Friday, April 17, 2015

album review: 'cherry bomb' by tyler, the creator

So maybe Odd Future does have a plan after all.

It certainly seems like something is up. When I reviewed Earl Sweatshirt's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, I speculated that Odd Future's fading buzz made the release of Earl's record feel like a bit of an anomaly, especially considering the lack of major Odd Future players on it. Well, maybe I should have known better because it wasn't a few weeks later when Odd Future 'leader' Tyler The Creator announced his own record to be released in a week's time.

Which for me was a good thing, because paradoxically while Tyler The Creator might be the leader of the Odd Future collective, he's probably one of the members of the group that I have the hardest time getting a firm handle on. His acrid contempt for critics who brand him as horrorcore given his complete lack of filter and graphic subject material does have merit, mostly because he's the most interesting when you dig deeper into the outsider mentality that exists half in hyperbole and half in unfiltered, bold-faced honesty. He's not rapping to shock, mostly because his audience won't find him shocking but relatable. Parallels have also been made in terms of subject matter to Ariel Pink, owning the image of the outsider even as the mainstream shows interest for all of the wrong reasons, at least in his view - hypocritical considering so much of his buzz has circled around his controversy, but at least he's somewhat aware of that.

And yet I'm not exactly a fan of Tyler The Creator, and it shouldn't be all that surprising why. As I've said in the past, pure unrelenting nihilism, even when shoved through the lens of confused adolescence, frequently wears out its welcome if it doesn't have a larger point behind it, and Tyler's material can struggle here. The warped therapy session of Goblin worked for what it was - entirely unsurprising from a teenage kid forced to grow up too fast and trying to burn through his issues, even if it was about four songs too long - and the 'prequel' of Wolf fleshed out a hall of twisted mirrors and alter egos that were well-developed against good production but did seem to deflect even more from who Tyler really is - and it was also about four songs too long. Incidentally, the whole convoluted 'narrative' behind Tyler's work is interesting conceptually, but I don't put a lot of stock in the execution - it's well-framed and I can overlook the continuity errors lyrically, but I'm often left feeling it's less than the sum of its parts and doesn't hit me as hard as individual moments.

In any case, when Tyler announced his new record Cherry Bomb with no guest appearances from Odd Future members, instead featuring Pharrell, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West, and also a radical departure in sound, I was curious to say the least. Earl Sweatshirt had managed to keep up an impressive level of quality with his comeback, and divorced from the twisted continuity of Tyler's earlier albums, maybe Cherry Bomb could stand up well in its own world, right?

Well, in a way Cherry Bomb does feel almost completely divorced from Tyler's earlier work... but after a good dozen listens to this album to fully untangle it, I'm not sure that's a good thing. This album has already proven to be one of the more complicated and divisive hip-hop records of this year, especially among Tyler's fanbase who probably weren't prepared for this brand of weirdness... but the sad fact is that the more I listened to this record, it felt less inspired and more just sloppy, unfocused, and lacking in the hard-hitting and more personal content that drew me to Tyler in the first place. And for as much as this album's cherry bombs want to explode like fireworks, instead it feels as if they're just being wedged down the toilets like the pranks of Keith Moon of The Who... which is a reference that makes this album make a warped kind of sense, but bizarrely doesn't improve it.

Okay, to explain all of this, we need to start with the instrumentation and the odd warped dichotomy of sounds - shimmering, twinkling R&B that feels drenched in the style of old Neptunes tracks, to the point that when Pharrell shows up you wonder what took him so long - to hard-edged walls of abrasion that seem dragged from up from hardcore noise rap. The contrast is jarring and it really doesn't help the record's flow considering how often Tyler will undercut some genuinely melodic and potent progressions with shrill screeches or blaring fuzzy synths or even just letting his melody feel slightly askew. And with the lo-fi focus and how much of the sounds run together, especially the dirtier percussion and horns, more than ever it reminds me of Ariel Pink... except it's not consistent. It's less of an organic whole and more of a hodgepodge, lo-fi elements mashed with clear strings and tinkling pianos, and no matter how many layers of crooning backing vocals Tyler adds, it still feels off. Now that's not saying there aren't moments I like - the more subdued 'Find Your Wings' that managed to come close to nailing the balance, I dug the slick horns and strings on '2Seater', and the mid-song spacey synthesizers of 'Okaga, CA' reminded me of 70s progressive rock in a really appealing way that did fit with the song's arc - but outside of that, for as much as Tyler worships Pharrell, his material has nowhere near the tightness and that really does hurt these tracks. Instead of coming across with any sort of grandeur, more often than not it feels chintzy and thin, an attempt to sound grand but not quite having the skill or refinement to get there.

