Tyler, The Creator, the rapper and producer from Los Angeles who established the hip-hop collective Odd Future at the beginning of the decade, figured out the system at a relatively early stage. While other rappers were still having a hard time assimilating the impact of the changing times on the music industry, Tyler was already way ahead – in his ability to gather a group of talented young people around him, in his skilled use of the internet to generate publicity and influence, and in getting the record companies interested in his work.
“Goblin,” his 2011 debut album, was received with ardent enthusiasm by the music magazines and the important websites. Even The New Yorker magazine ran an extensive article on the collective. Tyler became another solid link in a magnificent chain that’s almost as long as hip-hop is old: a black rapper whose magnetism attracts primarily the audience that prefers alternative music. In plain English: rap for white folks.
Odd Future was the springboard for other successful artists, including Earl Sweatshirt and especially Frank Ocean (in his case, the student outdid the master). Tyler’s subsequent albums drew increasingly less acclaim. The one before the last, “Cherry Bomb” (2015), was decidedly weak. But things are looking up with his newly released album, “Flower Boy” (Columbia Records), which is probably his best yet.
The main improvement is discernible in the production values. “Cherry Bomb,” with a long and prestigious list of guest artists, sounds at times like a display of arrogance – Look what I can do. “Flower Boy” is a shift in direction. The sound draws more on 1970s soul music – Stevie Wonder is a prime influence for Tyler, too – and the rap recalls the golden age of New York hip-hop of the relatively soft model (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest) from the early 1990s. It sounds almost like a follow-up album to Childish Gambino’s topflight 2016 album, “Awaken, My Love.” The choice of guest artists is also more successful than in the previous round: Ocean, Lil Wayne and the British singer Estelle are all in top form here.
Serious, or provocative stunt?
The latest provocation is also not absent. In past years, the positive hype around Tyler was somewhat impaired by his insistence on using homophobic terms and his aggressive messages about women. Tyler stood up for what he called his right to express himself, but also stood by Ocean when he broke a black-music taboo by coming out of the closet. Now comes another resonant twist of the plot: In a few songs Tyler hints that he’s gay himself.
It’s hard to tell how much is serious here and how much is a provocative stunt. Still, it could attest to a healthier process that hip-hop is going through, long after it happened in rock. Sexual preference is no longer such a dramatic story, and even among rappers it’s being dropped from the list of secrets best kept hidden.
My one reservation about “Flower Boy” relates to Tyler’s ability as a rapper. Being out front for a whole album is no easy task for him. Tyler is not a virtuoso like the truly great rappers of his generation (Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper), and his delivery isn’t as supple or surprising as theirs. “Flower Boy” is a good album, but not superb, even if it presses all the right buttons of American music critics.