Tyler, the Creator knows the power of shock value. Since stunning the music world at 20 years old by chowing down on a cockroach and hanging himself in the breathtaking video to “Yonkers,” the former Odd Future ringleader has made headlines for his garish tweets, riotous live shows, and lyrics riddled with sexual violence and homophobic slurs. All of this is separate from his actual music, which has ranged over the years from chaotic horror-core to tender jazz-rap.
But Tyler also knows controversy does not equal longevity, and on Flower Boy, he postulates that at 26 years old, he could already be washed up. Contrary to his own worries, however, he’s finally completed his transition from foul-mouthed provocateur to nuanced songwriter on his most concise and unabashedly beautiful album yet.
Flower Boy kicks off with Tyler’s most straightforward album opener, “Foreword.” It’s a bit of a misnomer, as he immediately starts ruminating on the trappings of fame and his disillusionment with success: “How many raps can I write ’til I get me a chain? / How many chains can I wear ’til I’m considered a slave? / How many slaves can it be ’til Nat Turner arrives? / How many riots can it be ’til them Black Lives Matter?” Such loaded bars would be the centerpiece of another rapper’s song, but they’re a mere footnote for Tyler, who’s equally preoccupied with the pool in his backyard—and whether anyone would care if he drowned in it.
For the most part, the rapper seems disinterested in the aggressive chest-beating of his contemporaries. He squares off against A$AP Rocky on the rumbling aggro-banger “Who Dat Boy,” but his boasts sound cheeky rather than arrogant (“Fuck global warming, my neck is so frío”), and the instrumental sounds like a mockery of hyper-aggressive, mostly talentless SoundCloud rappers.
Tyler’s demons are a lot less glamorous than sexual deviance, crippling drug addiction, or lavish displays of wealth: He’s just really fucking bored and lonely. “I’ve been in this fuckin’ room so long, my eyeballs are turning to drywall,” he laments on the laid-back “Boredom,” sounding like a grounded teenager. “I know you sick of me talkin’ ‘bout cars, but what the fuck else do you want from me? That is the only thing keepin’ me company,” he demands on the brutally honest “Mr. Lonely.” Fame has done nothing but strip him of his free time and alienate him from his old friends and lovers.
Speaking of lovers: The internet has been ablaze with chatter about Tyler’s apparent “coming out of the closet” on Flower Boy for the past week. Truth is, there is no closet—but there is a “Garden Shed,” on which he raps: “Garden shed for the garden / that is where I was hidin’ / that is what love I was in / ain’t no reason to pretend… Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase / thought it’d be like the Frank: poof, gone / but it’s still goin’ on.” He cuts to the chase on “I Ain’t Got Time!”: “Next line will have ‘em like, ‘Whoa’ / I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.”
Hmm. So you’re telling me that the guy who once bragged that he “grabbed Lucas and filmed us kissing” is teasing listeners about his potentially fluid sexuality? The same guy who swore on Twitter that he came out two years ago and nobody cared? The same guy who thrives on controversy and would surely relish the opportunity to fuck with hungry music bloggers because he knows they’ll take the bait? Shocker.
I TRIED TO COME OUT THE DAMN CLOSET LIKE FOUR DAYS AGO AND NO ONE CARED HAHAHHAHAHA— Tyler, The Creator (@tylerthecreator) April 13, 2015
Frankly, all the hubbub over whether Tyler is actually gay shouldn’t matter, on a personal or artistic level. Both of the aforementioned claims are couched within two of the most lush, compelling tracks on Flower Boy, an album that exudes anxiety, loneliness, and desperation at every turn. At this point, Tyler’s not courting controversy because he needs more YouTube views or Spotify streams; he’s doing it because he’s got nothing else to do.
If Tyler’s sources of anguish seem more mundane than most artists of his caliber, they’re also frighteningly relatable. The title of Flower Boy’s last track, “Enjoy Right Now, Today” suggests he’s finally found his bliss. But the song turns out to be an instrumental, implying that perhaps the loquacious rapper found the one topic on which he has nothing to offer.