Artistic Evolution and Igor: Tyler, the Creator’s Unusual Path
Words by Oliver Hales
Tyler, the Creator has occupied a curious place in the music scene since the very beginning. On his earliest solo works Bastard and Goblin, he established himself as a misanthropic rapper who had a bone to pick with anyone and anything. His sound was dark and aggressive, accompanied by lyrics that were hateful and crude. He was still a teenager, and it showed. Tyler’s shtick — derived from the Eminem rulebook of offensiveness for offensiveness’ sake — was tedious from the start. Occasionally it was amusing. More often than not, it was simply misogynistic and homophobic. But he was clearly talented, self-producing all of his music, with a knack for unconventional wordplay. So naturally, he amassed a fan base, most of them teenage boys, who resonated with his childish pessimism. On his next albums Wolf and Cherry Bomb, Tyler grew up a bit. In his own words, “talking about rape and cutting bodies up” just didn’t interest him anymore. He toyed with new sounds (to differing success), and his lyrics improved (kind of). Importantly, his edgy-façade began to crack, and we saw a glimpse of someone else underneath.
In 2017, Tyler reached full bloom with the appropriately titled Flower Boy, an album with a lush, warm sound unlike anything he’d previously done. It featured excellent appearances from the likes of Frank Ocean and Rex Orange County, and the lyrics were his most introspective yet, exploring loneliness, anxiety, and the search for connection. Most surprisingly, he came out of the closet, or at least, it appeared like he did. It was a hazy estimation at best, deduced from lyrics about him “kissing white boys since 2004” and looking for 1995 Leonardo DiCaprio. But the seed was planted, and naturally, people were puzzled. Was he actually serious, or just baiting everyone? Moreover, did it even matter? To his fans, it seemed like it did. This was, after all, the same guy who used to routinely drop “faggot” like it was a punchline. But he offered no clarification. He was an artist, first and foremost, and clearly wanted ambiguity.
This leads us to Igor, Tyler’s sixth album, released this past May. At its core, Igor is about a breakup. A lot is left in the dark: the listener doesn’t even know the gender of the other person (presumably an intentional choice). But Igor is concerned with the bigger picture. It’s a cohesive experience where each song plays off the last, detailing the journey from being in love, to trying to salvage it, to falling out of love, to finally getting over it. In this regard, it is Tyler’s most ambitious project so far, markedly different than anything he’s done before. It’s his least rap-heavy, with the songs centred around melody, instrumentation, and Tyler’s pitch-shifted vocals. The result is a collection of songs that are soulful, diverse, catchy, and surprisingly psychedelic. Like Flower Boy, Igor finds Tyler at his most vulnerable. Barr a couple of tracks (specifically ‘New Magic Wand’ and ‘What’s Good’), the cocky aggression that he became famous for is absent. On ‘Earfquake’ he expresses desire for his lover and begs them not to leave; on ‘Running Out of Time’ he bemoans the fragility of the situation; on ‘Puppet’ he acknowledges the power his lover has over him. It might sound like gloomy stuff, but the tracks themselves sound fantastic, sugar-coated with beautiful synths and stirring choruses that are intended to get stuck in one’s head.
Like his prior albums, Tyler produced and arranged Igor entirely himself. The significance of this cannot be understated; it’s a remarkable feat that few other artists can match. Even the current greats — Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, etc. — have co-producers and co-writers that help aid their vision. On Igor, it almost feels like he’s showing off. The use of samples is excellent, with Tyler clearly owing a lot to the R&B stylings of artists like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams (especially on standout tracks ‘A Boy is a Gun’ and ‘Gone, Gone / Thank You’, where the influence is especially obvious). West, of course, paved the way for sad hip hop on 2008’s influential 808s & Heartbreak, and Tyler has long voiced his adoration for Williams. Not coincidentally, both West and Williams make appearances on Igor, yet one might not even realise it — their vocals are somewhat obscured in the music, and none of the guest features are credited in the track listing, the first time Tyler has done so. The album also warrants repeated listens, as there are so many little moments and touches to be appreciated.
Despite Igor’s melancholic subject matter, Tyler has never seemed more confident in his abilities as an artist and producer. It is evident that the critical success of Flower Boy strengthened his drive to develop further as an artist. Post-Igor, Tyler is more fascinating than ever. His artistry is a mix of old and new: the distinctive lo-fi, synth-heavy sound of his past, paired with the introspection and musical ingenuity he brought forward on Flower Boy. Lots of artists change up their sound as they progress over the years, but rarely do they undeniably get better in doing so. Igor is an accomplished work in its own right, but it is also an important stepping stone in what will surely be the long, fruitful career of Tyler, the Creator. In his own words from a recent tweet, “6 albums in and just getting started fuck”.