Monday, July 24, 2017

album review: 'flower boy' by tyler, the creator

I think there is a conversation surrounding Tyler, The Creator that a lot of us were not prepared to have, the sort of discussion that'll probably make those of us who consider ourselves enlightened a bit uncomfortable, maybe forcing us to reconsider norms that we once held deep down. To some who are more cynical it was inevitable, only a matter of time before projecting resolved itself into reality, but to many more it'll reveal as an about face, the sort of shift that has already sparked endless thinkpieces with respect to the culture and Tyler's place in it...

I speak, of course, about Tyler, The Creator putting out a good - or dare I even say accessible - hip-hop album - oh what, were you expecting something else? Maybe it's a consequence of me spending a lot more time in the punk and goth scene as of recently, or that I've grown up in a country not just where gay marriage has been legal but LGBT rights are protected under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but Tyler 'coming out' as gay or bi doesn't faze me one way or the other. I won't say I'm entirely surprised, but good for him, I'm happy for him that he's finding some vestige of peace there, and it definitely adds an extended dimension to previous records that fits thematically and I'd be interested in re-exploring. However, I can't say the thinkpiece-happy music press have been quite as accommodating - and I'll be blunt, they range from painfully misguided to outright offensive and authoritarian to a fluid queer culture to which a person like Tyler has clearly found difficulty embracing, both as an artist and a person. If you wonder why it might have taken so long for Tyler to do this, this sort of barely-literate masturbation and 'backlash' might have been the reason why, from the condescending 'this is how you must behave' screeds to the accusations of trolling that reflect a complete lack of understanding of the man's art! And again, as you probably all remember from when I covered Cherry Bomb, I'm no big Tyler, The Creator fan, but I think it says a lot about some music journalists' brand of 'tolerance' when a person like Tyler comes out despite a complicated legacy and persona that doesn't fit within what their rigid definitions of what queer means. 

But I think I'm getting ahead of myself here - Tyler's got a new record, which looks to be one of his most streamlined to date, and it's already getting the sort of rave critical reception from several outlets that has eluded him for years now, so you can bet I wanted to explore this. So what did I find on Flower Boy?

Here's the thing: there have been so many people trying to force a narrative surrounding Flower Boy that I think the majority of them have missed the full picture of what actually shows up on the record. Because for those both pro- or anti-Tyler, framing Flower Boy as his 'coming out' record really isn't accurate, because that if anything is just one more matter-of-fact conclusion that flits through his mind in a larger, more complicated picture, one coaxed out of boredom and loneliness that comes from thinking too hard and too long. Or to put it another way, if Cherry Bomb was Tyler taking his artistic genius and fleeing into isolation, Flower Boy is the sort of lonely, meandering record that comes from it, the sort of record that turns inward simply for spending so much time on its own, which leads to one of Tyler's most diverse and interesting record to date.

And nowhere is that more apparent than Tyler himself, and if you're going in expecting the hard-edged abrasive bangers that made him famous... yeah, the most you get are 'Who Dat Boy' and 'I Ain't Got Time', and even in the former case Tyler later poses the question to the audience on 'November' that it could be all rhetorical. Instead, while Tyler does rap, the intensity is muted, delivered with a little more poise and contemplation, and that's before we get the songs where he's outright singing hooks to match with Frank Ocean, Kali Uchis, Rex Orange Country and Estelle, and I'd argue he handily outperforms Jaden Smith. And no, he doesn't have a great voice - it's husky and frail, especially in his falsetto, although he's a smart enough producer to multi-track himself fully to give himself a little more cushion to work with - but in a sense, his voice is effective in this vein - as much as he's trying to define a smoother comfort zone for himself, he's still a little out of his element. And yet for songs like 'See You Again' and 'Garden Shed' and '911/Mr. Lonely' and 'Glitter', the hollow, guitar-accented production highlights that frailty even further and it's pretty effective - not quite at the level of Frank Ocean at his best, but you can definitely hear the inspiration.

