Let's try something out here. Squint those little eyes, rack that big ol' brain and do your very best to remember the first time you saw Tyler, The Creator. This moment has a high probability of occurring sometime around February 2011, but who knows man, maybe you we're really up on shit in 2009. Now consider how you felt that first time watching the "Yonkers" video or Tyler and Hodgy Beats stalking in balaclavas around Jimmy Fallon's Late Show desk. I'm sure some of you found Tyler and the rest of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All simpleton and shlocky at first glance. Judging by the group's break-neck dissemination amongst my peers in 2011 and my own personal period of unmanageable fixation upon their music and overall thing at the time, I think its safe to assume your first experience with Tyler was defined by a straight path from cautionary upset to furrow browed confusion, erupting into explosive stimulation, and coming back down to earth in the form of grand statements of future forecasting for a rapper (and a movement) that seemed very likely to become a long-lasting and influential new entry into the history of Hip-Hop.
I remember the first time I saw the kid who was to be the Creator. It was the black and white, smash and grab video for "French! (ft. Hodgy Beats)" off Bastard, which presented Tyler as a sociopathic rapist with a coke clogged nose and a really tight group of close friends who were always down to hang. The OFWGKTA videos produced between 2009 and 2011, presumably independently by Tyler and co. themselves, may be the most exciting introduction to an artist on the internet ever. Recall the black goth CKY video that was "French!", the frothing-at-the-mouth fisheye malice of Earl Sweatshirt's "EARL," and the simple horror of "Yonkers," a video whose focus shifted to the beat, creating an unnerving effect that was more effective than a cockroach, vomit, and a denouement suicide combined. The power of OF and Tyler upon arrival in the American popular culture landscape lied in the work's siren-esque ability to lure us (rap fans, white males, young people period) into the young rapper's world; a internet labyrinth of content upon content that left us reckoning with the realization that somehow lyrics glorifying rape made more sense then capitalizing every word in every sentence of every thing one ever wrote on the internet. All of the group's success, its playhouse empire and warehouses stuffed with brightly colored socks, were instigated by that one abrasively stimulating experience as person after person sat down around 2011 to take in Tyler and OFWGKTA doing their thing for the first time.
Four years later, I'm sitting down to listen to Tyler The Creator's fourth full length record, the (semi) surprise released Cherry Bomb, and I find myself going through the typical racket of Odd Future fandom in 2015 as I try my best to remember the passion of that first-time "French!" feeling. To truly buy into Tyler, The Creator as the niche demon, the internet king of youth cool, and the auteur prodigy of 2011's promise, I'm gonna have to forget a whole lot of things about Tyler's life and his choices in the last four years:
- The three entire seasons of Loiter Squad, an Adult Swim sketch show that aims for black Jackass and lands somewhere closer to a high school AV club using a green screen to put on a modern minstrel show
- This 2014 Larry King interview
- The three appallingly specific and presumably misogynistic Mountain Dew commercials he directed
- The crowd at any given Odd Future show and its oppressive majority of bridge-and-tunnel aggro white dudes who are eerily reminiscent to nu-metal fans of the nineties and Warped Tour patrons of the mid 2000s.
- That time he devoted an album track to the guy from Trash Talk screaming over machine gun SFX (2013's brutal and limp "Trashwang")
- His place within Kardashian Vol. II figure head Kendall Jenner's casual friend group
- That time he guest-hosted MTV's Punk'd and really had Scott Disick going for a minute
- The fact that the closest he's come to fulfilling his former promise of immoral chaotic violence is getting banned from New Zealand.
Above all, there was all that incessant "GOLF WANG GOLF WANG GOLF WANG."
Wolf Gang quickly became Golf Wang and it was unavoidable that Tyler was not dangerous anymore. Cockroaches may live forever but lyrical rape fantasies die quickly in a modern PC pop landscape. Despite his media pacification, Tyler has managed to put in some good work over the last four years. There's no ignoring the artistic accomplishments of 2013's jerk off Jazz patchwork LP Wolf with its ambitious singles ("Domo 23," "Tamale") and Christopher Owens' approved lyrical content that offered a well-needed dose of self-awareness from the post-fame Tyler. Wolf was an honest expression of an artist who had gone through a lot of changes and the record offered a window of hope for growingly distant fans such as myself. It was purposeful and it was specific. Which makes it even more disappointing that Tyler has decided to follow up Wolf with this year's Cherry Bomb; a record dedicated to the celebration of complete and utter nonsense.
