The first time I ever read anything about Tyler, the Creator, I was on the Adriatic, swigging dark rum, consuming anything English I could get my internet-starved hands on, and gradually growing more and more disgusted. The news that day was that the adolescent Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All leader’s sophomore LP Goblin had just dropped, his first on a major label (XL). The real news that day was that Tyler had successfully beaned an innocent and fashionable bystander, outside of a restaurant, with a frozen treat, from a moving vehicle – the latest in a string of antics that would have been completely embarrassing had he not been about 19 at the time.
Like so many readers that day, my jaw dropped a bit when I read up on OFWGKTA’s lyrical rap sheet: extensive rape imagery, homophobia, necrophilia, racism, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and more! How delightful! On principle, I was completely disgusted – however, seafaring as I was, I had no opportunity at all to actually hear the group. So, I naturally reserved judgment while turning my nose skyward at the whole affair. Now, as anyone staring up at the sky will tell you, turning up your nose has a way of causing you to miss things and kick pets and trip down slight inclines – all of which I did in short order. OFWGKTA had already blown up, leaving me to play catchup in the critical aftermath of the whole thing. Fast-forward several months and Tyler’s gone and won Best New Artist at the MTV Music Video Awards, Odd Future’s opened a clothing store in L.A., crooner Frank Ocean gets featured on a Kanye and Jay-Z album, and I’m giving Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin album-of-the-year certification. So what the hell happened?
Let’s go back to the part of this article that stopped you in your tracks: the lyrical content. Defending and describing the whole of OF is outside the scope of this review – and others have done it better – but rest assured, all of that awful stuff loses none of its potency in translation to a Tyler solo LP (“Oh good”, you reply). Tyler and now-M.I.A. cohort Earl Sweatshirt were the locus of the group’s controversy, and left to his own devices Tyler’s morbid fascinations only intensify, quickly reaching their logical, stomach-churning conclusions (try sitting through “Transylvania”). In and of themselves, the sorts of imagery Tyler brings into play are despicable and indefensible; that much is painfully obvious. Nobody gets away with “F-ck a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome” (“Tron Cat”) without raising some eyebrows and losing more than a few fans (and fans’ lunches) in the process. Drawing out all the relevant quotations to fully flesh out Tyler’s descriptive (and offensive) faculties would take pages upon pages; in short, Tyler is going to horrify and bully you. He’ll shock and antagonize every moral value you’ve got. He’s going to disgust anyone unwitting enough to get caught in the audio-crossfire. Your mom is going to find your copy of Goblin, snap it in half, and be more or less justified in doing so. And that’s just the way he wants it.
It’s an understatement to say that it’s going to take a certain type of listener to enjoy what Tyler does, but that isn’t to say the point of entry is particularly small – it’s just going to take a bit of footwork to reach it. Anyone that caught Tyler’s debut LP Bastard is already in on the act, so to speak: all of Tyler’s novelty and lyrical ammunition would be for nought if there weren’t substance hidden somewhere underneath, and on this front he delivers in spades. As much as Bastard was an hour-long showcase for the Odd Future crew to show off their “swag” and make as many ugly “jokes” as their teenage minds could come up with (and establish themselves stylistically), it was an opportunity for Tyler to exorcise his demons and lay plain on tracks like “Bastard” and “Inglorious” how intensely his life has been affected by the absence of his father, and the mixture of sadness and hatred that absence has bred within him. On those same tracks (and others like them), we find that he loves and respects his mother, that he doesn’t understand girls at all, that he feels isolated in the company of friends, and that he has apparently constant and intense suicidal urges. All of these themes feed upwards into Goblin: Tyler doesn’t hate women (“She”), he hates that he can’t communicate with them, and doesn’t understand how to relate. He doesn’t hate his mother, he hates that he can’t explain what it is he does for a living, having dropped out of college and used her money to record a pair of albums (“Nightmare”). He doesn’t hate you or girls or Asians or the rest of Wolf Gang; he doesn’t even drink or smoke pot – but he isn’t about to tell you that. He’s going to rape, pillage, murder, insult and graphically murder his friends on-track until you either “pull your panties down and start to piss off”, somehow embrace the imagery (Yikes.), or realize his entire musical persona is an intricately maintained work of performance art. On track, Tyler hates critics because they close-read his stuff and defuse him by drawing these messages out – but of course, which raging punk wouldn’t be upset that you’ve gone and lain bare his emotional side?
