With his 2017 album Flower Boy, Tyler, the Creator set out to answer a simple, burning question: Who dat boy? The result was nothing short of a revelation. Tyler bloomed almost literally, burrowing into his past and emerging from the closet amidst naturalistic motifs and a sun-drenched landscape of woozy synths, piano splashes, and Mancini-esque strings. In the process, he radically re-contextualized his history as a Ritalin-addled provocateur who made songs with titles like “AssMilk,” tweeted under the nom de guerre @fucktyler, and hurled gay slurs with a disturbing regularity. Ultimately, Flower Boy was a triumph because Tyler succeeded in reinventing his sound and ethos without sacrificing his subversive edge.
Like Flower Boy, Tyler’s new album IGOR is an album for the summer months. It’s a rich and messy mélange of R&B, funk and rap that carries a luminous sheen and a bittersweet undercurrent; lyrically, Tyler traces the emotional journey of being the odd man out in a love triangle. “Your other one evaporate, we celebrate/You under oath, now pick a side,” he raps on “New Magic Wand.” On IGOR, Tyler seldom acts as the character he plays in the “What’s Good” music video, in which he vigorously shadowboxes while wearing a blonde bowl cut wig and a two-tone pink suit. Much more often he’s wounded and vulnerable, weighed down by real emotional labor.
Tyler’s story about navigating his crumbling relationship feels rendered in earnest, but it’s hardly the centerpiece of IGOR. Rather, it exists primarily to serve the album’s zany vocal experiments. Tyler eschews his raspy baritone and operates on a spectrum between an imitation of Pharrell’s squeaky falsetto and pitched-up, droopy-eared Eeyore raps. Instead of constructing songs around catchy hooks and brisk 16-bar verses, he revels in pregnant pauses, stops frequently to repeat lines several times, and generally lets himself falter and stumble blindly across the middle ground of the album’s lush production, which is characterized by thick, buzzsaw bass lines, glittering arpeggiated synths, and juicy neo-soul harmonies. The first moment on Igor that could be described as a “verse” doesn’t arrive until halfway through the second track “Earfquake,” when Playboi Carti seizes the mic and lets his marvelous baby voice fly. (By contrast, Kanye West’s sorry guest turn on “Puppets” sounds like he recorded it by moaning indiscriminately into a tin can.)
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By couching his vocals deep in the mix, Tyler is basically saying that he sees himself as producer, singer, and rapper, in that order. “Man having random folks walk up to me telling me about the bridge on I THINK gives me so much joy,” Tyler tweeted upon the album’s release. “if u know me i can be annoying with talks about bridges and progressions so im hyped its people who care. the version you hear is the 9th one, kept going back until it was PERFECT.” No matter how obnoxious and pedantic this bridge-talk is, Tyler’s pride in his meticulous production is well-earned. Across IGOR, he achieves a happy balance by tempering his wonky song structures bordering on the surreal and dogged pursuit of synthgasms with a clear narrative arc and careful calculated swerves in tone and texture.
Igor is a heartfelt album that finds Tyler lowering his guard and revealing himself to be a shape-shifting artist who is still growing, and who has fully shed his skin as a vulgar internet cowboy. On the final song, he gingerly poses the question to his former lover, “Are we still friends? Can we be friends?” His singing is amateur, but the production, anchored by a swaying Al Green sample, is massive. It’s not hard to see Tyler closing out his set at any of the festivals he’s headlining this year (Governors Ball, Firefly Festival, and his own Camp Flog Gnaw) by gently rocking back and forth, leading 50 thousand people in that sweet refrain.