Tyler, The Creator wants you to know he's a musician. From the start, he's made strides to come off as a self-reliant hip-hop auteur, an instrumentalist who is absolutely and in no way just a rapper. The eleven tracks on Cherry Bomb never stop attempting to instill the listener with Tyler's ego fueled vision of himself as a complex and intelligent instrumental talent. For its majority, the record floats about on a cartoon cloud of intended lusciousness; layering cooing background vocals over a day rate string section and high school Jazz band gibberish. Its a sound he's experimented with consistently in his career: Bastard's "VHS", Goblin and OF Tape Vol. 2's "Analog" series, a lot of Wolf, and the work of failed OFWGKTA neo-soul outfit The Internet. This lush sound is almost always peppered with Tyler's cackling scatological ad-libs and chintzy Fruity Loops bedroom production aesthetic for a final product that really just bores me to tears. The overarching goal of the sound, outside of the aforementioned ego assertion of legitimacy, is to be beautiful. Tyler, The Creator is a lot of things; beautiful is not one of them, which makes his endless reach for sonic beauty come off as a ham fisted grasp. Sure the Jazz saxophone accents and marimba puttering on Cherry Bomb set Tyler's work apart from the instrumental simplicity of the modern hip-hop landscape but all I hear are piped in studio musicians.
Most of Cherry Bomb's compositions seem purposeless, running in endless circles that come off just plain messy. This "Buffalo" track is just absurd; a gibberish mixtape cut built around Kanye's brilliant beat for Pusha T's "Numbers On The Boards," one of the best minimalist hip-hop instrumentals in recent memory, cluttered to high hell with half-assed skits and flagrant drum samples that somehow manage to simultaneously overuse the sample to point of thievery and bastardize it out of recognition. Tyler ought to be making musical decisions regarding production and composition with the primary goal of facilitating his personal expression on any given song. Instead, Tyler chooses piano lines and string swells in the hope of facilitating his blinding obsession with coming off as a fancy instrumental prodigy. He wants to be Late Registration Kanye but he refuses to get a Jon Brion. In the process of servicing this self-conscious preoccupation on Cherry Bomb, Tyler wholeheartedly forgoes his lyricism, effectively ignoring his greatest artistic strength and producing a record that sounds like nothing because it is about nothing.
For a guy who made a name off vomit, suicide, and rape, Tyler sure tells his fans to believe in themselves a lot. This Lady GaGa reminiscent motivational speaker act of Tyler's positions him as the patron saint of outcast teens everywhere and the whole thing is a bit too church basement youth group for my taste. While Tyler's post-rape aesthetic was always curiously laced with the iconography of surface level quirk (all kitty cats and bacon, pastels and waffles), I never expected him to be capable of a track like "Find Your Wings." Instrumentally, this is the best of the cloud stuff but this It Gets Better version of Tyler, The Creator and his "Hang In There" poster songs are terrible. Surely Tyler has something to say in 2015: he's nearing a half decade of fame, his relationship with Earl Sweatshirt has grown increasingly distant, and the OFWGKTA collective that his 16 year old self founded has splintered to the point of collapse. 2015 for Tyler could mean reckoning with why he was the one who ended up having all of his wildest dreams come true and his peers were the ones who ended up facing the tragic return to obscurity. Do you think Tyler ever lies awake at night and wonders what Mike G is doing? Instead of facing his reality with lyrical honesty, Tyler offers up "Blow My Load" and somewhere out there Hodgy Beats waits for a phone call.
It ain't all bad. Album opener "Death Camp" sounds like if Pharrell was commissioned to record a theme song for The Fast and the Furious series. "The Brown Stains of Darkeese Latifah Parts 6-12 (Remix)" crackles with the menace and glee of a younger Tyler and offers some innovation to his standard production sound that is unique to this new record. "Fucking Young/Perfect" is a fine single, working its hook well to make it the only of Tyler's "letters and soda" love songs ("Analog," "Analog 2," and "Her") that I like. The wish-fullfillment cut "Smuckers" places Kanye and Lil' Wayne alongside Tyler in an album stand out, succeeding for reasons other than its sheer existence and Ye's Midas touch. The beat is thorough and intelligent, offering a vision of rappy rap Kanye past, and the "what up, slime?" bar trading between Wayne and Tyler is bound to be one of the best moments in hip-hop this year.
