I got 99 problems, and all of ’em’s being happy,” bursts out Tyler Okonma—better known by his stage name Tyler, the Creator—on “Pigs,” one of the many disturbing looks inside the mind of this 22 year-old rapper on his new album Wolf. The pop-culture riff with a demented personal twist is Tyler’s signature move, and one that somehow keeps the listeners coming back for more. The question now, after three albums and as many years of prominence in the alt-rap scene, is, where does this filthy-mouthed rapper, producer, skateboarder, and fashion icon fit into the conversation of rap/hip-hop music in 2013?
The leading man and figurehead of the off-the-wall Los Angeles-based rap collective OFWGKTA—short for “Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All” or just “Odd Future”—Tyler, the Creator first garnered some internet hype from the self-directed music videos that accompanied his homemade rap tracks. It must be admitted that Tyler is indeed by many accounts a very talented and creative rapper. This certainly helped his rise, but was not the whole picture by any means. He picked up more attention with his shocking live antics, as seen on his February 16, 2011 performance of “Sandwitches” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The performance, which featured Tyler and fellow Odd Future member Hodgy Beats wearing ski masks with upside-down crosses painted on the forehead—only to rip them off at the line, “[Screw] a mask/ I want that [girl] to know it’s me”—went mildly viral. The shock value carried Tyler’s momentum further with his biggest break, “Yonkers,” the hit single off his major label-produced second album Goblin. The song is typical of Tyler’s style, rife with bizarre yet creative rhymes, filthy language, and horrific depictions of violent sex-crazed fantasies, all told in a sort of confessional style over a bass-heavy beat and dissonant melodic hook. The music video and subsequent fame of “Yonkers” led to Tyler’s winning the 2011 MTV Music Award for Best New Artist. Clearly, his music his resonating on some level. It’s just a little unclear with whom or on what exact level it resonates.
Messages encouraging violence, drug use, sexual deviance, and other illicit activity are not by any means uncommon or even new in the rap music scene, yet somehow when Tyler, the Creator raps about them, these subjects became more shocking or hard to listen to. Why exactly is that? It could have been purely his delivery, in a deep, throaty voice that is by no means welcoming and is furthermore at times downright menacing. It could have been his brutal, sometimes excessive honesty and frequent (read: very frequent) use of such startling words as “f****t” and “n***er” (note, not the more commonly used slang term “n***a”). Whatever it is, Tyler is tapping into something that no one else quite seems to be putting words to, perhaps because others are afraid to or perhaps because they’re things that shouldn’t be put into words. I won’t pretend to take one side or the other. But it is worth considering that despite his success, Tyler, the Creator will always be a sort of black sheep in the rap game. He is immensely controversial for obvious reasons, being accused myriad times of excessive gratuity in his lyrics along with a slew of accusations of homophobia and misogyny, among other things, being tossed his way. He starts beefs and conflicts with celebrity peers like it’s his job. He’s been arrested for vandalism and destruction of private property. He will claim not to give a you-know-what about anyone or anything and then in the same breath lay out all his grand designs to be world famous, to win awards, and, to use his words from multiple interviews, be “that n***a.”
What Tyler, the Creator is, and what his role in the rap game is, will never be clearly defined. One YouTube comment I happened to see called him the punk rocker of hip-hop. But if he were truly “punk” by most standards, then he wouldn’t have such great ambitions. Yet he will never crack the mainstream of popular rap/hip-hop because his music is far too strange and far too explicit. Something doesn’t quite add up. But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps it could be theorized that he is, in a way, the Freudian id of rap music. This takes us to his new album, Wolf.
Conceptually, Wolf follows in the same path of his first two albums, which were laid out as psychoanalysis sessions with Tyler’s fictional therapist, a character known as “Dr. TC.” Tyler’s debut album Bastard opens with Dr. TC’s deep voice laying out the scenario: “It’s going to be three sessions, today, tomorrow, and the next day.” It follows thus that Bastard was the first session, Goblin was the second, and now Wolf is the third. Dr. TC’s deep modulated voice can be heard throughout the albums, giving the trilogy a conceptual common thread while the rest of the music serves as Tyler’s confession, or the hashing out of all his demons. Suddenly the Freudian id analogy makes a little more sense. In Wolf, Tyler, no holes barred, gives the listener a full-frontal psycho-attack, where he digs up whatever is on his mind, be it unresolved father issues (“Answer”), interactions with bandwagon fans (“Colossus”), romantic encounters with otherwise dangerous women (“IFHY,” which stands for “I F*****g Hate You”), his role as a potential role model (“Rusty”), and, of course, putting down naysayers and foes (“Domo23”).
Musically, Wolf exudes a similar style to Tyler’s previous efforts, with bass-heavy beats and dissonant, screeching hooks. There is the occasional break, where Tyler himself plays piano and the music transitions into a lounge-esque style for his more personal, revelatory tunes. On the whole, Wolf shows Tyler opening up a lot more on personal matters. Perhaps his first two albums kept him busy being the shock-rapper that spewed hate-laced rhymes at everything that was relevant. Now that his fame has, to a certain degree, settled in, Tyler, the Creator gives us his response. Sure, the gratuitous swearing and graphic violence are still prevalent. That’s just part of Tyler’s DNA. But now, we get a clearer glimpse inside his head and what he’s actually thinking about these issues in his life. “Rusty,” “Answer,” and “Colossus” all stick out as notable eye-opening tracks for various reasons. But then, with Tyler, there’s always the kicker. On the Sirius/XM radio show “Sway in the Morning,” Tyler said of Wolf, “I focused in and just tried to craft the worst s**t I could possibly make… the album f*****g sucks. I’m pretty stoked because people think I’m kidding, but, like, this s**t’s not good.”
Listeners and viewers will continue to scratch their heads at the ongoing antics of Tyler, the Creator. It may be a train wreck. It may be a brutally honest look into the dark state of the human soul. It may all just be a ploy to garner fame. Whatever it is, Tyler, the Creator and his Odd Future cohorts have, at least for now, firmly secured their place as the black sheep that will stick out more than any sore thumb in the rap scene has before.