Few artists in recent memory have resisted interpretation, or courted controversy, as devoutly as Tyler, the Creator. The 26-year-old rapper-producer has spent his career shrouding meanings and motives in Gen-Y irony, served with the shit-eating grin of a 4chan troll. So, when early reports about his new album, Flower Boy, suggested that Tyler was coming out as gay, the reaction on social media was telling. Five years ago, a similar confession from Tyler’s off-and-on collaborator Frank Ocean had prompted widespread praise and acceptance. Tyler, though, has been met with confusion, laced with a lingering suspicion that this was all just another meaningless, mean-spirited jest.
Tyler’s detractors had reason to be suspicious. His now-defunct blog-rap collective, Odd Future, was better known in some circles for their surfeit of rape lyrics and homophobic slurs than the fact that their ranks included two of the highest-profile queer artists in contemporary hip-hop: Ocean and Syd, frontwoman of alt-R&B combo the Internet. Now, in the aftermath of a presidential election determined as much by nihilistic meme wars as by conventional politics, the edgelord antics of Tyler’s 2009 mixtape Bastard and 2011’s Goblin feel less genuinely transgressive than outmoded. It’s thus fair for listeners who outgrew Odd Future sometime in Obama’s first term to question whether their former ringleader still has anything to say.
Tyler hasn’t exactly transformed into Kendrick Lamar. His reference to the Black Lives Matter movement on Flower Boy’s opening track, “Foreword,” is just that—a passing reference, not necessarily a sign of emerging political consciousness. But on “Where This Flower Blooms,” he does position himself as a kind of role model, promising to “tell these black kids they could be who they are.” And for much of the album’s 46 minutes, he does just that: presenting a disarming assortment of seemingly sincere, heartfelt confessions, paired with some of his richest and most cohesive beats to date.
Of course, the confessions that have received the most attention since Flower Boy’s release last week are the possible references to homosexuality, the most convincing of which is “Garden Shed,” a woozy trapped-in-the-closet metaphor featuring erstwhile British songstress Estelle. More compelling than the specifics of Tyler’s sexual orientation, however, are his broader revelations of vulnerability. He’s been rhyming frankly about depression and alienation since the Odd Future days, but never has he let his guard down quite like this: adopting a Pharrell falsetto on the lush love joint “See You Again”; pining for someone to “loiter in parking lots” with on “Boredom”; or worrying about suicide on “911”—as opposed to playing it for ghoulish shock value, like he did in the infamous “Yonkers” video.
Even Flower Boy’s brasher moments are riddled with self-doubt. The title of lead single “Who Dat Boy,” a prowling A$AP Rocky feature in the vein of Kanye West’s “Freestyle 4,” shows up again in the introspective “November” when Tyler asks himself if the question is “rhetorical and this shit is over.” This self-interrogation flows directly into what’s perhaps the album’s most touching moment: “Glitter,” another startlingly open proclamation of love framed as a voicemail message to its unnamed—and, yes, ungendered—subject. The song’s ending, a canned voice telling Tyler that his message wasn’t recorded, is typically deflating anti-humor but with an odd and welcome sweetness.
To call a Tyler, the Creator album “mature” is to damn it with faint praise. Indeed, Flower Boy’s sole weakness is that it lacks some of the musical recklessness of its predecessor, 2015’s scattershot, hyperactive Cherry Bomb—that it is, in other words, a little too mature. It’s a more polished and cohesive effort, but there’s nothing here quite as endearingly bonkers as Cherry Bomb’s epic Kanye/Lil Wayne feature “Smuckers”—a point Flower Boy proves when Weezy shows up again, on “Droppin’ Seeds,” to diminished effect.
If “maturity” isn’t quite the word for Flower Boy, however, the album is nevertheless a significant milestone. This is easily Tyler’s most emotionally risky, and rewarding, work to date—and, in its own way, more transgressive than anything from Odd Future’s punk-rap peak.