Review: Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy

Odd Future's notorious leader looks inward on his fourth studio LP
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tyler the creator flower boy

So I invented this thing called “The Talent/Controversy Diagonal.” I did this because I’m constantly mystified by how we classify artists with a contentious streak. The rule for the Talent/Controversy Diagonal reads something like this: For musicians to get away with being controversial, they must be at least equally as talented. An equal amount of each factor lands an artist squarely on the Diagonal itself, which is the dream. However, having more of one factor than the other will dictate how audiences classify that artist’s work. Prince was controversial, to be sure. One of his career standouts is a song literally called “Controversy”. If he wasn’t singing about sex, he was emphatically doing over-the-clothes stuff with his guitar. Everything he did and said comprised an erogenous undertone. But when you look back on Prince’s career, his affinity for controversy is almost always the second or third thing audiences bring up. The reason for this has everything to do with where Prince lands on the Talent/Controversy Diagonal. Which is to say: He’s right on the money, if not slightly above the line. For every lyric about pockets full of horses, there was an equally brain-melting guitar solo. “Jack U Off”, is a controversial song title, but the musicianship that propels it forward is brilliant and fresh. By his own design or not, Prince avoided the “holistically controversial” classification because he was a ridiculously talented musician. Other artists that fall into this category include but are certainly not limited to Madonna, Kanye West, Eminem.

The same can’t really be said for artists like Marilyn Manson, whose level of controversy overtly outweigh his talent. I always found his music incredibly difficult to listen to, because it seemed irrationally tethered to the prospect of being disruptive, vulgar and uncontained. Aside from his tangible aesthetic—his hair, clothing and makeup channel every nightmare I ever had as a kid—his music seemed deliberately bad. Almost like he thought he had to make shitty music in order to perpetuate this designation. His most popular song is antithetically titled “The Beautiful People”, which sounds like it should actually be called “We found these musicians at Costco and also I skipped my afternoon nap.” For these reasons, Marilyn Manson falls well below the Diagonal, which is decidedly not the dream. He shares this space with artists like Miley Cyrus, 2 Live Crew and Ted Nugent.

Make sense? Great.

I mention all of this because Tyler, the Creator is fucking with my invention.

Up until Friday, Tyler was the kind of artist whose controversial aesthetic constantly usurped his talent, landing him in the less-than-desirable company of Marilyn Manson. Despite being the founder, de facto leader, and sardonic big brother of the oft-excellent Odd Future collective, he was only ever kinda talented. Being a lights-out lyricist never seemed as important to Tyler as being a brazen provocateur. Sometimes he lauds archaic, one-dimensional gender roles. Sometimes he lambasts homosexuality. Sometimes he’s arrogant. Sometimes he spits vulgarities for the sake of vulgarity. But he’s almost never unsure of what he’s saying or how he’s saying it. The disjointed, polarizing rhythmic cadence of tracks like “Yonkers” feels broken and horribly erected, but compared to the accompanying video featuring dilated pupils and a cockroach petting zoo, that cadence seemed commonplace—comforting, even. For the most part, all of this felt intentional. The driving force behind Odd Future always seemed to be its transgressive response to society’s most normative banalities, but the driving force behind Tyler, the Creator always seemed to be the proliferation and forward progress of Odd Future. For as anarchistic as he sometimes seemed to be, he was unusually committed to staying on-message.

All of this makes Flower Boy, Tyler’s fourth studio LP and third to be released on a major label, a case study in how humility and self-doubt can impact an artist’s end-product. Because to be clear, it’s unlike anything we’ve heard from him before. The first words out his mouth on leadoff track “Foreword,” are literally a list of rhetorical questions that, in so many words, acknowledge the fleeting relevance of Tyler’s goofball persona. He knows people won’t laugh at this joke forever, which nods to a self-awareness we’ve yet to witness.

At its core, Flower Boy looks inward. Underneath the hardened, immature exterior lies an impressionable psyche that pines to be understood. There’s palpable tenderness in standout tracks like “Where This Flower Blooms”, “See You Again”, and “Garden Shed.” Here, Tyler trades in barbed one-liners and subversive innuendos for something different—something pretty. His lyrics tell stories, and his cadence is tight and impressive. The token Odd Future production tactics are still there—low-fi percussive drops, MIDI-born melodic accents—but on the whole, there’s an element at play on Flower Boy that has yet to appear on previous LPs. Confidence, or something like that.

Yeah, let’s go with confidence because I’ve never heard Tyler sound so sure of himself. That’s not to say he has ever come off as timid or hesitant; what he’s doing here just seems more natural. Even his club-ready tracks feel more galvanized than any of his previous work. Pre-launch singles “Who Dat Boy”, and “I Ain’t Got Time!” are absolute bangers, while the lyrical precision on tracks like “Garden Shed” and “911/Mr. Lonely” posit Tyler as a bona fide hip-hop juggernaut.

Meanwhile, none of this is to say that Tyler, the Creator is some born-again austere artist. He’s not. He’s still got the mischievous streak and satirical brio that makes him so recognizable on-paper. But any sort of malicious underpinnings that constructed his previous albums are no longer prevalent. Rather, he tackles his shortcomings head-on, almost as if he’s lifted the hood on his own craft to inspect the inner-workings as a favor to himself. And he isn’t necessarily pleased by what he’s inspecting. This might actually be the most empirical footnote attached to all of Flower Boy: Tyler has begun informing his future by critically examining his own past. The most fundamental artistic evolution occurs when artists criticize the origin of their ideas. Perhaps a move like this isn’t great for fans of his subversive aesthetic, but as it applies to the Talent/Controversy Diagonal (and the objective legitimacy of his catalog), Flower Boy has elevated Tyler closer to the line. An unexpected move to be sure, but no less impressive whatsoever. B PLUS