April 3, 2013

Test Spins: Tyler, the Creator, Wolf

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Let’s face it: You probably already know how you feel about Tyler, the Creator. The Odd Future mouthpiece, Adult Swim star and general rabble-rouser is the type of guy to tweet in all-caps, mock anti-domestic violence protesters and direct a Mountain Dew commercial featuring a talking goat. If I’m painting in broad strokes, you probably fall into one of two camps: You either are one of the hardcore Odd Future fans who love Tyler and his hell-raising crew for their incendiary tracks and shout things like “Golf Wang” and “Kill People! Burn Shit! Fuck School!” at inappropriate intervals, or you find Tyler’s whole shtick to be immature, homophobic and misogynist (a reasonable case, as Tyler’s music is not averse to rape references and the use of certain gay slurs).

Prior to listening to Wolf, I found myself caught somewhere in between. On his debut record Bastard, Tyler revealed himself to be a highly charismatic rapper with a unique production style and an ability to rap both about his own father’s absenteeism and, on “French,” “opening a church to sell coke and Led Zeppelin.” On Goblin, however, he let his own antagonistic tendencies get the best of him, resulting in an uneven album that divided fans.

Wolf stands as a reminder to those disappointed by Goblin’s inconsistencies that Tyler is still growing into his remarkable talents. As the gorgeous glockenspiel-sprinkled soundscape of opener “Wolf” announces, this album is a fulfillment of Tyler’s boundless potential as a producer. Taking cues from collaborator Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (the Grammy-winner is featured on several tracks here), Wolf goes for a neo-classicist palette, mixing jazzy pianos and horn stabs with the abrasive synthesizer sounds and overdriven handclaps that have always characterized Tyler’s beats. While tracks like “Trash Wang” (featuring the screams of Lee Spielman from OF-affiliates Trash Talk) demonstrate that Tyler can still put out that old school Odd Future racket, songs like the slow-burning crack meditation “48” reveal that this kid’s record collection goes a lot deeper than Eminem and N.E.R.D.

Tyler tries to tie together the myriad tracks on Wolf with a story about a Camp Flog Gnaw, a love triangle and a bike named Slater. While it takes a lot of imagination and searching on RapGenius to make any sense of this loose narrative, Wolf does feature a couple of great lyrical moments. Tyler breaches the topic of romance with a lot more balance than on previous outings: “Awkward” is a bona fide story of young love, with Tyler fantasizing about holding an old crush’s hand (the come-on “treat my hand like a bowling ball and grip” is endearing coming from a kid who has rapped in detail about his refusal to pull out). The aforementioned “48” details, with the help of a closing soliloquy from Nas, the slippery slope of crack dealing, familial neglect and gang violence. It is notable because it shows sympathy for the dealers (“Growing up you barely had a roof / Now you got a coupe and it doesn’t have a roof”) without defending their actions. On the stuttering “Cowboy,” Tyler details his own straight-edge philosophy and how he reconciles his actions with those of his pot-obsessed friends. “Colossus” is another standout, where Tyler deals with the adulation of adoring fans that are bothering him on a line for a ride on Six Flags; he comes off as a kid who, while grateful for the success, is struggling with his newfound status as youth icon.

By no means is Wolf Tyler’s “mature album,” though; on single “Domo 23” he raps about plotting with Justin Bieber to shoot One Direction and discredits accusations of homophobia by kissing his friend Lucas. In order to ensure that things are not getting too high-minded, the hectically rhythmic “Tamale” opens with a bum/rectum rhyme and a command to “tell Spike Lee he’s a goddamn nigger.” It’s meant to press buttons and infuriate parents, but it’s also, like most Odd Future’s stuff, insidiously fun.

Tyler, the Creator is still rap’s resident angry young man, so it’d be foolish to assume that he’d temper his lyrical approach or reign in his albums’ expansive running times. Like his revealing and highly active Twitter account, he wants you to appreciate him, warts and all. Fortunately for us, it’s the warts — his romantic frustrations and his struggle with his father’s abandonment — that make for the most poignant moments. Luckily, the sillier, vulgar tracks serve instead like a spoonful of sugar — or a Mountain Dew? — that helps the medicine go down.

A previous version of this article stated that “Answer” is a bonafide story of young love. The song is actually “Awkward.”

Original Author: James Rainis