Thursday, May 23, 2019

album review: 'IGOR' by tyler, the creator

At this point, what can you even expect from Tyler, The Creator anymore?

And I say this as someone who can admit to being more tolerant of the guy at his most foul and abrasive, but also someone who never quite celebrated him at his various peaks either, at least not in comparison to the diehard fans. Don't get me wrong, at his most shocking I've always been convinced there was more damaged pathology than even he would admit, but as much as I really dug Flower Boy, damn near the polar opposite of those early albums, it wasn't a project that stuck with me longer as much as others, or one that in this era I quite found as revolutionary as most in its content, which at points could feel underwritten. Hell, what I found most striking was the production, which had its off-kilter edge and clear influence of Pharrell, but also attracted a peculiar, homegrown beauty that Tyler could make his own. So when I heard that more than ever this project IGOR, dropped with little warning or promotion, was even further away from conventional hip-hop in his delivery and had reportedly picked up even some production elements from the messy, much-maligned but fascinating Cherry Bomb for a bittersweet breakup album... well, it was sure to be unique. So okay, how is IGOR?

Oh, I'm not going to make any fans with this... and what's exasperating is that if there's a case in 2019 where I'm trying so damn hard to like an album and just feel like I'm coming up short, it's with IGOR. I certainly hear its appeal: from a more layered and melodic standpoint, it's probably Tyler's most cohesive but boundary-pushing project to date in terms of his sound - and yes, I'm adding that qualification because in 2019, it's hard to avoid the places where the niche for this sound is just a bit more crowded, and thus I'm not quite as gripped now as I'd like to be. It also happens to be one of those projects where for every choice in its artistry that doesn't click, the fans will highlight how that's the point - which is all fine and dandy, I've used that argument to justify my own fondness for certain projects when art hits that tonal resonance for me, so I can only hope that me just being kind of lukewarm on this is given the same consideration... right?

And really, a huge part of this does start with Tyler, The Creator himself, his choice to rap less than ever on this album and embrace more of the thinner, slightly distorted singing that began to crop up on Flower Boy and is all the more prevalent here. And while even he would probably admit that he's not a good singer, the argument is that the weak vocals do reflect something homespun and pure and raw in that delivery, a very punk approach to delivery where the juxtaposition of his loneliness and feelings of being out of place and weird are all the more pronounced against production that feels alternatively futuristic and overflowing with buzzy synths, or dipping its toes towards soul and jazz with lush, cascading keys and an intricacy in composition that'll probably never get the full credit it deserves. So why is it not clicking for me here where it does work coming from an act like BROCKHAMPTON - and make no mistake, with the increased pitch-shifting and vocal filters, you can't avoid the comparison this time around. Well, if you've seen my BROCKHAMPTON reviews, the messy truth is that it only worked haphazardly with the boy band, only bringing enough refinement together on iridescence to lend its fragility the swell to hold together - it had the impression of desperately swinging for the fences and going big because that was the only way the collective was going to survive. The emotional dynamic across IGOR is, by necessity, more intimate, so maybe that rawness would translate to a smaller picture... but that doesn't quite happen.

Granted, part of the reason why is that like with Flower Boy, there are layers of vocal deflection and contortion that do detract from some of that sense of intimacy, and that doesn't count the uncredited guest stars which even got some fans questioning whether Tyler was simply playing the majority of parts. Hell, maybe it would have been better if he had - yeah, Solange sounded great whenever she would fill in the ad-libs behind him, and I'm not going to complain about great soul samples or when Charlie Wilson showed up for some baritone support, but how on earth they thought stripping some of that same soul away from Cee-Lo Green was a good idea I can't guess. And while there are still too many acts that find sentient music meme Playboi Carti interesting which is enough of an explanation why he's on 'EARFQUAKE', I will absolutely question why Tyler got Lil Uzi Vert of all people to fail to croon through the opener, or why he recruited Kanye to yelp through a non-verse on 'PUPPET'. At least Santigold's filtered vocals make sense on 'NEW MAGIC WAND', and given the Frank Ocean influence in the atmosphere I can see why traces of him crept across 'RUNNING OUT OF TIME', but beyond texture I'm not sure what they added to a larger picture. And that's a question I do have for this approach to a breakup album - if you're going to continue to deflect from vulnerability with layers of vocal obfuscation where we only get non-distorted snapshots of Tyler infrequently, if you're not enraptured by the production and vibe and content, you're going to find the impact muted. 

