Every week we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Flower Boy, the new album from Tyler, The Creator.
The polymathic exploits of Tyler, The Creator have elevated him above the depths of Internet cult antihero, finding him more reserved in the public eye while keeping several chips on his shoulder. He’s becoming everything and everyone he wants, at once: a Trojan horse in fashion and design via GOLF (while leaving Vans for Converse,) an experimental TV man on the GOLF App (with a VICELAND show incoming,) curator of the Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, and plenty more we may know nothing of just yet. As his profile’s grown, the toxicities of his personality have slowly shed to accommodate, but his music’s felt dangerously close to becoming an afterthought. 2015’s Cherry Bomb thrust his radical eccentricities into a sonic collage of arrogant extravagance embedded in the next phase of a vision quest. It was as jarring and unstable as the image Tyler forged for himself: at its best, it pushed his innovative oddities to the brink and brought the best out of his idols, but these moments were either overshadowed by an intentionally-abrasive mix or far too derivative of those idols, taking a rough draft-like quality that made them forgettable.
Flower Boy is the reemergence we didn’t know we deserved: it’s a triumphant bright spot in a legacy that thrived in the darkness, finding Tyler further away from the tantric frequencies that brought his Odd Future cohort to the surface. It’s antithetical to Cherry Bomb in nearly every way: the music’s slicker with pitch-perfect cohesion, and Tyler’s the most optimistic and earnest he’s ever been on record. And there’s no trick or falsehood to it, despite what many critics have insinuated in regards to him coming out about his queerness: right down to the title, Tyler’s facilitated amazing performances from a familiar band of youthful collaborators - Rex Orange County, Kali Uchis, Estelle, Frank Ocean, and Steve Lacy to name a few - with a sonic palette gliding along like a shirt he designed, riding his bike Slater on a summer day in Ladera. Or, perhaps a day in whenever his “November” was: longing for peace and true love in the nostalgia of a not-so-distant teendom while weighing the reality of this whole operation falling apart.
Sonically, the oddities remain intact: Tyler still sings out of his range on records that would’ve been megahits in other hands, perhaps to reassert a production ability gone underappreciated? Discontentment aside, this album finally makes the definitive case for that ability by maximizing the music and minimizing the antics. The beats still clink along with an awkward composure, favoring dissonant chord progressions and placing a funhouse turn on traditional trap sounds, but the ideas feel full and realized without forcing anything. When the funk and soul influences kick in, it makes everything shine through a brighter prism. “911” flips Tyler’s suicidal id into a happy place, camouflaging the ideation of self-harm in the vibe of an afternoon drive. “See You Again” sounds like the love he’s imagining and covering in the materialism he detests, and “Droppin’ Seeds” manages to give us yet another compelling Lil Wayne verse past his prime. Lyrically, Tyler serves reminders of the dexterity people forget about, lacing the album with intriguing verses and improved songwriting. “Garden Shed” takes its time to set the scene, Estelle crooning about hiding before Tyler admits to grappling with liking men, but holding the facade as high as he could to defend himself. On the contrary, the extended pet metaphor of “Mr. Lonely” sorely sticks out from that very garden as a moment when Tyler flails by getting far too lost in that playfulness.
Great as the execution is, Flower Boy is as messy and multitudinal as Tyler’s been his entire career. The new layers only pose new questions which, if he handles the backlash anything like Frank Ocean’s has, will never get an answer. What’s the gravity of acknowledging Black Lives Matter and calling upon this generation’s Nat Turner to set us all free - when racial matters have been skirted throughout his catalog, if addressed at all - while spending an album full of love songs to white men exclusively? His previous work’s laden with homophobic expletives - which he defended to death on intent, rather than impact - but they’re nowhere to be found here, Tyler’s now-open queerness complicating his narrative even further, opening several new subtexts on eurocentricity, heteronormativity, and hypermasculinity. Will Tyler leave these facets of himself unturned to afford being left alone to be himself? In time, we’ll know, but to still be so young at 26 with a newfound freedom so palpable on his tongue, the new and improved Tyler’s bound to feel alienating for some who arrived between the liberal slur usage and the rape fantasy love songs. If you never tuned in to Tyler’s madness begin with, or never want to again, this album’s his best work and a surefire cause for reconsideration.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.