There is no meeting of the minds more necessary to the good of the collective culture than Tyler, The Creator and Funkmaster Flex. The two men, both prominent figures in hip-hop for very different reasons, are diametrically opposed on almost every conceivable level, but work in the service of the same goal.
For the last decade, Tyler has embodied rap’s anarchic vanguard. Blogs, proponents of political correctness, donuts, cats, cooper black font: no one was safe. In contrast, Flex, in his role as an extraordinarily vocal gatekeeper, has calcified into a pillar of hip-hop’s bygone era. The Hot 97 DJ erected a cocoon built on FX bombs, opportunistic antagonism, aggressive growls into the mic, and employing an avaricious stare as an endless supply of rappers tried to keep the dying art of freestyle alive, one YouTube view at a time. Tyler and Flex’s connective tissue was a love, belief, and idolization of radio and its power. In deference to the medium, they’ve transformed themselves time and again – Tyler’s platinum blonde march to increasingly genreless music that’s effective enough to saturate pop on one side, and Flex’s poking and prodding at any beef he can get his hands on (Meek Mill vs. Drake, Pusha T vs. Drake, Nicki Minaj vs. Flex) on the other.
Seven years after Odd Future trolled Peter Rosenberg with a freestyle that included the line “Bitch ass niggas don’t know me / New sandwich with bologna” and “Real nigga on the track, bitch / Come through with the sandwich / That’s bread, lettuce, cheese, mustard, bread, crumble,” the spectacle of Tyler and Flex’s first meeting this week surpassed our wildest expectations. From the beginning of the interview, Flex admits he’s a night club DJ that’s seen Tyler’s success and rebuffed it by way of telling an inane Earl Sweatshirt story. Tyler maniacally laughs and charms his way through it all. Then the freestyle happens.
Part troll, part parody, part flex, Tyler fashions a monument to the underlying silliness of an artist saying random nonsense over a beat, while also proving that he’s a preternaturally gifted rapper when he feels like it. Strategically, he sets Flex up as his straight man and comedic foil. The couplet, “Me and Flex looking in the index / For buff net niggas just for some hot butt sex,” frazzles the DJ, his eyes cartoonishly pops out of his head. For a moment all he can say is, “What made you go with that verse?” as he looks at Tyler like a deer in the headlights. From there, the three-act plays travels from the nonsensical to the bizarre. I’ve transcribed my personal favorite exchange below:
Tyler: Give me a topic, Flex.
Tyler: Vroom, Vroom. Zoom, Zoom.
But between the trolling spurts, Tyler dips into strings of coherence that range from the inspirational (“I got a little cousin and when I die he’ll prolly take my estate / I always tell him be himself and strive to be great”) to the slick (“They bringing up my past I don’t hide it / Goblin out now bitch buy it / Looking for them tweets bitch find it /The cancel couch is fake and I recline it”). Tyler’s knack for sonic detours in his discography (Cherry Bomb, IGOR) distracted from the fact that at any given time he can check any of the traditional rap boxes that a DJ like Flex covets.
Freestyling is an archaic art form in 2019. In the current landscape, a hit song is only a Beatstars click, USB mic, and 15-minute recording session away. A rapper cultivating the talent to string together lyrics at a moment’s notice over an unfamiliar beat and perform it at a radio station is a relic from a time where studio costs and access barred generations of talented artists. Yet in a week of XXL Freestyles, where Lil Mosey had to apologize for a lackluster performance, DaBaby got called out for recycling an old verse, and Megan Thee Stallion proved she’s a formalist to the core, it’s fitting that Tyler and Flex proved that their beloved medium is far from dead.
Radio no longer mints stars and their careers, but with a lot of trolling and a little flirting it can still be wildly entertaining.