Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Tyler, The Creator Scum Fuck Flower Boy

Is he joking? That’s something that many of us have been asking of Tyler, The Creator since we first met him eight years ago. Tyler’s always given off heavy prankster-kid vibes, which is why his early music wasn’t as disturbing as it could’ve been. Here we had an actual teenager spraying homophobic rage and murder fantasies over clammy basement-recorded boom-bap, but there was always enough of a wink to his queasy intensity that he never came across as a hate-merchant or a Juggalo. He pissed a lot of people off, and maybe he helped normalize a kind of frothing teenage hate that had mostly disappeared from popular culture by the time he showed up, but he didn’t seem to mean it. But does he mean what he’s saying now? Because on Scum Fuck Flower Boy, Tyler sure seems to be telling the world that he’s attracted to men. And while Scum Fuck Flower Boy is, in a lot of ways, a musically accomplished album, the actual music is going to take a backseat to what Tyler may or may not be telling us about himself.

There are lyrics on the new album about sex with women, and when the album leaked, his old Odd Future comrades felt the need to jump on Twitter to make a clarification: “The homie not gay, he just likes dudes.” The chatter started up immediately. People started digging up old tweets, old interview comments, and even old lyrics where Tyler sure seemed to be trying to come out of the closet publicly. None of us took him seriously then, because who takes Tyler, The Creator seriously? If anything, that stuff got lost in the attention-hungry storm of all the shit Tyler usually does and says. But it could be that this was right in front of our face and nobody knew.

It’s not like Tyler ever comes out and says that he’s queer in the Scum Fuck Flower Boy lyrics. Still, there’s not a ton of ambiguity there. Here he is on “Garden Shed”: “Garden shed for the garden / This is where I was hiding / Ain’t no reason to pretend.” And then: “Garden shed for the garçons / Them feelings I was guarding / Heavy on my mind.” And then: “Thing is, since I was a young kid, thought it was a phase / Thought it’d be like Frank, poof, gone / But it’s still going on.” Then, two songs later, he’s a bit less searching and a bit more devilish: “Next line, I’ll have ‘em like whoa / I been kissing white boys since 2004.” And also: “Passenger a white boy, look like River Phoenix.” So if Tyler isn’t joking, he’s not only the most prominent rapper ever to come out as queer in any capacity. He’s also the first to immediately veer into bragging about how hot his dudes are. That’s pretty amazing.

And Tyler doesn’t seem like he’s joking, mostly because Scum Fuck Flower Boy isn’t a joking sort of album. Instead, it’s a sad, desperate, scared album, an album about feeling locked off from the rest of the world and unable to get close to anyone. The kissing-boys thing is only a tiny part of that. Again and again, Tyler reframes his attention-grabbing antics — the things that have made covering him so exhausting these past years — as the defensive tactics of an isolated kid. “I say the loudest in the room is probably the loneliest one in the room,” he growls. “Attention seeker, public speaker.” Or, more succinctly: “I’m the loneliest man alive / But I keep on dancing to throw them off.”

Throughout the album, again and again, Tyler raps about expensive cars, about speeding in McLarens and watching the world drift away. But it’s not just money-talk. Driving a car is a control-freak power-trip, especially if it’s a really nice car, but it’s also, in a lot of ways, a purely solo experience. And toward the end of the album, Tyler puts all his car-talk into context: “I know you sick of me talking about cars / But what the fuck else do you want from me? / That is the only thing keeping me company / Purchase some things until I’m annoyed / These items is filling the void / Been filling it for so long, I don’t even know if it’s shit I enjoy.” Tyler fantasizes about falling in love, about finding someone to spend his life with. The album’s last real song is set up as a voicemail-message confession of love, and it ends with the robotized operator telling Tyler that his message didn’t record. And he also goes into paranoid-fuming mode, wondering if his managers and accountants are just there to rip him off — “What if I’m hustling backwards / What if my accountant ain’t paying my taxes? / Filling his pockets and the IRS show up asking questions” — or if his run is already over and he just doesn’t know it yet — “What if my music is too weird for the masses? / And I’m only known for tweets more than beats?”

It’s heavy stuff. Listening to it, you get the sense that Tyler’s made the album more for himself than for anyone else, that he’s working through some stuff and using the world as his therapist. When Frank Ocean shows up on a couple of songs, he sounds less like a mercenary hook-singer and more like a friend there to lend support. And maybe the rest of us, by listening and sympathizing, are lending support, too. Rappers don’t typically do this. Even those of us who have been huge fans of, say, Kendrick Lamar for the better part of a decade don’t feel like we know him like that. Listening to Scum Fuck Flower Boy for a few days, I feel like I know Tyler better than some of the people in my own family. That’s a very brave way for an already-famous rapper to put an album together.

It’s also indulgent. Tyler’s music has always been indulgent; even his earliest Odd Future bangers seemed to deconstruct the way rap anthems sounded, zigging sonically where they logically should’ve zagged. And Scum Fuck Flower Boy, with a couple of exceptions, isn’t a fun album. “Who Dat Boy?” ropes in A$AP Rocky for a giddy I’m-the-shit anthem. “Droppin’ Seeds” is basically just a Lil Wayne interlude. “I Ain’t Got Time!” is probably the album’s most revealing song and also probably its best; it samples Bel Sha Zaar’s “Introduction,” the same instructional belly-dancing record that Deee-Lite sampled on the “Groove Is In The Heart” intro, to off-kilter anthemic results.

But those songs are the exceptions. Most of the time, Tyler is deep in the plastic-soul zone that he’s been exploring more and more on the last few albums. Scum Fuck Flower Boy is heavy on slow-rolling synth-bass and tinkly piano. Neo-soul figureheads like Estelle and Corinne Bailey Rae coo sweetly in the background. Tyler’s scattershot grizzled-baritone rapping is as strong and expressive as ever, but he spends more time singing than you might expect. Given how good Tyler once was at making atonal lo-fi bangers, it’s still hard to accept him as a soul-jazz studio-voyager type, whether or not he’s been drifting in that direction almost since we met him. Tyler’s getting better at that stuff — closer to the gooey drift of inspirations like Toro Y Moi or Mac DeMarco, further from his bloody-minded skate-rap roots. But I find Tyler’s float-music a whole lot less engaging than the smash-your-face shit that first brought him to attention. There’s so much going on on Scum Fuck Flower Boy, but nothing has the naked force of “Yonkers” or “Sandwitches.”

But even if I have a hard time enjoying a lot of Scum Fuck Flower Boy, it’s an easy album to admire. Tyler is an artist with a whole lot to lose, and he’s still putting everything out there, daring the world to judge him. It shows that the rapper most likely to throw around hard F-bombs this past decade was probably working through some shit, and now he’s letting us in on the process. That will probably cause him some problems. It will probably also make life a whole lot easier for a lot of kids who need that example in their lives. Here’s how Tyler himself puts it: “Tell these black kids they can be who they are / Dye your hair blue / Shit, I’ll do it too.” That’s not a small thing. I don’t love Scum Fuck Flower Boy, but I don’t have to love it to be glad it exists.

Scum Fuck Flower Boy is out 7/21 on Columbia.