“I don’t like to follow the rules / And that’s just who I am,” Tyler Okonma plaintively states on “DEATHCAMP,” the opener to his fourth LP, Cherry Bomb. It might seem like a redundant mission statement from a dude who led a “KILL PEOPLE / BURN SHIT / FUCK SCHOOL” chant on his major-label debut, but it’s worth keeping in mind for the Creator’s latest, because the rapper’s refusal to toe the line runs deeper than youthful anti-authoritarianism: With each successive release, it becomes more obvious that Tyler is actively fighting against following the blueprint — anyone’s blueprint — for his career, in a way that’s left his music as singular and free-spirited as any rapper of his generation, but in a way that also too often leaves it devoid of purpose.
Cherry Bomb is both impressive in its ambition and absolutely stunning in its aimlessness, weaving countless genres into multi-part suites but still coming off undercooked in its entirety. At the start at least, it bazookas out of your speakers with the grimy, zombified ’70s prog of “DEATHCAMP” crashing into the fuzz-trap of “BUFFALO” and the swampy funk growl of “PILOT,” a relentless snapping-to-attention opening gambit. But the album loses its momentum with the garbled 74-second interlude “RUN” and the meandering jazz-pop of “FIND YOUR WINGS,” and never totally gets it back — the rest of the record largely careens between mildly intelligible rap dirges and cinematic lo-fi instrumentals, often within the same track, scant on tracks with enough commitment to consistency to make them feel like full songs.
What’s most striking about Cherry Bomb is how muted Tyler’s vocal presence is on the whole thing. Never mind that he doesn’t even rap on a handful of tracks; even on many of the ones where he does, his voice is either buried under layers of guitars, synths, and production that seems to be actively distracting from the lyrics, or it’s modulated up to an unrecognizable pitch, making him sound like a guest rapper on his own LP. It’s telling that the album also has Tyler’s least urgent lyrics, taking on predictable targets in old Mountain Dew foe Dr. Boyce Watkins, rep-obsessed fellow rappers, and peers too fixated on getting high to create their own Adult Swim TV shows or whatever, but finding little to inspire either the venom or the self-examination that made his first three albums so potent. (For what it’s worth, his Tunechi-style punning has reached a new peak, as on the third verse of “2 Seater”: “Them GOLF boys is bad for you like the food at McDonalds / Boy I’m a king and I ain’t lying boy, hakuna matata.”)
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t greatness on here. “DEATHCAMP” is Tyler’s first N.E.R.D.-inspired jam to be worthy of idol Pharrell, as funky and freaky as the best tracks on In Search Of…, and studied enough to even begin with a trademark P instrumental count-off. “FUCKING YOUNG” is a rare moment of narrative focus on the album, a humorous and surprisingly affecting testimony about Tyler’s self-aborted relationship with an underage girl, with a spot-on Charlie Wilson hook that simultaneously satirizes and pays tribute to the surfeit of ’60s sleaze-pop smashes with similar themes. Even closer “OKAGA, CA” provides a satisfyingly serene final note to the album, one which feels a lot more in tune with Tyler’s current mental state — “IM NOT DEPRESSED SO YOU WONT BE HEARING NO SAD SHIT FROM ME AT ALL,” he tweeted last week — than any of the album’s more aggressive cuts.
And really, that’s the dilemma the rapper currently struggles with: What does a famously virulent, rabble-rousing young artist do with his music when he runs out of shit to really be angry about? Tyler doesn’t seem sure, so he mostly uses Cherry Bomb as a chance to satisfy his own hero wish fulfillment: Pharrell’s on a track! He raps over the same vocal chop as Pusha! He scores guest production from Leon Ware! And, most notably, two of the all-time biggest rappers show up to trade bars with him on the same track, the Yeezy- and Weezy-featuring “SMUCKERS.” But there’s not much connective tissue to any of it, and few of T’s icons are used for their strengths — Skateboard P’s cameo is on the album’s most amelodic cut, and the Wayne and Kanye verses, while individually great, are largely wasted on an inert beat that comes and goes as it pleases and serves to interrupt more than augment their contributions.
It’s tempting to consider Cherry Bomb as a transitional album, though it’s hard to guess what might be coming next for Tyler. Given his seeming lack of interest in speaking with his own voice, as well as his appreciation for the cinematic, and his tendency to play multiple characters in his songs, creating the preeminent hip-hopera of the 21st century wouldn’t be out of the question. Considering how much more fun he seems to have composing these days anyway, maybe he’ll stop rapping entirely and make an all-instrumental soundtrack, hip-hop’s endearingly amateurish Secret Life of Plants. Maybe he’ll make the polar opposite of Bastard and Goblin, the rainbow-riding, unicorn-fucking crown jewel of hip-hop’s long-overdue second D.A.I.S.Y. Age. Maybe he’ll make a children’s album.
Whatever the case, Tyler is a fascinating and brilliant enough figure that even if he just wants to record himself jumping on his trampoline for an hour, it’ll still be worth tuning in for — at least one listen, anyway. The guy’s lack of interest in critical opinion of him (continued on Cherry Bomb, where he calls us “books”) has always been hard to fault him for, as rap is a more interesting place with him not following any kind of script we’d hope for him to follow. But where previously, Tyler, the Creator and his Odd Future cohorts could claim to be doing it for the kids, now his OF buds are gone — nary a one featured on the album — and the kids seem a distant concern at best. Now, it’s just Tyler making the album he wants to make, and anyone who doesn’t like it is free to not listen. Fair enough, but he shouldn’t be surprised if fewer fans take him up on it this time.