And yet it's not just there, which takes us to the production and instrumentation. Now I remember catching a ton of flack when I reviewed Blonde and I called it a solid summer record - ephemeral and breezy but tapping into a certain bleary-eyed haze that felt like it was always supposed to mean more. And considering how much sonically Flower Boy resembles parts of Blonde... look, I'm not surprised that Tyler himself would echo my comments on Twitter. Sure, like any Tyler, the Creator record the beats are thicker and darker, bass-heavy and grittier brushing against glossy synths that recall his love of Pharrell's more delicate touches of g-funk and R&B, but this is easily his brightest and more expansive record to date, from an opening track that samples a Sonic Youth remix of a Can song, to the squonking g-funk of '911/Mr. Lonely', from 'See You Again' with its chimes and lush synth and strings to the lingering distorted live tones of the guitar on 'Garden Shed', which later evolve into the lingering somberness of 'Boredom' that might just be one of my favourite songs on the project. Hell, the tones are almost bright enough to make the more atonal chord progressions on 'Who Dat Boy' almost feel out of place - which also crop up in that main synth line on 'Pothole', for the record, they work way better on 'I Ain't Got Time' especially with the bouncier percussion and bass. Now granted, this also means that despite being Tyler's shortest record yet it can feel like it drags a bit at points, a little listless and not quite having the same momentum, only accentuated by his choice to end things off with a instrumental that is certainly beautiful, but can feel a tad disconnected from the songs before.

Granted, to explain that we need to get into the content - and again, I hate that I have to restate this, but while Tyler can be a funny guy or troll people on purpose, that side doesn't really surface on this album - this is him at his most understated, questioning, and sardonically honest, peeling through layers of where he is right now with the frankness that can redeem a few rhymes or bars that feel forced, or guest appearances from A$AP Rocky and Lil Wayne that aren't bad but don't really build to much beyond just being here. In fact, I'd argue they're more of a distraction to the central themes, most of which show Tyler musing on his current place and emphatically proving that money and expensive cars don't buy any sort of happiness. Oh, he'll mention them, certainly, but it isn't long before he feels both he and the audience are tired of those references and the topics turn inwards. And it's at this point that while most people will fixate on the revelations about Tyler being bi or leaning towards gay, that's really not the main undercurrent of the record - it's loneliness. And this isn't an unfamiliar topic for Odd Future's members - both Earl and Frank Ocean have explored the topics in detail - but there's a naturalistic meandering style to Tyler's thought pattern that got to me a lot more deeply than I expected, especially on 'Boredom' describing the junk that piles up in your bedroom on days with nothing to do, or the desire just to not be eating alone. And what's telling is that a song later he's lashing out at people on 'I Ain't Got Time', half out of a self-destructive drive for alienation and yet half because there are hangers-on who won't know how to process his sexuality or rough-edged weirdness... and go a few songs later he'll outright admit it. It almost reminded me a little of Sage Francis' material like 'Make Em Purr', but Tyler outright says on '911/Mr. Lonely' he's never had a pet, and it's touching on the final two songs before the instrumental interlude as he tries to leave a message for a partner he clearly has feelings for... only for the message to not go through. 

And that's when things crystallize: if this is Tyler the Creator's 'coming out' album, it's a broader but more hesitant and self-aware revelation that many will give him credit. Hemmed in by isolation, boredom, and loneliness, knowing that some of it is self-inflicted by both success and his own weird streak - to say nothing of what he's said in the past, only hinted in subtext - you can tell he's become comfortable with his sexuality; he'd just like it and his own passions, be they artistic or otherwise, to be accepted as that Scum Fuck Flower Boy, or at least some effort be put in to understand. And yeah, that's poignant, there's power to that message especially coming from Tyler, even if it's going to make people uncomfortable to offer him a seat at that table, and he knows it too. As such, and as someone who was no big fan of Tyler's previous work, I can see Flower Boy having some real staying power - it deserves a lot of its critical acclaim, and I think a extremely light 8/10 from me is appropriate here. I can't promise diehard Tyler fans will love this - in terms of the sound and style and even the rapping and bars, of which there are a fair few less compared to earlier records - but for me, it's the sort of artistic maturity that reflects an artist who always took now asking - and I say that's worth a response in kind.

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