Tyler, the Creator – Goblin

January 01, 1970

(Interscope)

 

www.interscoperecords.com

 

“Fuck Bill O’Reilly.”

 

In their fairly short
career, the members of L.A.’s hip-hop collective
Odd Future Wolf Gang Kills Them All have been fairly prolific, releasing scores
of free mixtapes, remixes, one-off tracks, and a solo album by de facto
frontman Tyler,
the Creator. Even with that prodigious output, odds are you’ve probably read
more about them than you’ve actually heard them. Before even releasing an album
on a label, the group has inspired hundreds of thousands of words in
thinkpieces, essays, and reviews, many of which incorporate double-jointed
critical contortions to explain and in some cases defend the group’s violent,
misogynist, often morally disgusting lyrics. Can their musings on murder and
rape – often directed at pregnant women – be written off as adolescent
confrontation and rebellion, or are they serious about such brutality? Will Odd
Future grow up to regret their behavior (like the Beastie Boys), or will they
double down on the darker elements of their personae (like Eminem)? Are they
the saviors of hip-hop, or a cancer on the art form?

 

I’ve been living with Tyler, the Creator’s
major-label debut, Goblin (released,
incidentally, on Eminem’s label Interscope), for awhile now, and I admit I have
absolutely no idea how to answer any of those questions. On one hand, Odd
Future seem to capture a particular strain of adolescent abandon, apathy, and
angst, which paints their unsavory lyrics as the postmillennial equivalent of kids
telling grosser-than-gross jokes.

 

On the other, they’re
amoral assholes, calculating their offenses as a means of achieving popularity
and prestige; Goblin debuted at
number 5 on the Billboard album chart
this week, for whatever that’s worth. Perhaps the strongest handle we can get
on them is this: Their provocations are more palatable when the production is
inventive, when the wordplay is clever and surprising, when the ideas give
critics and listeners something to think, write, and argue about. We can
distance ourselves with analysis and commentary, which means they’re only
excusable – and then, only barely – when the music is not just good, but
impossibly exciting. Judging from Tyler,
the Creator’s major label debut, Goblin,
they’re just not there yet.

 

“I’m a fucking unicorn / fuck anybody who say I’m
not.”

 

Goblin is actually the second album from Tyler (real name: Okonma), a hyperactive
twenty-year-old with a penchant for tube socks, ski masks, and 666s. His first
was 2009’s Bastard, a self-released
collection of tracks that stoked the hype around Odd Future and led to the deal
with Interscope. By now, he’s obsessed with his own fledgling celebrity, so
rhymes about his critics and detractors now sit uneasily alongside his rape
fantasies and self-loathing tantrums, creating a tedium of unwarranted
defensiveness and meta confusions. “Hey, don’t do anything that I say in this
song,” he declares at the beginning of “Radicals.” “If anything happens, don’t
blame me, white America.” From Tyler, the Creator, it’s a ridiculous PSA: Is he
being serious, or is that a jab at anyone who would attack him for his violent
content? In the end, he can’t make it mean both, so it means neither – nothing.

 

Throughout Goblin, he carries on an imagined
conversation with his therapist (also played by Tyler through a distorting
voicebox). For him, music is a form of counseling, an exploration of ego via id
that dismisses psychiatry but leads to a particularly grim album finale. Tyler
complains about his absent father, but it’s always the same talking point, with
no sustained self-exploration. He describes himself as suicidal, but it’s more
a shock-value fixation than a real mental state. Ultimately, Tyler wants it
both ways: He craves your attention but not your judgment. He thrives on
spectacle, but shuns accountability. He throws out unbelievably repulsive
imagery, which he chalks up to his youth – as if that, or anything, could be a
reasonable excuse. He’s 20 going on 14, which is not so much empowering as it
is pathetic.

 

As a rapper, Tyler is
adequate but never revelatory, without the mind-bending flow of Eminem or the
snarling aggression of other West Coast rappers to dilute his offensiveness.
It’s not always a pleasure to hear his voice, which may be the point. He even admits
his shortcomings on the title track, telling his therapist, “I know I’m not a
great rapper, but on the whole, I’m pretty cool, right?” But it just feels like
another excuse, a deflection, a lowering of expectations so Tyler can exceed
them.

 

But he can be canny and
witty when he needs to be, even if he works almost exclusively in short,
quotable couplets. Instead of hashtag rap, it’s Twitter flow: no sustained
thoughts, just punchy outbursts in 140 characters. Occasionally, Tyler gets a
good line or two, as on “Tron Cat”: “I’m awesome, and I fuck dolphins.” The
line is meaningless in itself, but it suggests some clever wordplay: not just
the weirdness of man-dolphin sex, but the “and” that suggests that being
awesome and fucking dolphins don’t necessarily overlap. In a different life, he
could have been an amazing surrealist rapper.

 

“What you think I record it for, to have a bunch of
critics call my shit horrorcore?”

 

With its dank sound and
subtle tweaks, Goblin suggests Tyler may
be a better producer than emcee. His work with Odd Future – he has produced
almost all of the group’s output – has given him an intuitive grasp of how
sounds and beats can bolster the impact of his delivery and even sell a line
that might fall flat otherwise. On Goblin,
the tense complaints of “Yonkers” sound all the more self-annihilating for the
abrasive sample and tense beat, and on “Tron Cat,” a thick synth swell conveys
a fevered, unsteady emotional state. In the video, he hangs himself at the end
of the song, but it’s clear the music pushed him to it.

 

What Tyler lacks, however,
is range. He sets almost every song here at the same midtempo and in the same
claustrophobic tone, which is fine early in the album but grows tiresome with
each track. The album never lets up, and especially since Tyler doesn’t really
bother with choruses or hooks, it quickly becomes repetitive and tedious in the
most self-indulgent way possible. Even the infamous chorus of “Radicals” – “Kill
people! Burn shit! Fuck school!” – sounds like a chore rather than a cry of
freedom and defiance.

 

“I’m not a fucking role model / I’m a 19-year-old
emotional coaster with pipe dreams”

 

And yet, it’s hard to
dismiss Tyler and the rest of Odd Future, not for their offensiveness and
especially not for a dearth of talent. The Ramones used to sport swastikas
onstage, yet quickly grew tired and embarrassed of such hollow provocations.
These guys could do the same. Or not. Any attempt to think about Odd Future
leads inevitably to overthinking Odd Future, and perhaps that is the secret to
Tyler’s power and appeal, especially to critics who love something meaty to
write about: On Bastard and
especially on Goblin, he makes you
question every single aspect of the music, which is perhaps a way to usher
hip-hop back to its earliest days, when it was at its freshest and most
unpredictable, when its entire odd future seemed open to possibility. Tyler
puts these songs over by sheer force of will, which may be at the root of all
hip-hop, if not all music.

 

On the other hand, Goblin is so mired in hip-hop’s imagined
past-the comical boasts and nonchalant violence of gangsta rap, the
claustrophobia of horrorcore, the rapt self-absorption of the underground – that
it comes across as a heavily reactionary work: it’s more about the common past
than the odd future. But what’s the point of so many contradictions, except for
their own sake? Goblin is so
mathematically calculated that it playacts the baring of Tyler’s soul rather than actually baring his
soul.

 

So perhaps the most intriguing
and frustrating aspect of Odd Future is that after so much music and so many
words, we don’t even know who Tyler,
the Creator is. Worse, he doesn’t seem to know, either.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Tron Cat” STEPHEN M. DEUSNER

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