Divulging the checkered history of Tyler, The Creator’s meteoric shock-rap rise feels as tired as the feigned disbelief over a brighter, queerer transformative arc most folks could see coming from the ashes of the old Odd Future store on Fairfax. Tired, indeed, because Tyler’s penchant for reinvention is as baseline as his green bowler hat once was; as he grew, the music followed suit. Nevertheless, indulging his output means reconciling a deep lean into a ceaseless catch-22: His potential was limitless from the beginning, but does he deserve our attention as he continues to turn his back toward his past transgressions? Is Tyler’s arc truly redemptive when we’ve reckoned with his havoc anyway? Conversely, what concession or apology does one expect from an artist approaching a decade of popularity? How sincere would it be, all considered?
IGOR is unconcerned with a reckoning that may never arrive, which proves one of its biggest assets. Its predecessor Flower Boy provided the closest substitute for that reckoning: a polished introspection on celebrity, romance, and memory that reigned in many of Tyler’s brash sonic whims while making due with his potential as a masterful pop writer. (The album also reminds us of how Tyler’s an often-formidable MC when he applies himself.) IGOR’s purview is more concerned with expanding the latter skill: Tyler’s no longer shy or coy about unnamed (or imaginary) suitors, and he doesn’t look both ways before crossing his lover’s mind. No, he spends 39 minutes hurling himself into traffic just to get their attention, before resignation strikes and peace of mind returns. It’s an understated breakup album tucked somewhere between unrequited and love triangle; ergo, it’s Tyler’s queerest work ever.
Ironically, IGOR is also Tyler’s first stroke at a grandiose pop record that demands our attention by cloaking and morphing his voice more than he’s ever done. His gruff baritone register becomes regular weaponry, often pitch-shifted and buried in the mix for texture more than impact. The guestlist receives the same treatment, rendered into near-indistinguishable sample triggers and stacked layers. Tyler’s been adamant about deflating any expectations for IGOR to be a rap album; the first “ayo” — denoting him rapping — arrives at just over a third of the album’s runtime. He’s also adamant about the album being nothing like its predecessors, and he’s correct: his long-proven penchant for storytelling takes a summery gloss with music that thrashes through confusion and opens wide once the central voice receives his clarity. His sonic influences remain on full display, from the 2000s soul-chop rap nods — Kanye and Pharrell continue to jump out — to the swooning epics resembling the likes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Roy Ayers. But all of Tyler’s oddities are preserved in some of his career’s most moving compositions to date; he not only pushes to outdo himself, he continues to succeed.
For the most part, Tyler confirms his stature as an apt songwriter, unafraid of discarding convention and pivoting from the formulaic structures that continue to drive Top 40. Recalling the sacrifices of his presence, the oddities of Tyler’s character feel rather subdued on IGOR. We’re not expecting the Wolf Gang maniac, or the depressed teen on his grandmother’s floor, but there’s plenty lost as he surrenders control to allow his curatorial ability to shine. IGOR maintains a smooth narrative flow with nice pacing, but the easily accessible breakup story lacks the teeth Tyler’s capable of. The lyrical breakthroughs of his previous work found him at his most transparent, even when proven goofy or concerning. IGOR makes strides to cover all the nuances of love and insecurity, but the details often feel nondescript and Tyler’s emotive vocal qualities show up few and far-between. “A BOY IS A GUN” is a successful effort: a beautiful romp through the flutter of Tyler’s heart, drawing closer to the potential danger of a man who’s clearly trouble. Tyler sounds sprung, even morphing a gunshot into a pretty detail. Meanwhile, “WHAT’S GOOD” feels like a sonic sibling to “I Ain’t Got Time!” and the latter’s far more rambunctious and memorable as a party-starter. On the closer “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” Tyler leaves all the processing by the wayside and croons as the music lifts us to the heavens on its final breaths; his longing falls right off his tongue, feeling the most honest even if the words are derivative. He’s never had the widest vocal range, but the feeling he’s applied is what’s made his past works stand tall; IGOR, enthralling as it is, could’ve used more of it.
Tyler’s long proclaimed his desire to become one of the best producers, swinging for the league of his idols. IGOR signifies another clear step toward that pantheon as he continues to blaze past all his former selves and build a new figure on a whim. It’s concerning to see sonic achievements begin to justify when his writing isn’t up to par, but it’s a course easily corrected once he refines even further and continues to mold other voices around himself. And when the writing succeeds, we find Tyler at his happiest even as he’s wedged between two others, his potential lover not living his truth. That’s ironic as it’s joyous, considering we watched Tyler struggle publicly for the majority of his career. Perhaps that explains the side-eyed empathy lingering in IGOR: maybe Tyler’s let us in more than we’ve allowed ourselves to believe.