TYLER, THE CREATOR: THE EVOLUTION
Words by Kevin Loo
Tyler Okonma is an enigma who has has surprised at every turn of his career. Once a rapper renowned for graphic lyrics and shocking content, he has since become hip-hop’s unlikeliest visionary. His stylistic change-ups have both influenced and paralleled hip-hop culture and its relation to the wider world. His latest offering, IGOR, represents the culmination of a decade-long artistic evolution.
Tyler exploded onto the scene around in the late 2000s as the lead member of a rowdy group of youngsters called Odd Future. With their infectious energy and organic use of digital media, OF built a platform for a generation of outcasts with overlapping interests in music, skate culture, fashion and art. They effectively opened the gateway for a new generation of alternative hip-hop fans.
Odd Future never intended to become a movement. It was merely a way for Tyler and his friends to create art and music they liked. As he self-deprecatingly explained to high fashion journal Fantastic Man in 2018, “I [just] liked the colour pink and skateboarding”.
The group’s youthful energy and brash disregard for any established norms in hip-hop led to runaway success. However, their early material was met with huge controversy. As their frontman, Tyler’s music drew the most attention. His music quickly became notorious for being filled with aggression, violence and imagery that many labelled as deeply offensive. His first two projects Bastard and Goblin contained lyrics about suicide, murder, self-harm, rape... and that could all be on just one track.
While songs like hit single ‘Yonkers’ drew a lot of negative press, it also garnered Tyler the attention of his personal idols such as Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, and he also won an MTV VMA for the video. The video’s striking visuals and lyrics about “stabbing Bruno Mars in the goddamn oesophagus” introduced the to the dark and dangerous mind and voice of Tyler, The Creator.
As many praised this new vision of underground hip-hop, others viewed Tyler as a hateful, misogynistic, homophobic provocateur. What he called mere jokes, critics called bad taste. While think-pieces were being penned by regarded publications such as The Guardian praising the audaciousness of groups like Odd Future, artists such as Tegan and Sara took a stand and posited very seriously: “Why should I care about this music or its ‘brilliance’ when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible?”
Tyler responded to critics such as Tegan and Sara in a 2011 interview at SXSW by comparing himself to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino attempting to tell a story:
“Everybody thinks about dark shit. Why when somebody finally fucking says it why’s it such a big deal? … ‘All he talks about is rape’. Have you seen Quentin Tarantino’s fucking movie? Why does everyone fucking get their dick cut off or some shit? Why nobody say nothing about that? It’s fucking art. Why when a fucking black kid says it, it’s such a big fucking deal?”
This thread of darkness and grappling with inner conflict would became a central theme throughout the remainder of Tyler’s career. His next album Wolf, released in 2013, hinted at a more serious artist willing to tackle topics for more than mere shock tactics. Billed as a concept album tracking the psychological processes of three separate characters, the album was an experiment in tying together a more cohesive narrative than in his previous efforts. The album was met with positive reviews and debuted at Number 3 on the Billboard charts.
However, with this growing profile and success, came further controversy. Following an EarlWolf tour in Australia in 2013, the testosterone-fuelled energy of an Odd Future show generated a response from feminist activist group Collective Shout.
This came to a head in 2015 when Collective Shout succeeded in petitioning to revoke Tyler’s Australian visa. They wrote an open letter to Triple J and published articles addressing Tyler’s fans’ threats of rape and murder against members of the feminist crowd.
It’s important to note that Tyler had also been banned from New Zealand in 2014, and would later be refused entry into the UK later in 2015. According to his manager Christian Clancy, the UK cited lyrics from Bastard and Goblin as “work [that] encourages violence and intolerance of homosexuality and fosters hatred with views that seek to provoke others to terrorist acts” - by none other than former UK PM Theresa May herself.
This growing tide of animosity forced Tyler to cancel his Australian tour supporting his third studio album Cherry Bomb.
Cherry Bomb was Tyler stepping into the big leagues. It’s packed with A-list features such as Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Schoolboy Q, Charlie Wilson, and Pharrell Williams. It’s considered a defining step in his career, pushing musical boundaries and allowing Tyler to flex and refine his producing chops.
It’s an abrasive record and proved divisive among fans for its mixture of rock elements and experimental vibe. Lyrically, he also turned his attention away from shock tactics and took a moment to celebrate his newfound success and fame. He later explained that “everyone hated it”, and was surprised at fans who expressed their disdain at his changing style. He posted a long response to one fan in 2015:
“why cant i share my joy with the world? ohhh, it was cool when i was raping girls and telling you how sad i was on records, but when shit changes and im feeling great and i fuck with myself you cant deal with it? cause you cant relate? is that why?...why would you want to be around someone is is a downer?...all im doing is spreading good vibes and tryna give some confidence to people and at least telling them they can accoplish [sic] something. sometimes giving some people some hope can really push people to be great.
i dont know what to tell you, my life is in a different spot right now and like on every album, i talk about whats going on in my life AT THAT MOMENT. shit, that would be sooo sad if i was making the same album over and over again.”
