Album Review: Tyler, The Creator – ‘Wolf’

Tyler, the Creator, the seemingly irrepressible de facto leader of the ever-fascinating Odd Future collective, is undoubtedly one of hip-hop’s most challenging, controversial, and enigmatic figures. He’s the most recognisable (bar perhaps the far more radio-friendly Frank Ocean) face of the path of destruction that his group have wreaked on a national (and now international) scale since 2010. They’ve been rather busy in those 3 years, establishing OF as a provocative and energetic live act, enraging LGBT and domestic abuse activists on a regular basis, bagging a Jackass-style TV show on Adult Swim, and starting a merchandise enterprise that has apparently garnered them “a quarter million off of socks” (‘Domo 23’). The OF brand is a functioning, swaggering juggernaut that has subsumed masses of eager teenagers who idolise Tyler and his self-created Golf Wang subculture.

It’s perhaps easy, then, to forget that the reason OF enthralled us in the first place was their music. The group’s self-produced musical talents were the keystone of their initial appeal, and whilst the début mix-tapes from Earl Sweatshirt and Frank were arguably the cream of the crop, Tyler’s 2009 début Bastard merited similar acclaim. It introduced us to an aggressive, throaty-voiced teenage rapper who spat vitriol at his absent father and blithely reeled off misogynistic jibes over plotted and well-considered chord-driven instrumentals. It was an intriguing cocktail, but one that was utterly compelling once you digested the explicit lyrics. Whilst Tyler’s second album Goblin (2011) often tried to emulate the Bastard formula, it failed to capture the shelf life and vitality of his introduction.

Goblin was only the second part of a trio of records that was promised at the beginning of Bastard, and thus the concluding piece of the puzzle, Wolf, arrives with a certain expectation to exhibit an emphatic recapturing of Tyler’s obviously gifted talents as a songwriter. Despite his misleading Twitter admission that he thinks the album is awful (he also hoped that “no one reviews Wolf for a month so people can think and listen for themselves” – err…), we can happily report that he’s very wrong about that. Ok, so it’s a little long – eighteen tracks totalling one hour eleven minutes to be precise – but it contains a largely arresting array of tracks that truly stretches the alternative boundaries that Tyler has ascribed to his intriguing brand of hip-hop. His self-confessed debt to the stylings of N.E.R.D has never been more apparent on record than on Wolf, which may perhaps be a little unsurprising given that Pharrell himself makes an appearance on ‘IFHY’. That number itself turns into a melodic beauty when Mr. Williams turns up, with a stumbling beat and soothing organ chords providing a chill backdrop to Tyler’s melancholic vocals where he laments, albeit in the manner of a sixth-form poet, about the dichotomy of love and hate: “Crazy who makes me the happiest can also make me the saddest.”

These polarising emotional camps are a regular feature of the rapper’s ability to regularly alternate between lovelorn youth and aggressive hellraiser, a Jekyll and Hyde personality complex that has largely defined his output to date. The sentiment on display in ‘IFHY’ is a mantle frequently picked up on Wolf: ‘Awkward’ may sound like Darth Vader addressing his teenage crush due to Tyler’s pitch-shifting vocals, but it’s a touching ode to youthful romance over a gorgeous instrumental that features some out-of-character charm: “Whenever I’m holding your hand/And making eye contact I feel like the damn man.” ‘Slater’ is ostensibly about Tyler’s affection for his eponymous bike and his gripes with his ever-increasing fame as eerie synths ring out over a thumping beat, yet when Frank turns up in the middle eight it takes on a lush quality as twinkly pianos interweave with the Grammy winner’s dulcet tones. ‘Bimmer’ continues the favourable method of comparison between one’s crush and one’s method of transportation, as the soaring synths and Frank’s vocal contribution sees Tyler deliver one of Wolf’s more immediate moments.

Meanwhile, the melancholia is ramped up to the max in ‘Answer’ as Tyler addresses his father, alternating between shock tactics – ‘Sorry, I called you the wrong name, see, my brain’s splitting/Dad isn’t your name, see Faggot’s a little more fitting” – and a seemingly genuine desire to reconnect.

Anyone who listened to Bastard’s spellbinding title track knows, however, that Tyler is prone to flying off the handle. His Hyde side emerges in the terrifying ‘Pigs’, which, sound-tracked by a classic hip-hop beat, chilling organs, and a constant police siren, explores how school bullying may and can drive a vulnerable teenager to take violent revenge on his classmates. ‘Colossus’ is a similarly uncomfortable listen, as Tyler casts himself in a similar vein to Eminem’s ‘Stan’ by detailing his dislike of constant harassment by fans before casting himself as a die-hard  bandwagon-chasing OF devotee: ‘See me and you we go together like snare in a beat/I mean snare and a kick drum, see my forearm/I carved OF on it this morning with a glass shard.’ Whilst these tracks may evoke some unease in the first listen, there’s a good chance that the shock factor will diminish over time, which may work to undermine their standing on Wolf.

There are a couple of false starts, notably the lame child choir in ‘Campfire’ that sees Tyler unveil his rather childish dream of ‘making smores by the campfire’ that feels massively out of place with the rest of the record. It’s unlikely that the ridiculous ‘Trashwang’, which features a number of the non-musical OF members going in over a trap beat, will connect with anyone who hasn’t devoted their time to religiously watching Loiter Squad or the group’s skateboarding videos on YouTube. But thankfully, the positives outweigh these negatives: ‘48’’s feel-good beats are arguably one of Tyler’s finest musical moments to date, whilst ‘Treehome’ is unlike anything he’s ever done, primarily as it casts Tyler as a lounge style, jazz-loving band-leader as Coco O. and Erykah Badu trade vocals. ‘Rusty’ offers two superb verses from Tyler and Domo Genesis alongside a cruelly short Earl contribution; ‘Tamale’ is an insane slice of genre-pushing which recalls the kind of shrill, African-indebted rhythms that MIA has been known to use as Tyler playfully expounds on the old ‘how much wood could a woodchuck chuck’ conundrum.

If you’ve made your peace with the oft-obscenity that characterises much of Tyler’s musical persona, then you’ll adore Wolf for its wonderful array of expansive instrumentals and marvel at the challenging lyrical content. If you’re a curious neutral, then the record’s likely to trouble you for a little while. These difficulties should subside over time – the key here is to overcome the initial shock that the uninitiated are bound to feel when they’re first exposed to Tyler’s NSFW-style – but rest assured, this is a record that grows in its appeal upon numerous listens as you begin to unravel the dense layering that is a Tyler, the Creator album. Wolf does not disappoint, proving that despite OF’s explosion into the limelight, when it comes to the foundations of the group – that is the music, not the socks – the direction is as sharp and as focused as it’s ever been. It affords justification for the OF hype and the wave of destruction Tyler’s brought with an riotous ideology he developed in his troubled high school days. And whilst he hasn’t totally grown up just yet, Wolf presents a serious musician who isn’t looking to incite shock and horror, but instead one who warrants our ever-increasing admiration of his supreme talents as a rapper and songwriter.

Sam Moore

Sam has been listening to Wardell – ‘Opossum’…


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