One of the most exciting things about Tyler and OFWGKTA in 2011 for me was the idea of the first rap pioneers of a post-internet world. They were artists who were raised on and made through the internet, capable of inciting controversy with ease like some sort of MacBook NWA. They were the next logical progression in a rapidly evolving genre, individual vehicles of innovation and progress who made perfect sense as the group that would go on to define that time in hip-hop history. I was exhilarated by the fact that I would live through it, uncovering the mystery of their ways, and watching their artistry and influence run its course. Its now evident that OFWGKTA were not that group. They didn't bring absurdism, experimental sensibilities, and internet-age modernity to the world of Hip-Hop. Their influence never landed outside of fucking Ratking. All the while, Hip-Hop's real internet's only boys - that prophetic and disrupting force of innovation, the logical heir to the genre throne - were right under my nose the entire time. Death Grips was there.
All of the mysterious intelligence, horrifying violence, and challenging experimentalism of early Tyler has been magnified tenfold by the band Death Grips. While Tyler's frightening anonymity grew to be a distant memory, Death Grips released six full length records in four years and still managed to remain lurking in the shadows. MC Ride and Zach Hill's creation was like the brutal prankster God of the Pitchfork world. Their musical output provided a clear cut and exhaustive breakdown of the possibilities of hip-hop music in a post-internet world. Death Grips utilized the capabilities of performance and presentation of the self specific to the modern landscape of social networking. Death Grips' sound never stopped moving forward; eschewing all conventions of the hip-hop genre and providing a PCP fun house mirror vision of the culture behind it, howling "too many hoes in my motherfucking meals, ask me if I know how a motherfucker feels?" While Tyler was answering an endless array of fan submitted Formspring questions, Death Grips was luring an audience into their trap of banality, a carefully orchestrated accomplishment of punk conceptual performance art that functioned similarly to and honored the legacy of the locked groove of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and Public Image Ltd.'s metal box. The band's 2014 Lollapalooza after-party no show - complete with toy instruments and a projection of a fan's (purported) suicide note - is brilliant; commenting on the perimeters of performance, the pervasive influence of capitalism on the music industry, and the class elitism of the modern festival scene.The prank is to remind the audience that going to a concert is just another way of avoiding the thought of their own utter meaninglessness and certain death. Death Grips' no show taps the respective audience member on the shoulder and reminds them that they're standing in a dark room with 300 strangers at 3 A.M listening to noise and shaking. In all ways, Death Grips embody the future hip-hop truly deserves.
A vocal admirer of the Death Grips' catalog prone to shouting their lyrics in public, Tyler nods to the group's influence in a recent interview with his Golf Media app, forecasting fan comparisons between the Death Grips sound and Cherry Bomb. Listening to the chintzy ruckus of "Pilot," the kitchen sink college try of "Cherry Bomb," and the "Spread Eagle Cross the Block" vibes of "Buffalo" makes it hard to deny the presence of the Grips in Tyler's new work. Tyler's dress-up noise on Cherry Bomb is a blatant failure though, a battery-powered bastardization of Death Grips' star rattling bass that fizzes when it should explode. Don't even get me started on Tyler's evocation of Yeezus'"I Am A God" on "Cherry Bomb." Considering the failure of this down right lazy injection of a new influence into Tyler's work, it's a wonder we don't call him on his shit more. His Neptunes cribbing passed on earlier projects because Tyler provided us with a new packaging of Pharrell and Chad Hugo's empiric hip-hop pop production style that brought the sound back to the bedroom and infused it with his unique point of view of violent youth vulgarity. Come 2015, Tyler, The Creator's just playing house and its about time Pharrell quit his enabling him with features (Wolf's "IFHY, Cherry Bomb's "Keep Da O's") and kick him out the front door. The fact that Tyler will likely never get a co-sign from Death Grips doesn't make Cherry Bomb's mimmickery any less egregious. Wherein Death Grips utilizes absurdism and irreverence to challenge the listener, Tyler uses nonsense to fill up time. After taking in Cherry Bomb, the fact that Tyler of all people gets to be this young with this incredible of a platform and this many heroic co-signs makes me sad. It's about time that pedestal tipped over to make way for someone who could actually use it.
Words: Nick Boyd