He doesn’t explicitly avoid this sort of analysis, but he’d rather it stay intuitive, an open secret amongst the fans that “understand” him – which isn’t particularly difficult. At his most confessional his music begs this interpretation, but he sees it as his artistic responsibility to guard it closely (which it is). As he rambles on “Goblin”:
“..But that’s bull of the sheet, they want to critique
Everything that we, Wolf Gang, has every released
But they don’t get it cause it’s not made for them
That nigga that’s in the mirror rapping, it’s made for him
But they do not have the mindset that’s same as him
I’m not weird, you’re just a faggot, shame on him”
Even at his most expositional Tyler can’t help but be abrasive and hurtful (and insincerely, antagonistically homophobic); Goblin isn’t for you, it’s for him (which means it’s for you). Effectively, Tyler wants you to bugger off and get it, and it’s this constant push and pull between audience and artist that makes his material so engaging. Listening closely to Goblin you’ll pick up on themes as diverse as his imbedded guilt over his own success, his affection and respect for his single mother, his complete and total awareness of his hurtfulness (“They claim the shit I say is just wrong/Like nobody has those really dark thoughts when alone/I’m just a teenager, who admits he’s suicide prone/My life is doing pretty good, so that date is postponed”) – but of course initially you’re going to get hung up on the violence and the hatred and bigotry, and that’s exactly the facade that lends his artistic presence so much force.
Lyrically, Goblin is a puzzle I’ve yet to wholly crack, which is why it’s lasted me since May. Musically, it’s spacious and strange; eerily bouncing pianos and synths skitter across “Yonkers”, “Goblin” is slow and echoing with lush strings that seem to drop at random, at odds with the off-kilter percussion and the mumbling pitch-shifted speech of Dr. T.C., Tyler’s self-voiced therapist and conceptual MacGuffin. “Radicals” has its Punk tongue thoroughly in cheek when it chants “Burn shit kill people fuck school” over crackling microphones and that same monotone synth that haunts every corner of the Odd Future catalogue. The deeper message of the song is, as Tyler dubiously states, to express oneself honestly, and its menacing thematic ambiguity only feeds further into his self-battling morality. “She” is as creepy as it is beautiful, with warm synths and a Frank Ocean chorus that’s either about loving devotion or stalking (though likely both). Musically Goblin is consistent to the point of mid-album repetition, which makes sense: Tyler makes all his own beats alongside production by Odd Future member Left Brain. He also designs his own clothes, directs his own music videos, creates his own album-art, very openly loves Pharrell, has one of the strangest and deepest vocal deliveries in contemporary hip-hop, and turns 21 this year. Yikes.
It’s been a curious year for music, the sort of year that allows for an album like Goblin to win top honours. This article has been difficult to write because, emphatically, Goblin isn’t the most consistent, dense, or technically proficient album of the year (you’ll find those below). It stretches long and some tracks feel completely unnecessary: “Boppin’ Bitch” is offensively stupid, Tyler kills his friends in “Window” – which is thematically important – but the eight-minute song itself is intensely long and repetitive. “Fish” is, frankly, quite dull. “Au79” is a great instrumental track, but begs more of itself and suggests Tyler could do subtlety, if he had half a mind to. If you don’t fall for Tyler’s artistic eccentricities almost immediately you’re simply going to be very offended, and that’s that. If you don’t like his echoey, rough voice and production, it isn’t likely to grow on you. If you think the rest of OFWGKTA is untalented, well, I don’t know what to tell you; much of OF’s appeal is charismatic and personality-based – meaning that in the case of some members (Dolphin, Taco), talent is a non-issue. They’re simply there, and they can’t rap, and that’s just how OF is. Actually coming to enjoy Tyler, the Creator after being a former detractor is a difficult thing, I’d know, and it involves a great deal of swallowing one’s pride and good taste.
Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin is a very, very strange album. It’s layered, incessantly bleak, adolescent, and gut-wrenching. It’s certainly underground Hip-Hop, likely Punk, and definitely Shock-Rock of some caliber; Tyler’s furious and he’s articulating his rage and confusion and embarrassment the way he feels most comfortable – by lashing out against everything within reach. That he’s intelligent enough to know this and then subvert his own messages (positive and negative) within nearly every track, at his age, is an astounding achievement. Goblin isn’t the album of the year because it’s the most technical, or the most consistent, or even the most easily listenable. Goblin is the album of the year because it is impressive and, like all great art, thoroughly uncomfortable. After several months with Bastard and Goblin I’m still finding ways to re-interpret tracks, to sketch personal details and thematic reflections out of some of the most utterly offensive lyrics I’ve ever heard. For my money, Tyler, the Creator has released 2011’s most impressive work of musical art – offensive flaws and all – without conceding to almost anyone. Now that’s an accomplishment.
Transylvanilla’s Album of the Year 2011
In No Particular Order, The Runners Up:
Opeth – Heritage
The Roots – undun
Battles – Gloss Drop
Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage
The Devin Townsend Project – Deconstruction
The Honourable Mentions:
I’m Gay – Lil’ B
Amebix – Sonic Mass
The Throne – Watch The Throne
Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
Akira The Don – Manga Music
Everything here reflects my more-subjective end of the year tallies, which means these rankings Do Not represent these albums’ individual scores. Goblin is not a 10.0, I’m Gay is not a 7.0. These rankings are based on enjoyability, combined with their impact on myself, personally, as a result of their longevity and my extended opportunity for reflection. I have weird taste; weird things win. Onwards, to 2012!
Originally published right here, January 2012. Swag.