Album Review: Tyler, the Creator – Wolf

[Odd Future; 2013]

If we’ve learned anything about Tyler, the Creator, it’s that we ought to take everything he says with a grain mountain of salt. Whether he’s spitting graphic depictions of violent crime with prodigious flow, or reporting that Earl Sweatshirt is dead, or offering Tegan and Sara some “hard dick” in response to their pointed critique of his lyrics, we should have come to expect a certain level of insincerity from Tyler, the Creator. It should be no surprise, then, that Tyler wasn’t being entirely honest when he stated on Formspring that “WOLF forsurly will prolly have like 3 rap songs tops. shit is boring as fuck, ill rather focus on music. i wanna be in a rock band and make jazz (sic).” Wolf has, like, 14 rap songs, tops, with “TreeHome95” being the sole piece of “weird hippie music” on the record. But for a record that people are (allegedly) meant to “get high to,” Wolf really harshes my mellow.

Yes, Wolf is an uncomfortable listening experience, like Bastard and Goblin before it, but those albums were paradoxically so. This guy who was spewing such sickening verses possessed a preternatural grasp of production and vocal delivery. Bastard gave new meaning to the phrase “scary good,” while Goblin sounded frighteningly honest. It was, or at least sounded like it was, an honest-to-god unfiltered account of a young man’s depression in the wake of sudden fame. As someone who’s been through severe depression, I could relate to Goblin on a sympathetic level. And though Tyler continues his depressive streak throughout Wolf, my reaction isn’t a sincere “I feel you, Tyler,” but an exasperated “Ugh. Not again, Tyler.”

Perhaps symbolic of this trend is the conspicuous absence of “Dr. TC” in Wolf, only popping up as a camp counselor in the introductory title track, for one sentence in “Cowboy” to remind us that “Hey, I’m right here,” and once again at the very end. The character of TC provided the narrative framework for the first two albums: sessions with a therapist, who at the end of Goblin was revealed to be the voice of Tyler’s conscience. The narrative implication of his near-elimination on Wolf is that Tyler has almost abandoned his conscience entirely.

Those who know Tyler primarily by the repulsive aspects of his lyrics would agree wholeheartedly. Tyler doesn’t seem to realize that the people who attack his lyrics are not attacking him as a person (I hope.) “I don’t fucking hate gay people,” he explained to SPIN, “I’m probably one of the least homophobic rappers in the world.” Nobody (I hope) is arguing that Tyler believes that. The fact is that other people do honestly believe that women and homosexuals are inferior beings, and the rampant misogynistic and homophobic language Tyler uses can only enable or even encourage those people to act on their beliefs. Yet Tyler, the Creator hasn’t figured this out. No, all these people who are calling him out on his lyrics are attacking him personally, they’re saying all these things about him. “It’s just weird that so many people think I’m such a fucking evil person,” he remarked.

So to get back at his attackers, he lashes out with more venom while still missing the point. “So a couple fags threw a little hiss-fit,” goes the anecdote on lead single “Domo23,” “came to Pitchfork with a couple Jada Pinkett signs / and said I was a racist homophobic / So I grabbed Lucas and filmed us kissing.” Later, on “Rusty,” he begs us to “Look at that article that says my subject matter was wrong / Saying I hate gays even though Frank is on ten of my songs.” There are so many reasons why those aren’t counter-arguments to his harshest critics, but the one that sticks out like a sore thumb is that Tyler continues to be unable to separate criticism of his lyrics from criticism of him as a person, and if he isn’t willing to separate the artist from the subject matter, why should we be?

Yet that only makes up a small part of why Wolf is such an appallingly bad album. Not an entirely bad album, mind you, because it has strong points in the sparse, atmospheric “Cowboy,” about the emptiness and loneliness of international fame. Then there’s “Answer,” a conflicted but heartfelt plea to his absentee father to talk to him when he calls. Finally, there’s the story of his grandmother’s departure on “Lone,” whose bleak, vivid description of her hospital room proves that Tyler does truly have a talent for lyrics when he’s not giving the literal and metaphorical finger to his detractors. Is it a coincidence that two of the best songs are the ones where Dr. TC appears?

That’s only three songs out of eighteen, and other than those there’s not a whole lot worth hearing here. “Tamale,” for example, features Tyler fantasizing about photographing the reaction of a woman walking in on him fucking her sister. On “Jamba” and “Parking Lot” he boasts about the frequency with which he receives fellatio. Not that other rappers don’t write lyrics with similar sexual themes, but Tyler delivers his with such a puerile sneer, you’re convinced he honestly believes it’s the funniest shit ever. It’s as though an episode of Loiter Squad came to life as a song. But perhaps that honor ought to go to “Trashwang,” Wolf‘s obligatory Jasper-and-Taco-featuring number, which features screams from Trash Talk’s Lee Spielman and additional verses from non-rappers Lionel and Lucas (Yes. Lucas has a verse and it’s every bit as unlistenable as you might expect.) “Trashwang” doesn’t even get by on being a hilarious Waka Flocka send-up like “We Got Bitches” did. If its inclusion on this album is some sort of prank, it’s about as funny as Loiter Squad. Elsewhere, the coke-pusher’s lament “48,” while a nice track on its own, fits nowhere into the album’s deeply personal musings or its barely discernible “Camp Flog Gnaw” narrative. Earl Sweatshirt does appear and does provide a good 3/4 of a verse on “Rusty,” but Tyler “kills” him with a burst of gunfire, finishing the job he started on Goblin‘s “Window.”

Wolf succeeds magnificently at alienating the casual listener, but Odd Future die-hards will certainly find more things to love on this record than I have. They just better not approach Tyler and tell him as such. On “Colossus,” Tyler rips off Eminem’s seminal crazy-fan story “Stan” by describing an incident where he was approached by some “fags” who wanted a picture. The “fag” goes on to talk about how Tyler’s music inspired him to have confidence in himself, but becomes progressively more obsessive, eventually talking about how he wants to keep Tyler in his basement. The main reason why “Stan” succeeds and “Colossus” fails is that the former is a somber self-reflection on the negative impact the artist’s controversial lyrics can have on people, while the latter is just the artist whining about fans getting in his way.

But we should take this album with a mountain of salt, right? Tyler doesn’t really feel that way about his fans, does he? He doesn’t really moonlight as a cocaine pusher, does he? He doesn’t really take pictures of people walking in on him mid-coitus and put them on Instagram, does he? He doesn’t really have an absentee father, does he? That’s the problem when Tyler mixes his sincerity with juvenile irreverence and feigned apathy. People don’t know when to laugh him off and when to sympathize with him. However, if he’s at all serious about his hip-hop career, he’s gonna have to get used to people taking him seriously. And Wolf is a serious mess.