Four years after Odd Future’s adolescent mayhem took the rap world by storm, the group’s outsider style has now been absorbed into an increasingly assimilationist genre, it’s de facto leaders occupying honorary slots as quasi-mainstream MCs, both signed to major label deals. Once nearly indistinguishable from one another amid the group’s raucous clamor of voices, Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt are now its two persistent figureheads, pursuing aesthetically similar programs of anti-pop audience alienation that are part classicist throwback, part new-wave iconoclasm. Yet while the two remain aligned in their approach, their music and personas continue to diverge, with Earl developing further into the role of the technically dazzling, ever-uneasy introvert, and Tyler as the explosive, agonizingly gregarious extrovert.
The latter maintains this unhinged conviviality on Cherry Bomb, the first Tyler, the Creator effort to actually feel like an album, as opposed to a jagged collection of crude sketches. This itself is an accomplishment, but the positives are still undermined by a familiar pattern of impetuousness. Songs continue to cut off abruptly, repeat themselves, or stretch on far too long, as if these violations of form were interesting in themselves. Where Earl’s compulsion to defy expectations is quietly incorporated into the music he produces, Tyler’s remains external, often in the form of tantrums, directed at himself and others, and crass skits that intersect with the themes of the songs to which they’re appended. This all fits into the thematic structure of the album’s overarching story, of a narrator struggling to find his wings as personal demons drag him back down to Earth, but it makes for rough, unpleasant listening most of the time.
This is mostly a result of the now 24-year-old Tyler’s refusal to move beyond his domineering teenage petulance, which would understandably be a difficult process, as he’s already painted himself so fully into a corner as a sneering prophet of youthful fury. That rage continues to disrupt his music even as it curdles progressively into sadness, but to drop it entirely would be to abandon his only real means of expression. What makes Tyler interesting is his ability to sublimate those feelings into production, melding together a striking variety of sounds and emotions, an at-times refreshing reminder of how few artists in hip-hop act as both rapper and producer. There are also some moments of real inspiration, many of them on the title track, which is bristling and nasty in a way that’s convincing, but not overbearing, even if it’s an overt and pointedly obvious Yeezus rip-off. Tyler also conducts himself well on marquee fare like “Smuckers,” holding his own against sharp comic verses from both an invigorated Lil Wayne and Kanye himself.
Beyond this impressive co-sign, Tyler makes a few more gestures toward maturity, cutting down the lengthy screeds and striking a better overall balance between sweetness and horror. But he continues to struggle to integrate his feelings into his material, rather than smearing them on top of it, and seems stymied by a common punk-rock quandary: aware that his nihilistic ire reached a terminal point, but also that dialing it down could be seen as a sign of weakness. Considering their yin-and-yang partnership, it might appear to be the perfect time for Tyler and Earl to join forces again, but each has come into his own enough that this likely wouldn’t work, as Earl’s music gains strength and power from his neuroses, while Tyler’s seems to pour out at the mercy of his. He’s a talented but conflicted voice, still frustratingly incapable of getting it together.