In the midst of his hate-speech and homophobic controversy, it appeared that a new version of Tyler, The Creator was emerging. In fact, as early as 2014, he had begun publicly expressing frustration at fans who seemed to “miss the joke” of his early material:
He was distancing himself from his past, and began branching out into very successful fashion branding with his label Golfwang, later simply Golf. In 2017, a few months after his 26th birthday, Flower Boy was released and introduced the world to a brand new version of the rebellious kid of former Odd Future.
Taking the time to be intentionally personal and introspective, Flower Boy revealed a sensitive soul at the core of Tyler, The Creator. While by no means delicate as its title may suggest, the album was filled with surprising moments of genuine tenderness and beauty. The album is full of experimentation with soul elements, the use of lush strings, slow beats, and surprising features such as English singer-songwriter Rex Orange County and Kali Uchis.
This new soft image was a complete turnabout of the Tyler of Goblin days. He was actually singing about falling in love. Further complicating his public image was the inclusion of lyrics suggesting Tyler’s own homosexuality. Considering his history with charged homphobic and offensive lyrics, it came as a shock to fans and the media. Although Tyler has hinted that he’s been ‘out’ since 2015, some still aren’t sure whether it’s all a massive troll or not.
This pivot in Tyler’s creative output and stance on sexuality generated a stir in the music world. Some questioned whether it was a cheap marketing ploy, others debated the merits and problems of a high-profile member of the hip-hop community ‘coming out’, while others still simply celebrated his artistic evolution and newfound “sincerity”.
Flower Boy became a huge hit, debuting at Number 2, and even earned him a Grammy nomination. He was particularly proud of the album too, revealing a new desire to write great pop music:
“The album art is f*cking flawless. I get all my points across. The features are done well. I found my version of writing a pop song but still a rap song. I still get weird musically, but it’s not too gross.”
The success of Flower Boy was only a hint of what was to come. Tyler’s softer approach to his music translated to bonafide critical and commercial success with IGOR in 2019. The album has Tyler singing a lot more than rapping, and is entirely self-produced. While Cherry Bomb was a hint of a “positive vibes” Tyler, IGOR presents the matured version of that Tyler, fully, decked out in pastel suits and goody dad-dancing.
IGOR is more parts Tyler singing than rapping, and has been called the best breakup album in recent memory. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, it’s also his most focused effort to date. The emphasis on emotion and raw honesty is best exemplified in tracks like closer “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?”, which repeats the all-too familiar mantra of a romance gone wrong: “Are we still friends? Can we be friends?”
Every artist grows and matures, but few have done it so drastically or successfully as Tyler, The Creator. During his album performance for Apple Music, he shared a behind-the-scenes story about hit single “EARFQUAKE”, he admitted that he just wants to write pop songs these days, and even wrote the track with Justin Bieber and Rihanna in mind. Compare that to his “Yonkers” days, and they’re two completely different artists. These days he rarely performs old material, and in 2018 he even told GQ that he thinks Goblin is “horrible”.
Not to say that Tyler’s past isn’t problematic. As highlighted by prominent Australian feminist Melinda Tankard-Reist, the public discussion couldn’t be timelier, considering the impact of movements such as #MeToo. She posted in 2018 that Tyler is “someone who has succeeded in normalising hostile and hateful attitudes against women among his primarily young male fans” and he needs to take responsibility for his past actions, regardless of positive artistic growth since. With June being Pride Month as well, Tyler, The Creator’s success raises pertinent questions for the queer community too.
The UK’s ban on Tyler lapsed in 2019, and he was due to perform in London in May to celebrate IGOR’s release. Funnily enough, the show was cancelled due to unmanageable crowd numbers. His global success is evident now, and he is well recognised as one of hip-hop’s all-time greats now. IGOR has been a huge hit, and even took out the Number 1 spot, the culmination of ten years of hard work and continual artistic growth – these days, much more French New Wave cinema than “Tron Cat”.
Tyler’s evolution may appear as a complete turnabout from the Bastard and Goblin days. However, it has been incremental, and every album cycle, he has maintained an uncompromising vision to express himself, no matter the cost – controversy and visa bans be damned. Each album has revealed surprising details about Tyler Okonma, but the core has always been the same. He’ll always the hip-hop saint of the perpetual weirdo, one who has never been afraid to explore the darker side of life while having fun along the way.