Before the April 2 delivery of Tyler, the Creator’s third LP WOLF, the last full-length body of work released by the Odd Future ringleader was 2011’s unrelentingly dark Goblin. Goblin, in short, was an exploration of Tyler's struggles with fame, girls, and friends that some felt never captivated or conveyed its message as well as it could or should have. Other criticism the album faced was that it lacked a filter in terms of track selection (clearly Tyler's lyrics are without one). Back in 2011 Tyler, The Creator was on the fast track towards superstardom, whereas in 2013 it he now faces the next step on this ladder.
That's of course not to say we haven't heard any creative outputs from Tyler since 2011. Last year there was the Odd Future Tape Volume 2., the follow up to the seldom-heard Odd Future Tape Volume 1,, which featured verses from Tyler as well as his production, including the standouts “Oldie” and “Analog 2," both of which hinted at what to potentially expect from WOLF. It was evident in those tracks that Tyler was moving away from his painfully dark vibe in favor of a mellower, one might even say happier aesthetic. And what a good thing that was.
To say the least, that shift is in full effect on WOLF, and those ugly phrases are few and far between on the album. While WOLF isn't exactly a concept piece, it may just feel like one because of how focused the sound is compared to both of Tyler's previous LPs. Jazz, indy rock and old-school rap appear to be the key influences, infused occasionally with Tyler's antics and certain key phrases he still has not entirely shaken off, namely his use of the word "fag."
Like both of its predecessors, WOLF begins with a piano-driven title track. It surprises immediately with a falsetto voice gently singing the word “You,” which completes the light-hearted atmosphere. That tone is short-lived, as Tyler's voice takes the air out with what is arguably his favorite word in the English language, "Fuck". In turn he completes both the key phrase of the song and what seems to be his perpetual life mantra: "Fuck You." The track concludes by introducing the loose narrative of the album, a rivalry between two characters, Sam and Wolf. Wolf seems to be inquisitive and in general polite, while Sam is aggressive and tells Wolf in plain terms that he has no intentions of being his friend. In many ways these two characters can be seen as "New" and "Old" or even “Private” and “Public” Tyler. Wolf acts as new or private Tyler, honest and light-hearted, while Sam is sort of how the general public expects Tyler to be.
From there, he introduces us to one of his two new aesthetics on "Jamba," the second track. It is not really reminiscent of any of the artist's previous work – at the very most the beat is a graduated version songs like “Sarah” from Bastard. That in mind, back are his instantly recognizable synthesized sounds, thin and rigid, which are clearly an intentional choice. In Tyler's world, it's imperfection that makes the world beautiful.
"Cowboy," a track that according to reports was one of the first crafted for WOLF, is reminiscent of “Oldie” in that it combines both a straightforward drum pattern with major piano chords. It is the first introspective cut we get from Tyler on WOLF, as he discusses his successes and how he struggles sometimes to be happy even though to the outside world it seems he's made it. It's not exactly a groundbreaking theme for a modern day hip-hop artist to explore. Artists like Kanye West and Eminem have lent some of their best work to songs that discuss the struggles of fame. Yet the similarities with Eminem extend much further than "Cowboy."
Specifically, "Colussus" is guaranteed to draw comparisons to Eminem's classic "Stan". Like Eminem, Tyler tells a story about a fan who starts off by asking a simple request (in Tyler’s case to take a picture), then simply goes way too far with their confessions of obsession. While in Stan's case the saga ended tragically, Tyler concludes only with frustration and self-doubt. He wonders how he can demonstrate to his fans that he appreciates their support while still maintaining his privacy.
These deeply honest moments are frequent on WOLF. Tyler relies on relaxed drum patterns and pretty chords throughout the album, which are fun without being overly hyper. This is a surprising demonstration of restraint from a person who so often seems unfiltered. One might say this group of songs evoke "camp vibes," meaning sounds that conjure up memories of summer camp and seem appropriate for a day at the beach (although in practice are more likely enjoyed while lighting up a blunt outside on a warm summer night). This type of song (“Answer," “Awkward," “48," “PartyIsntOver," “Campfire," “Bimmer," “Treehome," “Lone”) is the most prominent breed of music on the album. Each adds a new layer of emotional depth and humanity to Tyler the person, whereas the majority of his previous work seemed to further illustrate the legend of Tyler, The Creator the character.
