This strange smorgasbord of sound is shrewd, smooth and heartfelt – but has Tyler ditched what made him great?
Tyler, the Creator always said he didn’t want to be a rapper. Leading the generation-defining rap group Odd Future didn’t stop the young Los Angeles radical from regularly declaring that a career as a traditional MC would be a lousy fit. There have been explorations into other creative realms: screenwriting, fashion, film scores, app development and singing (he once said he was looking to Isaac Hayes and Barry White for a blueprint on how to harness his deep voice). It always seemed as if Tyler would rather do something other than rap. Yet here we are, over a decade since The Odd Future Tape, and the release of a Tyler, the Creator album is still an event.
After the mutinous, uncompromising sounds of his earlier work, the evolution of Tyler took a huge leap with the richer arrangements, languid grooves and more considered writing of his excellent 2017 record Flower Boy. Yet Igor, Tyler’s fifth full-length solo album, represents his sharpest stylistic swerve to date. With the focus more on sonic texture than song structure, the album is a smorgasbord of buzzing basslines, prominent piano chords and out-of-key synths. “Don’t go into this expecting a rap album,” he wrote in a statement before Igor’s release.
True to his word, Tyler raps less than ever before – and when he does, he often cloaks his voice in digital effects, burying the vocals in a lush blanket of arrangements rather than propping them on top. Even the high-profile guests are often hard to identify. Kanye West’s uncredited verse on Puppet sounds like it was rapped off the top of his head from the street outside the studio. There’s almost nothing here that sounds as though it could be a single.
The album is bookended by two of its best and most surprising songs. Press play on track one, Igor’s Theme, and you smash into an immovable synth wall. This buzzing, eardrum-bursting key riff – half southern crunk, half horror movie – is matched with 70s-style funk drumming, splashes of piano and unusual falsetto croons in a strange, scintillating concoction. The closing track, Are We Still Friends, is a big-hearted ballad. Tyler will never be a powerhouse singer but here he evokes memories of Prince’s show-stopping soul number International Lover.
There’s more ingenuity in the stuttering rhythms of the wonderfully offbeat A Boy Is a Gun, which comes across as something Brian Wilson might have cooked up had he been born a B-boy (and samples the same soul tune Kanye did on Bound 2). In these moments I am reminded of comedian Nat Puff, aka Left at London, who recently put out a hugely viral video recreating Tyler’s supposedly predictable songwriting – but in these moments, he pushes his sound well above anything deserving parody.
That’s not to say that this is totally unidentifiable as a Tyler, the Creator album. The sunny, Roy Ayers-esque grooves remain part of Tyler’s playbook, while his eternal kinship with Pharrell Williams is clear in the way this album echoes the slick, immaculate vibes of the producer’s G I R L era – particularly on Earfquake, which features help from Charlie Wilson, Devonté Hynes & Playboi Carti. And from a songwriting perspective, Tyler remains a sucker for tales of young love. Frank Ocean is in fine voice on the very Frank Ocean-y Running Out of Time, which sees the pair chart fleeting romances. On the heartfelt I Think, Tyler struggles to maintain a relationship through his own fears and doubts: “Feelings, that’s what I’m pouring / What the fuck is your motive?”
Yet in this new synthesis of sounds, Tyler too often leaves behind some of the raw, uncompromising humanity that distinguishes his best work. He was never the smoothest rapper but his gruff, powerful flow was the instrument of a young man with his heart on his hoodie sleeve. Downplaying his performance strips the music of much of that sentiment. It would have been a treat to hear him rap unadorned over the propulsive drums and huge bass of What’s Good, but the vocal effects drag him into the mud. The writing, often oblique and without focus, also seems to have suffered. On Gone, Gone / Thank You, the repeating of “the love is gone” comes off as perfunctory.
It’s is no bad thing that Igor downplays Tyler’s indomitable personality – but the writing and execution do not quite replace what has been lost. What’s left is a fine showcase of ingenuity that too rarely burrows very far into your consciousness.