Now I would say that the noisier, more hardcore elements fit Tyler better - and given his earlier work, you'd think it would - but the production on these segments... I'm sorry, it doesn't work. The noisier riffs aren't so much driven by groove or a potent melody but slathered on in over-compressed blocky chunks, and none of them have the visceral fire or potency that came from, say, Jenny Death by Death Grips. That's not saying there aren't songs I like - 'Deathcamp' and 'Pilot' are both solid enough tracks - but the title track had the potential to be so much better and Tyler's production completely squandered that.. And in a bizarre artistic choice, Tyler further neuters the potency by mixing his vocals so low that they're frequently drowned out. Now this has been defended as an artistic choice, but there's a few points I feel I need to stress that debunks this. Firstly, for as much as you could try to point your finger at Death Grips and say 'MC Ride did it too'... yeah, no - I'm not a huge Death Grips fan, but my issue with MC Ride was his enunciation, not where he was placed within the mix, especially on albums like Jenny Death. To me it's less of Death Grips and more analogous to Say Yes To Love, the ultra lo-fi Perfect Pussy record I reviewed last year, which leads to my second point. Many people were turned off by how lo-fi and buried the vocals were on that album, but it fit the overall theme of the record - how the woman's inner voice frequently felt drowned out and swallowed by a world that would reject her graphic, innermost thoughts - and felt cohesive with the sound. What is the reason for Tyler mixing them so low beyond perhaps concealing the moments of rebellion in his verses... which leads to my third point, in that it doesn't just happen on his more abrasive tracks - hell, his vocals are pushed low across the majority of this album whether it makes sense or not. Hell, even Schoolboy Q feels drowned out on his guest verse, and that should never happen! And this leads to the biggest point: Tyler is the sort of presence with a ton of personality and an immediately distinctive voice - so why would he mix himself low to handicap that fire? Not only that, we get more examples of his bad flirtation with pitch shifting, the absolute worst example being 'Keep The O's' - yes, I get what it's trying to do and I can like the anti-drug message, but between the synths that sound like malfunctioning power drills and the goddamn chipmunk voice effect, that song is damn near unlistenable and one of the worst I've heard thus far this year.

So now this takes us to our lyrics and themes, and I'll say this, Tyler is improving in terms of his technical rapping skill. His bars connect more often, he has less flubbed rhymes, and his creativity does bring more focus. That being said, at this point his usage of homophobic slurs or lines like 'kill the dark shit like I'm Zimmerman' or 'shout out to Jim Crow'... look, I get that they have a different purpose and are more for going over-the-top braggadociousness, but at this point the provocation just feels cheap and overdone, and I get the feeling even Tyler knows it too. Hell, he even hops on the 'I am a god' schtick that Kanye pushes on their collaboration 'Smuckers' plus Lil Wayne, and despite Kanye having the worst bars in the self-deprecating whine/bragging and that terrible couplet about texting God about his dick, and I got the impression even Tyler knows this is overdone. Now to be fair, Tyler does try to make more conscious songs, but it's shot down in midstride like on the anti-gangbanging track 'Run', drawing the implication that most people won't care and don't want to listen - although the recent success of Kendrick Lamar seems to prove him at least somewhat wrong, but whatever. So how does he respond to that?

Well, with his trademark nihilism, it's the general 'screw the world, I'm leaving' - almost Objectivist in the assertion that if his talent and ambition won't be appreciated, he'll fly away to the moon with his girl and get away from it all. Sick of the pressure and attention from fame, sick of the judgement and backtalk, sick of a world that expects him to sell drugs or at least rap about it, he chooses to seize his wings, his internal validation, and fly towards the Moon - encapsulated in fragmented skits by the 'Moon Theater' where his art is being displayed and appreciated. And especially with the 70's-inspired synths on the final track, it's hypothetical Tyler isn't just pointing to Pharrell in his work but Keith Moon, the legendary drummer from The Who was probably the most well-known outside of the music for pranks of blowing up toilets on tour with cherry bomb fireworks. Admittedly it's a stretch, but it is a cute reference if intentional, especially considering you could draw a number of parallels between them in talent and personalities, with the big exception being the rampant drug use, obviously - but beyond that, what does this album add up to? Because to get to that transcendental point for which Tyler is reaching, we have a meadering record with graphic sex for no real purpose, a meandering car brag track where Tyler talks about listening to Mac DeMarco, because of course he does, and half-hearted stabs at revolution, and bizarrely a multi-part love song with an underaged girl that would owe something to Gary Puckett & The Union Gap if I didn't feel Tyler was both being sincere and trying to bait more controversy.

But as a whole, Cherry Bomb by Tyler The Creator feels transitional more than anything. Caught between two styles that Tyler tries to fuse and mostly can't, it's got the clumsiness of a genuine effort but also its failings. It shows Tyler's frustration and desire to go in more experimental directions, but his rapping topics feel formulaic, aimless, and thinly sketched, lacking the visceral punch that made his earlier material compelling and personal. And the moments that are intended to shock feel less thrilling and more tacked-on, cheap, and unnecessary. I can appreciate the experimentation, and you definitely won't hear many records like this in 2015, but for me it's a 5/10 and only a recommendation to hardcore Odd Future and Tyler The Creator fans, and even they are divided on this record. I appreciate Tyler firing his cherry bombs at the moon, but maybe he might have been better just blowing up a good toilet.

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