The one place Tyler addresses his critics head on and is the most genuine is on “Rusty,” a song that would likely garner approval from legendary New York emcees like Nas, Jay-Z, and if he were still alive The Notorious B.I.G. When listening, it’s hard to not imagine Biggie’s voice rhyming over the boom clap beat and soulful horns. The fact that this is the case is somewhat ironic. Tyler is extremely vocal that he hates “old heads” who glorify hip-hop of the early to mid 1990’s, yet “Rusty” is a track those very people will likely cherish. Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt lend their talents as Tyler’s faithful sidekicks in their fight against a world of misconceptions and rappers that would rather play it safe and follow trends than create meaningful music. “Rusty” also helps set the record straight for those who might not know any of Tyler’s work aside from “Yonkers.” He raps, “He hates women but love kittens / Y’all ni**as trippin’ man / Look at that article saying my subject matter is wrong / Saying I hate gays even though Frank is on ten of my songs.” It works in Tyler’s favor that “Rusty” is the album’s most listenable song. If it were any other way, his accusations and declarations of originality might seem too preachy, but in this form they can simply be enjoyed first and digested second. Generally speaking, this dynamic is the major success of WOLF when held up to its predecessors, Goblin and Bastard.
But don't get too comfortable with introspective, personal Tyler. His old self, personified within the narrative as Sam, reappears on “TrashWang.” The song is an uncomfortable listen, especially when held up against "48" or "Bimmer." Some might think "Trashwang" takes them immediately out of the moment, or that Tyler was hedging his bets, unable to commit to a radiant and happy sound. In a way he admits to this, albeit in racially driven way -- "I want the black kids to like me for this one." Then again, the song’s biggest failure might only be an aesthetic one. Tyler also lets loose on “Tamale,” a song reminiscent of the hard knocking The Neptunes-produced Gwen Stefani songs of the early '00s. “Tamale” is perhaps only more successful than “Trashwang” because it is less mean-spirited. Its intention is not to make a mockery of anyone or any style of lower-brow hip-hop, rather to simply have fun.
Another place Sam pops up is on “IFHY," an acronym for "I Fucking Hate You." The song is a tale of jealousy and heartbreak, which Tyler states are feelings he has a hard time keeping inside. That in mind, the production is the most uniquely Tyler on the album, and combines all of his strengths as a creator of music: jazz-inspired nine chords, idiosyncratic drums, and deep, sinister bass. It's also his best effort on WOLF as a lyricist. One can't help but think that Pharrell's presence on the song was also vital behind the scenes. The last 2 minutes of the track, when Williams enters, are arguably the most captivating and downright beautiful on the entire album. In fact, this portion seems like it could have been directly lifted from N.E.R.D.’s 2008 LP Seeing Sounds. This is of course not an accident. Tyler has long been a fan of The Neptunes and Pharrell, and since Bastard his production has drawn comparisons to legendary duo. While it may have taken P’s help, he finally reached their heights with “IFHY.”
In the end, WOLF exceeds expectations. Tyler has long stated that he hates expectations of albums and even reviews of them, because he feels they cloud the judgment of listeners to the point their presuppositions outweigh the power of their ears. That's why he promoted WOLF with only one single, "Domo23," a song that arguably doesn't belong on the album at all. Perhaps that was intentional, to make reviewers and anxious fans expect one sound and be given another, in turn throwing them off-balance and neutralizing their aural palette. Luckily, what WOLF is in the end is a tightly focused feel good album. What is remarkable about that is it comes from the mind and mouth of Tyler, The Creator. Ultimately Tyler demonstrates on WOLF that he should be taken seriously as a producer and most of all, as a truly original artist. To his fans this has always been the case, but never before has Tyler been able to showcase his unique perspective in a way that wasn’t polarizing or controversial. Regardless, nowhere on the album does what might be considered a "modern hip-hop aesthetic" appear. What ends up in it place the most digestible album from Tyler to date, and one that is in this writer's opinion his best. - by Jake Woolf