Let’s just get this out of the way at the beginning: Tyler The Creator is, on record, a deplorable, homophobic, puerile young man, hell-bent on subverting the normal, upending the acceptable, and pushing minds into the dark corners that no one likes to talk about. His rape fantasies, slurs, and over-use of the word fuck have been analyzed by hundreds of critics – indeed, the analysis has been analyzed. There is a fascination that comes out of taboo topics, and Tyler, for better or for worse, has captured the attention of a more or less un-shockable modern audience. Hype begets hype, especially when it is supported by legitimately compelling music, and thus here we are, months after the incestual internet has had their way with Tyler think pieces, faced with his first label-backed album, Goblin.
Since a large majority of the ink spilled on Tyler and Odd Future has revolved around issues moral rather than musical, I want to spend most of my time talking about the album itself, rather than the universe surrounding it. Still, I would feel remiss if I didn’t spend a quick bit outlining my (very conflicted) thoughts on those issues.
First off, I think Tyler is being honest when he says he doesn't believe most of the things he says on record. If we took Tyler at his word, for instance, he would be either a table or a unicorn, trying to have sex with dolphins. Instead, as Tyler puts it, “It’s fucking fiction.” He encourages his audience to “listen beyond the surface.” That’s all well and good. Tyler may not be a rapist homophobe, and delving below the exterior is always a worthy endeavor. But Tyler still says misogynistic and homophobic things on that surface, and to get any deeper you have to first go through that layer. The importance of this should not be understated; saying you’re not homophobic while dropping the more repugnant of f-bombs strikes me a bit like saying you’re not a racist because you have a black friend. “Do as I say,” Tyler is saying, “not as I say.”
It’s a tricky situation, because other rappers have clearly done this sort of thing before. Eminem is perhaps the clearest corollary, but artists like Brotha Lynch Hung and even Insane Clown Posse have been rapping about murder, rape, and homophobia for decades now. Judging by his interviews, Tyler seems to be using the words for shock value, ignoring the fact that they carry real weight. If you’re offended, according to Tyler, you don’t get it. Well, I think there are plenty of people who get it who would prefer if he stayed out of that territory. Weirdly, it’s not the killing and raping that bothers me; there are very few sane people who advocate those acts, and I don’t think Goblin will sway them much in one direction or the other. Gay slurs, on the other hand, are used with gusto around the world. Those words, when spouted by Tyler, have the potential to strike people as truth rap rather than shock rap, and that bothers me.
It gets trickier – and here we get into the album itself – because Tyler himself knows that these sort of things will bother a lot of his listeners. Using the same therapist/counselor motif as his debut album, Bastard, Goblin gives Tyler a voice to counterweight his own heavy-handed statements, as if to preempt a large amount of the inevitable criticism. “Tyler, you’re going to have to cut down on that,” says the therapist on the album’s title track, referring to his anti-gay lyrics. “OK, you guys caught me,” says Tyler earlier in the song, “I’m not a fucking rapist or a serial killer. I lied.” At the beginning of Goblin’s third cut, “Radicals,” we get the most blatant waiver: “Random disclaimer: Hey, don’t do anything that I say in this song. OK? It’s fucking fiction. If anything happens, don’t fuckin’ blame me, white America.”
Again, though, this base-covering reticence strikes me as a Band-Aid over a wound gushing blood. I understand where Tyler is coming from. He’s been thrust into the critical spotlight overnight, forced to explain the very compelling lyrics that brought the attention in the first place. “I’m not a fucking role model,” Tyler says, and I believe him. As he put it on his Formspring account, “Imagine being a kid with a group of friends just skating and making music and having fun, and then being pushed into a world where everything you have always thought, done and said is now under a microscope.”
Still, at some point, even as a young artist rapping fictional narratives, Tyler will have to confront the fact that there are a whole bunch of people out there who are either offended or emboldened by his words. A little disclaimer isn’t going to wish these lyrics away, and the attempt seems a bit like a young kid asked to explain himself, stumbling to tell the examiner that he didn’t really mean it and he was just joking around. These snippets of real emotion from Tyler, while perhaps necessary and certainly reassuring, are still a bit like starting a stinging criticism with “No offense, but…”
These issues aren’t new, by any means. With the exception of a few choice words and ideas, the lyrics on Goblin re-trace tracks laid by Bastard and other selections from the Odd Future discography. In fact, part of my thinking about Goblin centers around the fact that, well, it’s just not as good an album as Bastard is. Maybe Tyler is finding out in fast-forward the lessons that took Eminem a few more years to learn; you can only shock people so many times before they begin expecting it, at which point you need to find a new shtick. Goblin starts to poke around, but after the hunger and hurt of Bastard, it winds up resembling a teenager being angry because that’s what people expect. “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school,” the chorus on “Radicals,” sounds more like a lazy approximation of Tyler’s lyrical mantras than an actual rallying cry. He’s quite literally telling us – rather than showing us – that he’s radical.
