If you are trying to understand youth culture in a given region over the last three decades, the local rap groups are an informative place to start. Hip-hop groups, particularly the iconic ones, become uniquely defined by the locales that they hail from. Whether intentionally or not, these rappers soak up their cultural surroundings like a sponge and then splatter them back out, offering a glimpse into the “scene” of a certain time and place. Souls of Mischief, N.W.A.,Wu-Tang Clan – these groups were emblematic not only for their music but because they distilled the disparate cultural elements around them into something cohesive. While they may not belong in the category of icons, Odd Future is a no less potent representation of the area that they spring from. To put it simply, they are a rap manifestation of a generation of skaters from Southern California that are obnoxious but also magnetic because they are funny, sometimes witty, and always doing stupid shit. I grew up around this. I saw it almost everyday. And so listening to Wolf, the third album from Tyler, The Creator, feels a lot like going back to my high school. It's exciting, interesting, a little annoying, and it elicits a strong desire to get baked.
Within the collective personality of Odd Future, Tyler, The Creator has always been the most outlandish, snagging attention with his violent lyrics and general disregard for all things peaceable. Stemming from either insecurity or apathy (or both), Tyler rapped about chopping girls up in the back of wranglers, always being the loser, watching rape on VHS, and group sex with dinosaurs. He was like that zany friend calling you in the middle of the day to get drunk – you wanted to dismiss him but you didn't want to miss out on the spectacle. Eminem had done the same thing fifteen years ago and now Tyler was tweaking Marshall's style for the millennial generation (i.e. wearing more Supreme hats and talking about video games). Bastard and Goblin were dense with mediocrity (and some standouts), yet one got the sense that he would eventually get bored of being a sensationalist and he might have something worthwhile to say. Or, at least, something to say that wasn't so idiotic. Wolf may be the beginning of that transition.
Wolf is Tyler's is most engrossing and well-crafted release yet. He balances his obnoxious ego-stroking and cookie cutter beats with some soulful production and genuinely thoughtful lyricism. The album's opening line, “Poppa ain't call even though he's seen me on T.V., it's all good,” establishes the blend of mild introspection and detached emotions that Tyler sports throughout most of his verses. The eccentric, N.E.R.D. loving Tyler shows up intermittently, but most of Wolf is subdued and oddly meditative. Indeed, Tyler may have actually been sincere when he said this: “talking about rape and cutting bodies up, it just doesn't interest my anymore...what interests me is making weird hippie music for people to get high to.” He cited jazz fusion group BADBADNOTGOOD as a production influence and tapped Laetitia Sadier, the queen of pot friendly music, as a contributor. This all culminated in hazier, more melodic production as well as an album that is more contemplative than spastic. With that being said, it's still Tyler, The Creator, and the album holds a bounty of absurdities to delve into.
“Knock knock Motherfucks it's me, Mr. Clusterfuck.” Tyler opens “Cowboy” with a sinister guitar lick and some trademark self-deprecation. He may be wealthy now but he wants to make clear that he is “lonely as crackers that supermodels eat.” Indeed, life for Tyler is still “darker than the closet that nigga Frankie was hiding in.” This is the depressed posture that Tyler's flow feels comfortable in but, on Wolf, it starts to clash with his new found lifestyle (trips to Europe and “cats on everything”). He is embracing his internet fame while still trying to be the broke 18 year old living on his Grandma's couch. Consequently, we get songs like “Domo23” amidst “Awkward,” “Answer,” and “Slater.” “Domo23” is a hyped up anthem, complete with the kind of bombastic production and chant friendly lyrics that will invigorate the pits at Odd Future shows. The latter group of songs are more cerebral, tackling stories of lust and insecurity over deep, slow-shifting beats. On “Answer,” Tyler raps about his absent father. He does so both in ways that you might expect (“Dad isn't your name, faggot is a little more fitting,” and “You Nigerian fuck, now I'm stuck with this shitty facial hair”), and in some ways that are more exposed (“If I ever had a chance to ask this nigga, and call him, I hope he answer”). Tyler's uncertainty about what kind of content to tackle, and how he should tackle it, makes Wolf an expansive listen, bubbling over with alter-egos and irreverent stories.
Wolf's smokey basement vibe is punctuated by the songs Tyler claims he doesn't care about getting played by MTV. “IFHY” features Pharrel, too many layers of gaudy synths, and the weakest lyrics on the album. Tyler wants “the black kids to like him” for “Trashwang” but the beat never really goes anywhere, and the incessant yelling/gun shot samples don't help. Where those songs go too far, “Rusty” crafts a big sound through a comparatively catchy chorus and the kind of vicious atmosphere that pervaded Goblin. That atmosphere is quickly flipped on its head by “Treehome95,” as Erykah Badu effortlessly injects the song with a soulful aura. But then, seemingly in an effort to avoid the critique that all his songs sound the same, Tyler throws in “Tamale,” an indication of what he'd open with he ever went on tour with Erick Rincon. These bursts of eccentricity within the album are a reminder of Tyler's short attention span. And much like the man himself, they are either refreshing or misguided.
“I ain't ask for this, I did it out of boredom.” Will Tyler ever stop feigning apathy and commit to the music that he makes? Wolf has stronger writing than any of his other albums, yet he is still going on Twitter tirades trying to disavow the songs that he might be criticized for. A few years ago I watched one of my oldest friends jump off a two-story building into a shallow pool; given the chance, he would do this a hundred times before he would open himself up emotionally. These are the Tylers of the world. Intelligence and talent wrapped up in insecurity and a penchant for lighting things on fire. Tyler shouldn't abandon his absurdity (lines like “hey Tyler can I?...no bitch, don't you see me trying to buy a fucking churro” will always be worthwhile), but if he isn't serious about his talent he'll continue making albums that fall short of their potential. Wolf is often great, but there is something more lurking in Tyler. The question is, do we care what that might be? [B+]
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