Last February, Tyler, the Creator played a concert in downtown Manhattan with members of Odd Future, the amorphous Los Angeles hip-hop crew he leads. Tyler, 20, is a good rapper and a better showman. When he made his entrance, he wore a ratty green ski mask, and his eyes glared demonically from two fraying holes cut into the fabric. An upside-down crucifix had been Sharpied onto the forehead. As he snarled his rhymes, by turns wounded and vindictive, bloodletting and blood-shedding, he stomped and kicked across the stage and flapped his bent arms wildly, like a chicken looking to cut off someone else’s head for a change.
The victim who exacts grisly vengeance, spews bile, and inflicts anarchic violence on the world at large is Tyler’s favorite role. Over the past couple years, Odd Future has released gigabytes of music online and Tyler, a film school dropout turned skate rat, has built a cult following as a gloomy-goofy merchant of ultraviolent psychodrama. His fans include Kanye and Diddy, which is apposite: The former likely hears a kindred spirit in Tyler’s id-dump confessionals, while the latter likely respects Tyler’s marketing savvy, from his facility with a catchphrase (the nonsensical “Fuck Steve Harvey!”) to his knack for branding (virtually every Odd Future release is attended by distinctive Photoshop art, typically featuring a creepy old photo with text written across it in comic-strip fonts; Tyler’s ski mask and upside-down crucifix, meanwhile, have become visual trademarks).
The title track on Tyler’s 2010 album Bastard is something like his antihero origin-story, entrancing and repulsive. It’s a dispatch from a broken home (fatherless since infancy, Tyler splits time between living with his mother and his grandmother) that combines juvenile melodrama with a lively eye for detail and flashes of morbid wit: Over a melancholy piano line strafed by queasy synthesizers, Tyler raps about how his grandmother is always giving him grief about getting her carpet dirty; he lobs a diss at “40-year-old rappers talking about Gucci when they have kids they haven’t seen in years”; and he fantasizes about dismembering a crush before confessing that he’s just unlucky in the love department—he’s sitting at home, alone, wishing he had a girlfriend.
The Tyler of Bastard can be captivating and clever, but he is also maddeningly unsympathetic. (I can’t say what he’s like in real life, although the moment in a recent Times profile when Tyler hurls a milkshake at pedestrians from the window of his co-manager’s Porsche SUV gives me an idea.) Whereas he fancies himself a wounded kid lashing out at those who’ve wronged him, his rage is a blunt weapon that lands with tedious frequency on girls, in the form of graphic rape fantasies. This pathology is familiar—a weakling who dreams about preying on the weak—and Tyler does little to illuminate it. In the face of these noxious stretches, Bastard’s appeal is largely a matter of sonics: Tyler’s gravelly but lithe growl, the stark, off-kilter beats.
This week, Tyler released Goblin, his second solo album and the first to be released on an actual label. There was a promising single, the lurid, daffy “Yonkers,” but the album is a disappointment. Throughout, Tyler doubles down on the tales of violence against women, sexual and otherwise. Rather than growing out of it or complicating it (the way Tyler’s hero Eminem did on his second album, performing tricky semiotic back-flips on “Stan“), he’s simply turned it into cynical shtick, the one thing he knows will get people talking about him. (There is one exception, “Her,” which tells a fine-grained story of romantic rejection without any vicious reprisal at the end, demonstrating the emotional soil Tyler might till in the future, perhaps at an embarrassed remove from much of the rest of Goblin.)
The album is thick with stale air. The tempos are plodding, the songs drab and overlong, the choruses abrasive—this is deeply pleasure-phobic music. The refrain on “Radicals,” a cacophonous celebration of bad behavior, is “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school”— a quotation of bygone confrontational pop-music poses that, eons after Marilyn Manson and Eminem spooked their last parents’ groups, are no longer plausible means of cathartic self-expression, much less pundit-piquing.
Later on the same song, Tyler offers an explication of the chorus’s intended meaning: “I’m not saying just to go out and do some stupid shit, commit crimes. What I’m trying to tell you is, do what the fuck you want, stand for what the fuck you believe in and don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do what the fuck you want.” It’s an unconvincing, surprisingly corny personal-affirmation spin that’s only partially redeemed by the wonderfully preposterous kicker that caps it off: “I’m a fucking unicorn, and fuck anybody who say I’m not.”
“Radical” is a misnomer for Tyler. I’ve come to see him as largely reactionary, even as he’s hailed as a paradigm-busting punk (Billboard: “Odd Future May Just Be The Future of the Music Business”). His music, much of which he produces himself, is a throwback to the dank sound of late-’90s underground rap. His raps about contemplating suicide are haunted brags, demonstrations of nihilist machismo—nothing that would sound out of place in a 15-year-old song by Biggie or Scarface. The rape talk is just an extreme iteration of hip-hop’s decades-old misogyny problem, and Tyler’s moments of “vulnerability,” like those of Kanye and Drake, often take the form of gripes about the psychic and emotional tolls of being self-absorbed.
In a way, Tyler’s “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school” chant is funny in its cartoonishness, and maybe a bit poignant, too—in 2011, the language of adolescent rage has been reduced to a bumper-stickerparody of itself. But I’m not sure Tyler bellows it so knowingly. “Hey. Don’t do anything that I say in this song. Okay?” he instructs listeners in a disclaimer before the track. “It’s fucking fiction. If anything happens, don’t blame me, white America. Fuck Bill O’Reilly.” I imagine Bill O’Reilly somewhere yawning.