Stylistically, Goblin represents the logical evolution of the Tyler we heard on Bastard. With more attention being paid to his angry tracks than his contemplative ones, Tyler chooses to embrace the grit and the growl of his patter more frequently on Goblin, with more scratch in his throat than we’ve heard before. “Transylvania,” in particular, pitches down Tyler’s voice to make it more menacing. The song prowls forward, pulsing and threatening.
Goblin’s production follows suit, although it largely lives within the same aural realm as the foreboding Neptunes-inflected, Drake-on-drugs type beats we’ve heard before. Perhaps most interestingly, aspects of Odd Future’s exuberant and chaotic live show seem to have crept in here. Where Bastard had interludes of Tyler beating up on Earl Sweatshirt in a room filled with friends, Goblin substitutes the anarchic shouts and wolf-pack vibes seen on stages and computers over the past few months. As for beats, Tyler’s production talents run the gamut from the cleanly bubbling instrumental “Au79” to the lurching, molasses-laced backing of “Fish/Bopping Bitch” and “Window.” When he’s at his best, Tyler brings an outsider perspective, and a deep musical knowledge, to the hip hop of his idols, pushing his beats into spheres that are as refreshing now as they will be commonplace within five years.
It’s clear that Tyler feels unworthy of a lot of the attention he’s been getting, at least with respect to his Odd Future mates. “I’ma start a group, so no one else gets the respect that they deserve because of you,” he says facetiously on the album’s opening track. But posse cuts “Bitch Suck Dick” and “Window” are two of Goblin’s weakest tracks, and seem a bit compulsory. With the exception of absent Earl and Frank Ocean’s R&B change of pace, Tyler is the focal point of this group. He’s not a technically proficient rapper – at least not notably so – but his delivery comes with a soul-baring honesty that makes it appealing in ways that more impressive flows rarely crack.
The album’s highlight, without a doubt, is “Yonkers,” Tyler’s most singularly impressive work to date. “I’m a fucking walking paradox – no I’m not,” raps Tyler over his best Halloween beat. The track perfectly balances Tyler’s appeal; off-putting yet clever lyrics, deep bass hype, personal revelations, and a striking beat combine to form a juggernaut of a track that, were it not for the epithets it contains, would be nearly flawless. Other standouts include “Tron Cat,” “She,” and “Sandwitches” – three very different songs that somehow manage to sound naturally unnatural under Tyler’s guidance.
The album’s bookend tracks, however – by far the most introspective songs on Goblin – are the most compelling, content-wise. The two tracks, “Goblin” and “Golden,” run over twelve minutes in length, largely spent in dialogue between Tyler and his therapist, outlining the trials, the triumphs, and the trivialities of Tyler’s last half year. They round out the story of Goblin, pulling back the curtain on both Tyler’s off-mic personality and his constant inner struggles. On these tracks we hear a continuously oscillating artist, struggling to balance doubt and pride, innocence and experience. “I’m a nineteen-year-old fucking emotional coaster,” he tells us, stating the obvious. It’s no coincidence that these songs work to turn the album into a repeatable cycle. “You wouldn’t do that, Tyler. Kill yourself or anyone,” the therapist says to open the album – a line that seems to intersect a conversation mid-response. After listening to the album’s closing track, which ends with an anguished Tyler shouting about killing his friends before committing suicide, that opening seems a lot more logical. Is that what has happened after all of this? Are we back at square one?
There are fascinating aspects below the surface on this album; the psychoanalytical potential of the last forty-five seconds of the album’s seventy-plus minutes is enough to spawn essays; “You see, you’re not going crazy,” says the therapist figure, a pitched down version of Tyler’s own voice. “It’s me, I’m your best friend, Tyler. I know everything. I know everything about you. You’ve been helping yourself the whole time. Your friends – they’re just figments of your imagination. Dr. TC. See Tyler, I’m your conscience. I’m Tron Cat, I’m Ace, I’m Wolf Haley.” It’s a self-awareness that’s present on the whole album, but only vocalized at album’s end, leaving the question of where the listener fits in unanswered.
Self-awareness is fitting, of course, for an artist whose solo albums lie down on the couch and spill their guts in a self-administered therapy session. This album is Tyler in all forms, beautiful and ugly, offered up not so much for us as it is for him. It’s also fitting, then, that this album is a paradox, a mixture of brilliant and pedestrian concepts and constructs. It suffers from a distinct ramble, clocking in at nearly twenty minutes longer than Bastard, and would be improved by a fair bit of tightening. It sounds like the work of someone who doesn’t have many sounding boards, or at least not many he wants to listen to. It is repulsive and yet bewitching, fascinating in a way that few albums are. Goblin and Tyler are divisive in almost every regard. But I’m not so sure we would know his name if not for his vice-filled verses? And I doubt we’d like him in an edited state? For better or for worse or for somewhere in between, Goblin’s flaws come hand in hand with its strengths.
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