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8 July 2021

Can Tyler, the Creator ever transcend his musical past?

Tyler’s sixth album, Call Me If You Get Lost, is a record that documents the past without dwelling on it. Maybe now, critics will finally do the same.

By Elliot Hoste

Much has been made of the artistic evolution of one Tyler Gregory Okonma. Known professionally as Tyler, the Creator, the rapper’s unique mode of expression has been pored over countless times, in pages not dissimilar to these, for well over a decade.

Tyler’s early work employed shock tactics: his tough, chewy beats and violent – even homophobic ­– lyrics were both praised and derided. By his third album Cherry Bomb, his edgelord persona had developed into something more sensitive, a foggy picture of an identity in flux. So when Tyler oh-so casually revealed on its follow up, Flower Boy: “Next line, I’ll have ’em like whoa/I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004”, an already changing conversation was shifted even further. Suddenly, the critical focus was on his “evolution”. Past behaviours were quickly reappraised in light of this new information. During a characteristically spirited appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2017, Colbert noted that “some critics have said this is the maturing of Tyler, the Creator,” asking: “Are you growing up finally, Tyler?”

While Cherry BombFlower Boy and 2019’s Igor appear to document this shift as it happened, Tyler’s sixth record, Call Me If You Get Lost, shows him at his most assured to date. This is a space where he can contemplate all his former selves but remain confident in his current identity. Debuting at number one in the US Billboard 200 albums chart, it is proof of his evolution, a record that documents the past without dwelling on it. 

On “Sir Baudelaire” (which features DJ Drama), Tyler introduces us to his pseudonym, Tyler Baudelaire, over bassy, glowering instrumentation. This opening track begins with the declaration “the sun beaming” – a reference to his verse on Kali Uchis’ 2018 track “After The Storm”, where he described the “sun beaming on me like headlights beaming on Bambi”. In contrast, on “Sir Baudelaire”, the sun is simply beaming – Tyler is not stunned, but basks in light as his “skin soak[s] up the sun”. “This shit for the sunseekers”, DJ Drama affirms jubilantly at the close of the track.

Tyler’s evocation of the French poet, which is littered throughout the record, speaks to his penchant for an increasingly expressive lyricism. Call Me If You Get Lost is, in its loosest definition, a concept album centred on travel and exploration, both literal and existential. On “Hot Wind Blows” Tyler sets off with Lil Wayne in tow. At the start of the track, both rappers have “just landed in Geneva”, their jetsetting so frequent the pilot is tasked with reminding them where they are. On arrival, Tyler announces “I’ma travel the globe”. A mischievous flute arrangement underscores their adventures.

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If “Hot Wind Blows” is about global voyage in the literal sense, on the confessional “Massa” Tyler uses travel references to channel his woes into one, emotionally searching track. The rapper cruises in his “double R” (Rolls Royce), gazing through the sunroof to admire the “panoramic view of the sky and the sun beaming”. Sunbeams reoccur, but this time the “ray of light show[s] that nobody is front-seating”. The sun, filtered through the window of the car, only illuminates that Tyler is alone.

Call Me If You Get Lost is the album on which Tyler most explicitly references his sexuality. On “Corso”, Tyler’s love interest hasn’t spoken to her boyfriend in three days, a fact that doesn’t concern the rapper as he’s “down for the threesome”. Recorded in a single, meandering take, the eight-minute-long “Wilshire” sees Tyler lament a lost love, attempting to quell the pain by sleeping with as many people as he sees fit (“men or women, it don’t matter, if I seen ’em, then I had ’em”). In the opening lines of “Run It Up”, Tyler admits that “as a kid, I felt alienated by the n****s who look just like me”, those who would “treat [his] nuance like it was a nuisance”. These lines do not overtly mention sexuality, but they unquestionably allude to a queer experience, a sense of otherness reproduced from an early age.

“Manifesto” appears at the start of the record’s second half. It’s both an accountability parade (“I came a long way from my past”), and defiantly unapologetic (“I was cancelled before cancelled was with Twitter fingers/Protesting outside my shows, I gave them the middle finger”), and just about manages to pull off both. Tyler rehashes forgotten disputes, referencing a series of sexually aggressive posts that he tweeted at pop singer Selena Gomez in 2010. Although he “didn’t wanna offend her”, he claims to have apologised and admits that the incident happened “back when I was tryna fuck [Justin] Bieber”, Gomez’s then-partner. Through this final admission, Tyler allows the listener an insight into his psyche: some regrettable past behaviours may have stemmed from attempts to stifle a burgeoning sexuality. 

Elsewhere, the double header “Sweet / I Thought You Wanted To Dance” is a dichotomous affair that expertly showcases the central tension of the record, each side a bittersweet package of love and loss respectively. Its first half is a saccharine love song – a breezy synth jaunt with city-pop sensibilities. “Baby, you’re the sweetest, sweetest, sweetest thing”, croons Tyler on the chorus. On the reggae-tinged second half, the car image returns: “I’m hitchhiking, you pull over, so invitin’/The seat got my name on it, but who driving?” In the same way that Tyler relinquishes control to this mystery driver, the rapper will never have ultimate control over how his art is perceived by the public. 

Across this new record, Tyler, the Creator’s capabilities come to life. When we talk about the rapper’s artistic evolution, we can understand that process as a series of stylistic choices built on interactions with a rapidly changing sense of self. For Tyler, halfway through his career, a narrative arc – not only concerning sexuality, but overall personal growth – had begun to reveal itself. But Tyler’s output is perpetually viewed through the prism of his earlier work, more so than most contemporary artists. This is partly due to the strength and sheer bombast of his debut, and partly due to society’s inherent suspicion of a changed man. Tyler puts it best himself on “Massa”, declaring “My taste started changin’ from what it was when they met me/But first impression is everything, ain’t wanna let me go”. That person, that first impression of Tyler, remains in the minds of fans and critics alike. Maybe it’s finally time to heed Tyler’s own advice, and let him go.