Tyler, The Creator released Cherry Bomb, his fourth album if we’re counting Bastard as an album, in the closing hours of this year’s Coachella, a festival where he’s been a major presence for years. So maybe he wanted the world, or at least a significant chunk of his fanbase, to hear the album for the first time the way I did: Bleary and aching and overwhelmed and not really able to process anything, watching the sun rise on the drive back to Los Angeles. It made a weird sort of sense, since the album is so much like the drive: Twisty, harrowing, surprising, given to sudden momentum stop-and-starts. It has moments of holy-shit-we-really-did-that self-congratulation, and it has a few sudden bursts of breathtaking and strange beauty, like that lit-up purple casino in Palm Springs suddenly appearing on the horizon. But the album also sounds like that drive because it’s a total fucking slog sometimes, and because you really feel like you accomplished something when you finally make it through to the end.
Cherry Bomb isn’t an album about the drive home from Coachella, of course, and it wasn’t put together to reflect it. But it does reflect Tyler’s current place in the world. The last time we heard from Tyler, on 2013’s Wolf, he was all angst and instability. He sounded like he wanted the world to leave him alone even as he jumped around and begged everyone for attention. There was an entire song about getting pissed off because some kid at Six Flags wanted his autograph. Cherry Bomb isn’t a mellow album by any stretch; it’s cluttered and chaotic and unable to sit still for more than a couple of seconds. But it reflects a reality where Tyler is happy to show up to America’s biggest and richest festival every year, holding down an upper-midcard spot that’s his whenever he wants it and having a headline-grabbing play-fight with a reality TV kid. Tyler will never make a calm or comfortable album, but now he’s made one where he only lightly chastises himself for rapping about cars. Cherry Bomb is far from a perfect album, but it’s a step up from Wolf, if only because Tyler at least sounds like he had fun making it. It’s just that Tyler’s idea of fun is to pile off-kilter jazz chords all over everything.
Much of the early conversation about the album has revolved, understandably, around “Smuckers,” the song where Tyler collaborates with celebrity fans Kanye West and Lil Wayne. Both of them are great on the song, too. Kanye has a silly, giddy verse. He brings back his goofy, loping Graduation flow and he has fun with wordplay in ways that he rarely does on his own songs anymore. Wayne, meanwhile, is in cartoon-voice top form, lazily pushing sex puns around while graciously letting Tyler share his mic. What’s notable about the song isn’t those verses, though. It’s the way Tyler brings these two much-more-famous rappers into his world rather than trying to exist within either of theirs. Just about any rapper alive would pull out a few teeth to get Kanye and Wayne on the same song. Tyler has them both, and he uses them on a song where the drums show up and drop out, where the horns and keyboards overlap in some deeply and intentionally queasy ways. It has these big stars rapping through a willfully terrible mastering job, over a track that sounds like a mid-’70s Philly soul record that’s been left out to warp in the sun. Tyler’s musical choices here are brave and commendable, but I’m not sure they add up to a great song.
Tyler is, if nothing else, unafraid to be himself. He’s piled strings and saxophones and euphoric backing-singer choirs on a seven-minute song about how you should get into his car, and he’s made the drums on that song sound like defrosting chicken legs hitting wet phone books. He’s written a pussy-eating song that includes a promise to “come quicker than pitches from Sammy Sosa,” which doesn’t make sense on a whole lot of levels. (Why would you tell someone you’re going to come quick? And don’t you know Sosa played right field?) He’s thrown an honest-to-god doo-wop break into “Keep The O’s,” an otherwise sputtering and seething rap banger. The title track is straight-up lo-fi industrial. Sometimes, that impulsive willingness to chase every idea leads to some really cool moments, like the tingling-bells breakdown on “Deathcamp” or the deranged bounce (Tyler calls it his Juvenile flow) that he works into “The Brown Stains Of Darkeese Latifah Part 6-12 (Remix).” But it also makes the album feel overstuffed and exhausting. There’s too much happening. It’s not that Tyler needs an editor; an editor never would’ve let him make Bastard the compelling piece of outsider art that it was. But maybe Tyler could use someone who’s willing to tell him “no” every once in a while. Tyler has talked about Stevie Wonder as an inspiration, and Wonder, like Tyler, delighted in cramming his records full of weird sounds. But on Wonder’s classics, those sounds meant things. With Tyler, they seem more like “look at me, I’m weird” signifiers.
The lyrics can be the same. Tyler can still come up with a bracing, evilly funny punchline when he wants: “Kill the dark shit like I’m motherfucking Zimmerman.” And the lines about overcoming doubters on “Deathcamp” are legitimately badass: “The blind niggas used to make fun of my vision / And now I pay a mortgage and they stuck with tuition.” But he’s more likely to cram his lines full of insidery references to past controversies, banking on the idea that his core fans, the ones who get those references, will be the only ones listening. At this point, he may be right. “Buffalo” has a riff about how the word “faggot” is just a word to him, that it’s not inherently any more offensive than “book.” And then he calls his critics “books.” That sort of stunt isn’t even properly offensive anymore. It’s just tired.
Kanye West and Lil Wayne aren’t the only stars who show up on Cherry Bomb. Pharrell is all over the album — as an actual vocal presence on “Keep Da O’s” and as a deep well of inspiration elsewhere. “Deathcamp” has a line about how N.E.R.D.’s In Search Of meant more to Tyler than Illmatic did, and listening to the song, that’s not exactly a surprise. “Deathcamp” sounds exactly like N.E.R.D. — or at least like N.E.R.D.’s unreleased four-track experiments. In fact, if you cleaned up the recording quality and took out some of the more willfully nasty stuff, almost every song on Cherry Bomb could pass for an N.E.R.D. track. At times, it feels like an act of hero worship. And that’s fine. If anything, though, it doesn’t go far enough. One of the real remarkable things about Pharrell is that he’s this weird motherfucker who, at any point in the past 18 years, has cobbled together a massive earthshaking global hit song whenever he’s been in the mood. He has strange ideas that he can present and sell to the world in such a way that the world will embrace those ideas. Tyler doesn’t seem especially interested in reaching beyond the core Odd Future audience who worships everything he does. The way he piles on melodies on Cherry Bomb can be actively repellant. He’s got the talent to make these huge, wide-reaching songs, the way Pharrell can still do. Maybe one day, he’ll settle and focus enough to actually do it. Maybe he’ll make an album that’s as much fun to listen to as it was to make. That’s not this.
Cherry Bomb is out now on Odd Future.