Apr 9, 2013

Music Review: "Wolf" by Tyler, The Creator

By Ian Cory

The hype is dead. It’s beginning to look like future generations are going to find it hard to believe that for a good five-month period in 2011 the world could not be more enamored with Odd Future. Their meteoric rise into the public consciousness was a beautiful sight to behold, and I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t caught up in it all too. The stark production style, the lo-fi and grotesque visual aesthetic and some seriously great rapping from Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator made it easy to buy into the collective’s admittedly shallow worldview. It turned out however that the intriguing aesthetics were just as shallow. Tyler’s Goblin was an overlong train wreck, and the ensuing string of releases from the group’s B-list members swiftly drained the interest of casual fans. The crew’s biggest success, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, came only when Ocean made a record that didn’t sound or feel anything like an Odd Future album. I say all of this not to trash the group; in fact in some ways this decrease in interest and expectations has allowed for interesting growth. Free from having to contend with the pressure of releasing a generation defining album, Tyler, The Creator has taken the opportunity to construct a more subtle and nuanced take on his signature sound in the form of Wolf.

Just to be clear, when I say subtle, I’m speaking in relative terms. Tyler still fills his rhymes with careless references to cartoonishly extreme violence and still uses a certain homophobic slur like it’s going out of style. But after piercing through layers of standoffish shock rhyming, the core of Wolf is filled with gooey insecurity and self-reflection. Much like he did on Goblin, Tyler spends a good deal of time discussing the problems sparked by his sudden fame, but whereas that album focused most of its rage at his critics, Wolf pulls the lens closer. While he’s quick to brag about his new home in “Domo23”, he makes no bones about the division it creates between him and his friends. Elsewhere, on “Colossus”, he struggles to deal with his obsessive fans while revealing a surprising amount of empathy for the reasons behind their infatuation. The most surprising change is that Tyler’s grown into a pretty incredible balladeer. His older love songs always felt tied up in teenage frustration that often led him to descend into stalker territory, but on “Awkward” and “Bimmer” he deals with the complications of his failed relationships with an amount of tact and emotional intimacy that I doubt many people would have expected after hearing “Bitch Suck Dick”. There’s even an excursion into hood journalism on “48” where Tyler details the inner life of a drug dealer. While there are certainly a handful of tracks that find Tyler up to his old tricks, namely “Pig” “Tamale” and ‘Trashwang”, these songs are in the minority.

Tyler the sensitive soul and Tyler the trolling prankster rub shoulders constantly on Wolf and that friction can be felt beyond just the lyrics. Like the last two albums, this record has a loose narrative running between the songs, detailing drama breaking out between a variety of Tyler’s alternate identities*. This time around, the laid back Wolf butts heads with the foul mouthed and ill-tempered Samuel, both played by Tyler himself. Although this storyline doesn’t have much of a direct impact on the actual content of the songs, it does reveal a fair amount about the way Tyler views his own music. It’s clear from the start of the album that Tyler wants to make music that could be conventionally considered beautiful. Lush jazzy chords are painted onto nearly every song on the record, and warm retro synth leads occasionally float across the background on the beats, providing a wistful and melancholic vibe that boarders on nostalgic. Not a minute into the relaxing intro Tyler begins to blurt out obscenities while the music blooms. It’s as if he’s ashamed of the fact that his music could be construed as pretty and therefore must prove he’s still as irreverent as ever. But by regulating all of these outbursts to the character of Samuel, he’s essentially trying to have his cake and eat it too. He knows that this kind of immature bullshit makes him look like an asshole, but he doesn’t have the fortitude to just cut it out completely. So instead he acts above it when he’s Wolf but indulges in it guilt free as Samuel. This is certainly a step up from the bratty hedonism of Goblin but it’s risky creative ground to stand on, and leads to a fairly muddled tone for the album overall.
Grade: C+

*Yet again, Tyler is taking cues from Odd Future’s patron saint, Eminem, who also divided himself into several personas in order to hash out the inconsistencies in tone that show up in his work.

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