Their methods may seem novel, and the tenor of their crude, adolescent intensity may be previously unmatched, but Tyler, the Creator and his gang of likeminded roustabouts in Odd Future are hip-hop classicists. At a time when the genre is consistently in flux, they stick to the fixed markers of its archetypal vocabulary, making music that challenges sonically while remaining otherwise traditional. There’s the crude sense of humor, used to relieve the built-up tension of so much dense, complex wordplay. There’s the habit of handling emotional duress via confrontational swagger, lashing out at enemies real and imagined. There’s the prideful insistence on antisocial behavior, with angry fantasies related as actual exploits. The focal point of Odd Future’s rebellious métier, Tyler works within a familiar tradition of sublimated rage, oscillating wildly between ironic and genuine treatment of these emotions.
This sort of shallow iconoclasm, which pushes a surface level of innovation while holding firmly to conservative conventions, doesn’t allow much room for progress (think of the rapid splintering and disappearance of the similarly toned NWA as an example). Its dead-end nature is especially apparent today, with rap fully integrated into the pop slipstream, subject to its fickle demands and tidal patterns of steady change. This is why, on his second album, Tyler is already mired in both a continuing backlash and the halfhearted backlash to the backlash, while his more talented counterparts (Frank Ocean, Earl, Domo Genesis) have already achieved explicit mainstream success or cult adulation. It’s a situation that’s clearly informed Wolf, an eminently sensitive work that inherits its unevenness from Tyler’s wildly uneven personality.
Like Goblin, the album is a mixed bag of feelings and reactions, alternating between nastiness and innocence, exhilaration and exhaustion. The production is routinely strong, but things are weighed down by Tyler himself, who forcefully refuses to provide a palatable anchor to over an hour’s worth of material. Acting as his own producer, with a measure of authority that older MCs couldn’t imagine exercising, he bristles against the idea of playing to his audience, which means songs stretch on for way too long, confrontational attacks go too far, and self-lacerating attacks cut too deep.
This instability makes Tyler a fascinating figure, one of the preeminent young voices of the Internet age, torn between a compulsive need to share and self-loathing for the weakness he exhibits by doing so. If he were in control of all these emotions, the results might be trenchant and stunning, but he’s too caught up in self-pity, too eager to cast himself as the monstrous villain he thinks people expect him to be, a quality that makes Wolf hard to listen to and even harder to unequivocally enjoy. The album contains a few examples of truly transcendent, mature music (most notably the Erykah Badu collaboration “Treehome95”), but such tracks are tantalizingly scarce.
Writing about Chief Keef’s Finally Rich, I discussed the unfortunate tendency of rappers to calcify into unyielding forms of the molds in which they’re initially cast, the way the enabling assurance of fame will likely prevent youngsters like Keef from maturing. Hip-hop has always been divided between MCs incapable of change and ones with the power to evolve, and as rap becomes fused with the mainstream, we’ve seen more rappers with chameleonic abilities, a quality demanded by their new market status as pop stars, who’ve always needed to be mutable. Kanye West and Drake both started out with a mixture of neurotic self-doubt and defensive arrogance similar to Tyler’s, and both have found ways to circumvent the initial boxes they found themselves sealed into.
Tyler has the potential for such development, yet while his beats have evolved (the depth and texture of the sounds here demand headphone listening), his persona threatens to stagnate, with songs that take on new issues (the death of his grandmother on the intermittently gorgeous “Lone,” the response from fans and critics on nearly every track), but still fall back into the same nasty reactionary patterns, wasting time on extended tantrums and aggressive foot-stomping. Fame has given Tyler permission to be himself, but it also seems to have affected the shape of that identity, a reminder of how easy it is to stay mired in a celebrity Neverland of perpetual immaturity.
So while Wolf definitely feels like progress on some fronts, it’s also a resolutely conservative effort, marred by a neurotic sense of self-involvement that recalls Eminem at his worst (compare the fan screed of “Colossus” here to the latter’s “Stan”). Slim Shady’s career arc could serve as a pertinent warning for Tyler: Both are similarly rancorous, narrow-focus MCs who are clearly uncomfortable with the demands of pop stardom, tendencies that pushed Eminem into a bitter spiral of increasing irrelevance. Tyler isn’t there yet, but to prove himself a vital force he needs to move beyond certain issues, or at least turn his fondness for adolescent emotions and classic hip-hop tropes into something more focused and digestible.