How many teenagers with global hype are given the chance to grow? There are too many variables in the music industry, too many constantly shifting tides for patience to dictate decision-making. And yet, here’s Tyler Okonma, having survived ten years of tumultuous record releases, country-wide ban lists, and middle-America protest, creating the best music of his life.
Okonma, who’s known virtually everywhere as Tyler, the Creator, is that outlier. Not only did he have time and albums at his disposal to find his voice, he used those platforms to experiment without fear of consequence. It was impossible for the young rapper to live up to the hype of his scene-busting 2009 mixtape Bastard, but the next 2011's Goblin was a sometimes ecstatic, sometimes flawed debut that produced a legitimate breakthrough hit in “Yonkers.” The album also begot serious controversy for Tyler’s homophobic language and general disregard for political correctness.
In hindsight, Tyler’s relationship with slurs is more complicated than even he let it on to be, but alongside debates of Goblin’s merits were talks of silencing Tyler for his offensive language. Goblin’s 2013 follow-up, Wolf, displayed greater consistency from Tyler, if not necessarily a huge amount of personal maturation. Wolf trod much the same territory as its predecessor and found Tyler doubling down on his outlandishness almost as a defense mechanism. It’s a record that didn’t display an expanded palette as much as reiterate what Tyler did best -- gorgeous beats, searing attacks on enemies, and struggles with celebrity.
Then there was 2015's Cherry Bomb, two years after that, which was a Rorschach test for Tyler fans. With Cherry Bomb, the album represented whatever you thought about Tyler: Either he was brash, offensive, and overhyped, or a DIY genius with ideas bursting at the seams -- an energy too radical for cynics to understand. It presented a fork for Tyler: Either dive deeper into his me-against-the-world mentality, or embrace a more introspective attitude towards his work, providing listeners a behind-the-scenes look into the type of person the rapper wanted to become.
With fourth official album Flower Boy in 2017, Tyler did the latter, to startling effects. The album was released to near unanimous acclaim, his first album whose reception was nearly unequivocally positive, rather than divisive. The inflammatory raps just to egg on a response disappeared, and in its place was a deeper look into the evolution of a person and artist. Tyler hadn’t changed, he just took himself at face value. Instead of using his music as a reactionary measure against his critics, he presented himself as he wished to be on Flower Boy, and we all embraced it -- because Tyler is damn charming when he wants to be.
Tyler, the Creator defined his early presence through his contrarianism. He says it on Goblin’s first single, “Yonkers:” “I’m a fuckin’ walkin’ paradox/ No I’m not/ Threesomes with a fuckin’ triceratops.” Tyler was the opposite of whatever we said, and he seemed to feed off the conflict. The teenage troll has slowly grown, like so many of us do, into a lovesick twenty-something. And as such, with his just released IGOR, he’s at his best: a little broken, a little unburdened, entirely himself.
Despite the somewhat up-and-down trajectory of his career, Tyler was never going to fail -- he’s always been too talented. Tyler’s early records never totally outshined those of his West Coast peers (and/or Odd Future cohorts): Frank Ocean’s a better songwriter, Earl Sweatshirt’s a better rapper, Vince Staples is funnier. But Tyler still brought all three of those skills to the table, and the highs of Goblin, Wolf, and Cherry Bomb hinted at something shape-shifting. Flower Boy was that something -- and with IGOR, he's proven that his newfound consistency and earnestness wasn't a fluke.
Following up your most successful record to date with a release that doubles down on your experimental instincts isn’t necessarily the safest bet. But here’s Tyler, the Creator gearing up for a Governor’s Ball headlining set next month, on the heels of his densest, weirdest, and messiest album to date. It’s also superlatively gorgeous and mesmerizing. With these variables -- and considering Tyler is, among many other things, a master of his own hype -- every move surrounding the release of IGOR makes his rise to hip-hop's elite class of solo stars almost inevitable.
First, there’s the guestlist -- or, more accurately, the lack of one. The album is a puzzle that slowly builds itself, revealing voices and ideas the more one becomes acquainted with its tics. There’s the disembodied voice of Lil Uzi Vert on opener “IGOR’S THEME,” not exactly the discernible Uzi we’re used to, just weird enough to cause a double take. This all seems intentional. The names of this album's supporting cast are huge: We get Uzi and Playboi Carti, Solange and Kanye West. However, none of these artists are listed as features on the Spotify tracklist -- Tyler dropped Easter eggs, but if you really want to dig into the voices behind the music, you have to do your research. This is a record that merits a deep dive, and as such, people are diving in.
IGOR sounds like a mixtape. The lack of an official guestlist, the quick run-up to release date, the "first studio take after a demo" feel to the whole record; it all hints at a messiness, a lack of pretension. It’s a masterclass in understated importance. This record means something, but only if you get it. If you don’t, well, it’s just another tape in a year in which tapes come almost every day by the dozen. Of course, this only works because Tyler turns in an absolutely masterful performance. Its importance lies in relatability. Tyler’s sad, broken, optimistic, and confused --often at the same time. On IGOR, Tyler lets us in, and turns out most of us have a whole lot in common with him. Depleted and alone, Tyler expands his sonic identity and turns in a rough gem of mourning hymns and self-help anthems.
This is not only Tyler’s best album, it’s an early contender for 2019 year-end lists. It’s a record about love and love lost, but Tyler conveys it as much through the warm synths and ‘70s soul drums as he does words. It's a highly textural album that never gets obsessed with its own feel. Tyler imbues the work with just enough of an edge to let the rhythms and progressions work on their own, using these various voices as extra tools, garnishment upon the broken beats and melodies searching for a bit of sunlight on a cloudy day.
That Tyler, the Creator made this work is a feat, but it’s not surprising. He’s spent a career hinting at these moments, when vulnerability exceeds the need to bury someone for trying to understand you. IGOR is a record of dissolved relationships, but it ends with “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?,” a song of few words and heavy, existential feelings. It’s about all the things that come with the end. Whether that end is the termination of a relationship, a petty spat between friends, or creative differences between collaborators isn’t clear. It’s more universal than that, sampling Al Green’s “Dream,” to wonder if it was always better imagined than it actually was in reality. Whereas Tyler, the Creator would once use this inquiry to spit vile at a spurned lover, he’s now inviting everyone in to wonder the same thing.
“Are we still friends?” he asks, although he already seems to know the answer. There’s a wisdom here that runs all throughout IGOR, the power of its singular artistry summarized by the straightforward-but-telling message inscribed on the bottom of its cover: "All songs written, produced and arranged by Tyler Okonma."