat outsider cracked the Billboard Top 10 and scored an MTV Video Music Award with a record that he’d made in a garage with his friends; but now he’s ceded all that to become an incorrigible insider, making studio albums with marquee names (Pharrell, a wasted Erykah Badu, his Grammy-nommed cohort Ocean), boasting of his money and copious tour strange, whinging about the burdens of fame. “Colossus,” for example, uncharitably bristles at his Stans, who sound like regular, engaged, reasonable fans, but are nonetheless dismissed here as posers and, yes, “fags.”
Which brings us to Wolf‘s most grievous misstep, and its one true spiritual connection to the superior Bastard and Goblin: Tyler’s defiant use of the word “faggot.” As usual, he spends a ton of time here bragging about how little he cares about how the world sees him, but his reliance on the other f-bomb to keep our attention suggests otherwise. In a recent LA Weekly interview, he dismissed concern about the slur: “I wasn’t using ‘fag’ to refer to gay people. If I call a piece of lettuce a faggot, am I homophobic? I might be anti-lettuce, but….” Now, on “Domo23,” he brushes off the almost-protest that marred his appearance at last year’s Pitchfork Festival, holding up his proximity to queerness (scoffing at those critics “claiming I hate gays even though Frank is on 10 of my songs”) as proof he’s not a homophobe.
It’s very likely that he’s not — and that’s the rub. Tyler wants to have it both ways: going for low blows and playing ignorant, as if a young straight man can recontextualize a slur that has been used to humiliate and dehumanize gay people for decades, despite using that word just like the people who mean it do. On Wolf, he banks on the word’s awful power to show us what a bad boy he still is, which is no more noble than calling someone “faggot” and actually meaning it. We showed Tyler where it hurts, so that’s where he sticks the knife. He degrades the value of his own art for the sake of seeming raw, just to prove he’s the same old unfiltered Tyler.
That brand identity still depends on outrage and rejection by scandalized adults. Odd Future has always been about exclusion, about making sure there’s a dividing line between Them and Us, and if you don’t get it, the joke’s on you. But in an age when the queering of hip-hop is one of the genre’s biggest stories (ironically, one that Odd Future’s out members, Syd the Kid and Frank Ocean, have helped push forward), Tyler’s insistence on using “fag” just to show how transgressive he is leaves him in the dust, as the real punks (Le1f, Angel Haze, Mykki Blanco, Frank, et al.) truly advance the game. His increasing fame has made him (more) bitter and walled-off; his insistence on still shocking us threatens to reduce him to a joke.