What Has Happened to Tyler the Creator?
Tyler the Creator at SXSW's Fader Fort in 2011
Photo by Marco Torres
This month, with a week between the announcement and the release, we were gifted with a surprise new album from Odd Future front man Tyler the Creator, his third in four years. Unfortunately, I wish this gift had come with a receipt.
Left to his own devices, given the creative freedom to do whatever he wants and still sell records, Tyler's returns have been diminishing steadily. Now, Cherry Bomb, his most ambitious artistic effort yet, represents the absolute nadir of Tyler's short career. What has happened to the most promising rap artist of 2009?
The issues with Cherry Bomb have been mounting for years, so let's rewind the tape a bit. Tyler debuted his solo work with Bastard on December 25th, 2009. He's big into gifts, you see. Many were overjoyed by this Christmas miracle, a new, exciting young rapper expelling his angst over some of the most interesting beats the hip-hop world had seen in years.
The best part was that it was underground, self-produced, and exclusively released on the Internet. It was a story for the ages: a kid not even old enough to drink blowing up on the Internet with nothing but raw emotion and talent.
For fans of underdogs and the underground, Tyler was a hero. With his extensive knowledge of rap, his idolization of Pharrell and DOOM and Trash Talk, his melding of hardcore and hip-hop like nothing we had heard before, Tyler blew the fuck up.
When it came time for a major-label debut, Tyler even managed to exceed the expectations of many with the lengthy, artsy Goblin. Yes, it had your dumb rap bangers like "Bitch Suck Dick," his take on mainstream rap, but it also had deeply heartfelt and emotional hip-hop anthems like "She" and the massive single "Yonkers," which became a sensation.
"Yonkers" captured the imagination of the youth. Tyler was nothing more than the kid you hung out with in high school who came from a shitty home and listened to way too much music. The only difference was that he forged his talents and interests into a sound which took hold of the zeitgeist.
Then he made Wolf. Fully cemented in his place as one of the reigning kings of hip-hop, surrounded by yes-men in and out of his crew, Tyler went full on self-indulgence. Who wouldn't, given his position? Wolf was an ambitious record, but one marred by long, boring tracks, lazy rapping and subject matter, and all the marks left by being essentially a child star. Being a prodigy can only take you so far, as Wolf proved.
Story continues on the next page.
Cherry Bomb could have been Tyler's resurrection as a mature, adult artist. Instead, it is even more indulgent than Wolf. Gifted with the ability to draw collaborators the likes of Kanye West and Lil Wayne, who both appear on the album's only decent hip-hop track, "Smuckers," Tyler has descended so far up his own ass that he can no longer see daylight.
That sounds harsh, but Cherry Bomb is truly one of the most scatterbrained, pretentious art-rap records I've ever had the displeasure of listening to. Delving into hardcore and jazz like he never has before, Cherry Bomb has less in common with Tyler's older work and more with indie-rappers like Dalek.
But Tyler has proved now that he does not possess the focus or talent to meld those influences into anything coherent or enjoyable. With three tracks clocking in over six minutes, Cherry Bomb is an exhausting experience, twisting and turning through one ill-conceived idea after another.
It's not enough to have ambition. Without a banger in sight, with Tyler's vocals buried under layers of noise and walls of sound, Cherry Bomb removes itself from Tyler's past in horrorcore. It wants to be Yeezus at worst, or B L A C K I E at best, but it ends up somewhere in the realm of dullness exuded by the very hip-hop Tyler was rebelling against years ago, just in a more artistic package.
The album's lone saving grace, the aforementioned "Smuckers," the only track here resembling a real, raw rap song like Tyler used to write, is bolstered not by Tyler but by his collaborators. Truly, he sounds out of place among the big-leaguers. It's yet another weak track, a failing attempt at reconnecting with his audience, until Kanye steps on the track and shows him how it's done.
When Kanye and Lil Wayne take hold of Tyler's beat, they run away with it, crushing it and reminding us how much they've mastered the art of crushing artistically ambitious, experiemental hip-hop. Meanwhile, Tyler flails around next to them, like a teen sidekick to the real superstars.
Nowhere on the record is it more apparent that Tyler has very little idea what he's doing here. He has the ideas and the inspirations, but he cannot find his footing as an adult making experimental records. With no direction to speak of, he's simply making noises, throwing things at the wall and hoping they stick.
The sad part of it all is he still has some massive potential. If any of Cherry Bomb could be focused into a coherent song with actual appeal and intrigue, it could have been his masterpiece. Instead, it misses the mark completely. Could Tyler figure this thing out and put out a true epic in the next few years?
Undoubtedly the answer is yes, but he'd first have to figure out how to channel his indulgence into something anyone other than himself and his yes men can enjoy. With Cherry Bomb, he's simply masturbating in a void, wishing anyone else was on his level.
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