It should go without saying at this point that Tyler the Creator, and the rest of Odd Future for that matter, have made the transition from loud up-and-comers to established artists. With Frank Ocean becoming a household name last Grammy season, a popular show (at least with the red eyed late night crowd) on Adult Swim, and one of the most lively touring schedules in music, the collective and its leader have legitimately created a bon a fide movement, and at this point, no one could even attempt to take that away from them.
However, it’d also be hard not to admit that a lot of the early buzz they developed may have been for the “wrong” reasons. With shock value based rhymes that centered on rape, anti-religious themes, and gratuitous violence, along with cockroach eating, tounge-in-cheek on camera homophobia, and shows that resemble riots, a lot of attention they earned was largely due to the controversy they were able to stir up.
As a result, and quite understandably so, the biggest supporters of (the non-Frank Ocean) OF have been the angsty teen set that twenty-five years ago probably would have been listening to punk rock, and are typically far removed from traditional hip hop culture. Up until now, a vast majority of Tyler and OF’s music has been an almost perfect vehicle for youthful anger and frustration, and to be brutally honest, not much else. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and judging by the support they get, there’s a huge need for the art they create.
With the release of his 3rd solo album, Wolf, that all might change in a big way though. Will his intended audience? Probably not. But, this project is far removed from the formula he’s successfully built a budding entertainment empire with…and it’s probably for the better.
With the Wolf album, it finally feels like Tyler The Creator is ready and willing to start challenging his loyal followers and get them thinking – and as corny as it sounds – feeling a bit. Throughout his career no reasonable critic has ever challenged his creativity or intelligence (though it’s been purposely deceptive), but many have criticized how he used it. This project, should those critics sit down with it, is definitely going to shut them up. Hell, I’ll admit that I probably fell into that OF “hater” category a bit, and was taken by surprise myself after I got through this one a few times.
As a whole, the album follows a somewhat strong narrative of Tyler and his host of alter egos at a fictional Summer camp, Flog Naw. While the story-telling element is clearly a big part of the album, and not surprising considering his previous work, it largely takes a back seat to the individual content of each song. In fact, the story probably makes for a more disjointed arrangement of tracks than would have been considered ideal, as the feel of the album rollercoasters a bit when it probably didn’t need to. However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is the most interestingly written and delivered album from any member of OF this side of Channel Orange.
Lyrically and content wise, Tyler The Creator takes a much more refined, thoughtful, and subdued approach than we’re used to from him for the most part. There are definitely some throwback tracks designed to give fans some of the classic OF “kill them all” experience like “Jamba”, “Trashwang”, and “Domo23”, but they’re the exceptions to an otherwise much headier and reserved listen than Tyler’s become known for.
As an MC, Tyler hasn’t really evolved that much from a delivery perspective. He’s still relatively minimal on the mic, and while he knows how to ride his similarly minimal production, he definitely won’t be winning any awards for his verbal dexterity or rhyme schemes. The only difference in his deliveries has always been purely based on the volume he spits with, and that doesn’t change much. But, the simplicity of his flows works with his overall aesthetic and doesn’t hold the Wolf experience back in the least bit.
While his technical rapping ability hasn’t progressed all that much, which he gets away with due to having one of the best “rap voices” in quite a while, Wolf is one of the more emotionally ambitious, yet commercially important, rap albums to come out in recent memory – a fact only amplified by the artist creating it. Outside of Drake’s Take Care or Nas’s Life is Good, it’d be tough to name another project in the past year or two that covers such a wide range of personal experiences and emotions. Ironically enough, it’s almost shocking to hear this coming from a guy who was once considered a novelty “shock value” rapper.
We get everything from Tyler accurately detailing the tragic and uncomfortable nature of young love on tracks like the Pharrell assisted “IFHY” (which saw release of an excellent video this past week), “Awkward”, and “Bimmer”. He goes in on his absent father in a way reminiscent of a young Eminem on “Answer”. His struggle with fame is well documented on “Colossus”, which will probably make you cringe, though in a good way. Even more surprisingly considering his suburban roots, he offers up a chilling track with “48” which documents the perspective of a crack dealer, next to spoken word segments from Nas himself…though the most powerful segments come from the moments where he reflects on the passing of his grandmother Sadie on “Lone”.
With all that considered, this is probably the most lyrically impressive major commercial release of the (3 month old) year so far. Granted, it definitely won’t appeal to the whole of the hip hop culture though. The moments he “complains” about being famous come off a little whiny considering he’s gone well out of his way, and done some ridiculous stunts to gain that fame. The predominant young love theme will probably also fall flat for a huge portion of hip hop fans too, and the approach on the rowdier tracks definitely won’t appeal to anyone who hasn’t been on the OF bandwagon already. But, through an objective lens, and considering the intended demographic, this one should be highly praised for its thoughtfulness and cohesive writing.
Musically and production wise, this one’s also likely going to go down as Tyler’s best work to date as well. While he still sticks with the minimal, almost lo-fi sound he’s developed, he’s definitely grown as a producer (for those who don’t know, he’s one of the few artists who self-produces a majority of his own songs) since Goblin. The musical subtleties across the board are much more apparent, where they simply weren’t there in a lot of his older work. In that light, and not so shockingly, he seems to be growing ever closer in style to his oft-mentioned idol (and collaborator) Pharrell, and his nuanced yet simple sound that made him one of the most prolific producers in hip hop history.
Most notably, there’s a hard not to notice Jazz influence on a vast majority of the “non-banger” tracks, with some strong yet subdued horn and piano work adding a lot of auditory “meat” next his more emotional lyrical approach. Combined with some impressive vocal work from big name vocalists like Frank Ocean on “Slater” and “Bimmer”, and Erykah Baduh on what comes off as a straight Jazz track “TreeHome95”, this one is surprisingly musically refined. Other standout beats in this vein are the traditional hip hop “Parking Lot” and “Cowboy”.
That isn’t to say that he doesn’t come with a little bit of the more wild sound the OF die hards have embraced. The before mentioned “Trashwang” and “Jamba” would have been right at home on any of his older projects (minus the straight Neptunes-esque synth bridge on the later). “Tamale” and its Spanish high-energy feel is also tough not to move too with its spastic, disjointed, yet highly enjoyable feel.
Overall, and to get straight to the point, Wolf is exactly the type of album Tyler The Creator probably needed it to be. It shows obvious progression on all fronts, while still speaking directly to his preexisting fan base. It’ll definitely probably challenge and surprise OF’s stereotypical fan a bit, and that might prove to be a risky move for Tyler. But, he’s created a cohesive, introspective, and highly listenable album that definitely stands on its merits as opposed to the shock value and off the wall, “look how random I am” shtick that so many have accused him off.
I’ll admit I was skeptical as hell going into this one, and that it probably won’t appeal much to the greater hip hop culture that hasn’t been paying attention to him already. But, it’d be tough not to say that this one will probably find its way into a number of top 10 lists at the end of the year, and that it definitely will deserve all the recognition it gets.