And when I go to the production... look, I know the juxtaposition is part of the point, but the increasingly refined and intricate pianowork just doesn't quite capture the organic warmth that characterized the greatest moments of vulnerability across Flower Boy, and the reliance on blocky synthwork doesn't always help either. Part of this, unfortunately, calls back to mixing and mastering issues that make their most stark return since Cherry Bomb, where vocals can be buried, bassy synth leads are dominant off of gritty drums - not the first time the fidgety, squeaking progressions show the expected Neptunes influence - and the guitarwork is either tinny if acoustic or scuzzed out chunks if electric, the latter even played by Jack White on the closer and it leads to one of the most triumphant moments on the album, even if it does land on a weirdly abortive note - it works much better coming off the right lines on 'A BOY IS A GUN'. But I think my biggest issue comes in how the mixes never quite feel as rich as they should because an overweight low-end is rarely balanced with fuller melodic textures in the midrange outside of vocals - and sometimes not even those - which leads to the upper end getting blaring and tinny. The frustrating thing is that while the pitch-shifted vocals rarely click as well as they could, I do like the pianos and the majority of the synths, and there's a lot of vocal harmonies that could sound more rich... but like with Cherry Bomb, there's a weird feeling that Tyler's trying to force a brand of abrasion or flair that more natural timbres might pay off more effective or not feel so sickly, a lot of blunt flair and attention to the subtleties in the fine details of melody, but less to the overall feel of the song. Again, not saying there aren't moments I like, but it might be a case where Tyler is hewing a little too close to his influences and providing too much restraint.

And there might be something to that in the content as well - as I mentioned before, this is a breakup album, but the album seems strangely closed off to the emotive details that might drive it, let alone the partner in this case. Now credit where it's due, Tyler doesn't shy away from framing those emotional walls and reliance on desperate swings of affection as unhealthy, all of which is fueled by similar wells of over-compensating insecurity that have been rife across all of his albums - he's not giving himself a pass, and there's a lot of messy truth in a line like 'I found peace in drownin', especially when there's an implication of jealousy and the possibility of cheating crop up and the old murderous impulses rear their heads - the extended metaphors of magic wands, guns, and boys linked together might feel like just a dick joke, but it's sold just serious enough to make it good symbolic tissue. That's one reason why him taking control of the situation and just ending the relationship has real dramatic power on 'A BOY IS A GUN' as he tries to cut through all the jealous bullshit - it's a striking, borderline triumphant moment... but dealing with genuine affection beneath it is never that simple, as the clinginess of 'PUPPET' and the reflexive arrogant deflection of 'WHAT'S GOOD' proves, a song that ends with the line 'I don't know what's harder, letting go or just being okay with it'. And you'd think that 'GONE, GONE / THANK YOU' would be the moment of maturity to realize what he's learned and show some real self-awareness surrounding what his ex did and his emotions around all of it... only for the second half of the song after the beat switch for him to proclaim that he'd never love again. And yeah, it's a backslide, but it's a realistic one that makes sense as a guy who is trying to convince himself that he's really not that hurt and he's looking forward... but then ends the album with a desperate plea for friendship, ditching the jealousy in what might be the most emotionally raw and honest moment on the entire album. And yeah, it feels earned and probably saves the album as a whole thematically from all the frustrations and projection and self-destructive toxicity... but it doesn't feel like a moment set up to change or grow Tyler, which is where all that dramatic juxtaposition can dampen the emotional connection I have to him, flaws and all.

And you know, it's funny: going into Flower Boy two years back when he made it pretty clear about his sexuality with a warmth and sensitivity that rocked the hip-hop world, I remember the detractors who highlighted how much Tyler is a troll who toyed with expectations. And I never bought it - Tyler might lean on abstraction and deflection and provocation, but between the lines there was more revealing moments than he'd dare admit, and Flower Boy was the first point where he could stand in the sunlight effectively, push the subtext into the text. On IGOR, the text and thematic arc makes sense on an emotional and narrative level, and the jealousy, failed coping mechanisms, and backsliding work as he tries to process the breakup and move on effectively... but they feel like moments bereft of the revelatory snapshots and growth that Flower Boy showed Tyler was capable of, and maybe cracking that sort of routine and emotional barrier might need to be chipped before it's shattered. Then again, Tyler references being told he's on the spectrum - which I could absolutely believe - and it's hard not to believe him at his word and accept for him how it might just be that blunt, find him relatable in the broad, forethought but clumsy emotional moves and just be underwhelmed and frustrated by the music that deflects from that approach's raw power. And that's where I think I am with IGOR, giving it a strong 6/10 and a recommendation for the fans following his arc, but not quite as striking or original as what Flower Boy delivered. Potent stuff and definitely good... just wish I found it great.

1 comment:

  1. Tyler's been my fav musician since spring 2011. This album will be loved by the Tumblr-using "art hoe" crowd. Aside from "Puppet," it lacks emotional substance, but has many catchy moments. Because of its prevalence of catchy moments, I don't think it's a 6/10, but it's closer to a 6 than to Fantano's 9 for SURE.