Is Tyler, The Creator really all that famous? I’m not sure that he is. He’s internet-famous, certainly, and underground-popular, but he’s not Jennifer Aniston. To hear Tyler himself tell it on Wolf, though, he can’t walk through an amusement park or a Target without being mobbed by fans who want to take pictures with him. Or maybe they’re not fans — maybe they’re “fags” who “didn’t even hear Bastard, they just bandwagon-jumping from a pogo.” This sentiment, and others like it, comes up over and over on Wolf, Tyler’s third album. “I wanna quit, but I can’t / Because mother and sister can’t pay the rent.” “Hated the popular ones, now I’m the popular one / Also hated homes, too, til I started copping me some.” “You’d think all this money would make a happy me / But I’m ’bout as lonely as crackers that supermodels eat.” Wolf, in its entirety, plays out like an album-length extended version of Kurt Cobain’s opening line on In Utero — “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old” — but now, it’s coming from someone who only just stopped being a teenager himself, and who’s more anxious than bored anyway. All of which is to say that it’s an album deeply up its own ass.
Tyler’s debut Bastard, barely three years old now, was an out-of-nowhere blast of teenage angst and confusion, one laced with so much violence and sexual rage that every anti-gay slur stung like a slap. It was easy to get lost in the rape and the homophobia, but the whole thing was so raw, and it came from a kid of such obvious and surpassing talent, that it was impossible to dismiss out of hand. Instead, all the risible sentiments scanned as defensive red herrings, blasts of hate from a fatherless child who was still figuring out the right places to channel his rage. Goblin, the follow-up, was all over the place, but its best moments were animated by a sort of fearful euphoria. This nameless kid suddenly had more attention than he knew what to do with, and he knew he’d touched a whole lot of kids as lost as him. He’d made himself and his friends rich, and he felt impossible expectations from all angles, including from himself. Then he ate a roach, pretended to hang himself, and became an instant skate-rat icon. The final verse of “Oldie,” Odd Future’s massive and ecstatic 2012 posse cut, felt like the culmination of all that — Tyler suddenly, finally embracing the idea that he’s an important people, that entire throngs of high school kids are rearranging their own self-images around him and his ideas. But triumph isn’t a feeling that anyone associated with Odd Future can maintain for long, and Wolf, sadly, seems to be the moment it all crashes down. As with everything this kid does, there’s a ton here to unpack. But after a day and a half of constant rotation, it sounds like a sad, small album, a willful retreat that leaves behind way too many of the things that made Tyler’s music powerful in the process.
Tyler’s on-record homophobia has always dominated public conversations about his work, but all that faded away last year, with Frank Ocean’s beautiful Tumblr self-disclosure. Either Tyler had been playing around with shock signifiers, a secret crusader for equality all along, or he was about to undergo the same sort of public conversion as that Republican congressman with the gay son. Nope! About 70 seconds into Wolf, Tyler is crooning, “I think you’re a fuckin’ fag” over smooth-pop pianos and chintzy orchestral fanfares. A couple of songs later, he makes his first reference to Ocean’s coming-out moment: “Life ain’t got no light in it / Darker than the closet that nigga Frankie was hiding in.” Before the album ends, he’s practically using Ocean as a get-out-of-jail-free card: “Look at that article that says my subject matter is wrong / Claiming I hate gays even though Frank is on 10 of my songs.” What Tyler doesn’t seem to realize, or what he’s defiantly refusing to acknowledge, is that nobody’s saying he hates gays; people are simply saying that he shouldn’t be throwing around words that make people feel terrible and small, especially when he’s already a hero to so many kids who feel terrible and small for so many reasons. So of course he keeps tossing that word around throughout Wolf. That’s not the saddest, smallest thing about the album, though it will almost certainly get the most play. The saddest, smallest thing about the album is the story-song “Colossus,” a cry-me-a-river narrative about fans hounding him for autographs at Six Flags. He devotes most of the song to rapping from the perspective of a “Stan”-type strawman fan who whines about how much he identifies with Tyler, eventually escalating things to that same imaginary fan wanting to be just like Tyler, to keep Tyler hidden in his basement, to be with Tyler forever, before Tyler himself explodes that he’s sick of hearing about “Yonkers” and that fine, he’ll go ahead and take the fucking picture. That’s the moment where Tyler’s mockery and dismissal of the people who love him becomes rank and rotten.
Elsewhere on Wolf, Tyler remains resolutely trapped in his own head, but through different reasons. He devotes a couple of songs to the spurned-obsessive-boyfriend feelings he’s already thoroughly explored elsewhere. He mocks his own success: “Bitch, I ate one roach and I made a lot of money.” He spends all of “Pigs” rapping from the perspective of a high-school mass shooter, almost fantasizing about being in that role. He demands oral sex, constantly. It’s grim.
Tyler has said in interviews that he wanted Wolf to be an album less about rapping and more about production, about making music for kids to get high to (even though he doesn’t actually get high himself). Tyler’s Neptunes fixation is well-documented, and Pharrell himself shows up to coo in falsetto on the album. But the Neptunes period Tyler most imitates here isn’t the late-’90s “Superthug” era, when Pharrell and Chad were Triton-abusers who turned empty space into brick-throwing incitement; it’s the early-’00s “Change Clothes” era, when they discovered cheap cocktail jazz and made everything sound like that. Tyler’s version of that sound is even cheaper and stickier and more seasick than the original article, and that mostly keeps Wolf from being musical immersion-material. Some of the guests, like Ocean and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, barely register, and others are completely wasted. Erykah Badu, for instance, gets to sing expertly over dinky synthetic hotel-lobby music, and Trash Talk’s Lee Spielman gets to grunt and roar deep in the background on a head-knock posse cut. Tyler interrupts a pretty great Earl Sweatshirt guest verse with a shotgun blast and a “shut the fuck up!”
Wolf isn’t an altogether bad album, and some moments remind me of why I cared so much about this guy in the first place. For a while on “Lone,” Tyler raps about his grandmother’s death, laying out the hospital-room scene with admirable openness: “”Our conversation’s brief / Couldn’t even make eye contact when we speak… She died that night.” And his still-absent father remains a constant, heartbreaking presence. The first rapped line is this: “Pop ain’t call even though he seen me on TV.” “Answer” is a song about hating his father but wanting to hear his voice anyway, and it’s easily the most affecting song on the album. Late in the album, when the beats turn hard and the other Odd Future rappers show up, we get hints of the old anarchic euphoria that they once brought. For the most part, though, Wolf finds a brilliant young artist thrashing around, looking for ways out, wishing everyone would turn away. As a public act, it’s mesmerizing and scary, and I hope he finds a way out of the honest-to-god depression that seems to have produced the album. But as a piece of music, it’s mostly a painful trudge.
Wolf is out 4/2 on Odd Future Records.