Tyler, The Creator drops the shtick and gets to the core of his belief in fearless individualism on "Scum Fuck Flower Boy."
"This guy sucks. It's basically Insane Clown Posse if they were black teenagers."
That's what a Facebook friend of mine commented on a photo of Tyler, The Creator that I took at one of his famously raucous 2011 concerts. Young Odd Future hypebeast that I was, I responded by saying that Tyler would never make a song as idiotic as "Miracles," the ICP song that infamously asks, "Fucking magnets, how do they work?", among other similarly scientifically ignorant lyrics. My FB opponent wrote, "That's the kind of thing Tyler will be doing 4 albums from now."
Scum Fuck Flower Boy is Tyler's fourth album, arriving some six years after Goblin, his commercial debut that arrived four days prior to that concert I attended. Although its wide-eyed wonder for the natural world is limited to a shout-out to "flowers, rainbows, and posies" in the opening track, it does end up occupying a similar place in Tyler's trajectory as Bang! Pow! Boom!, the album that housed "Miracles," did in ICP's discography. Both artists began their careers as iconoclastic contrarians, rappers who, despite appealing to different audiences, seemed wholly focused on distancing themselves from the mainstream, whether via aggressive concerts, abrasive song concepts, or horrorcore.
But nobody can play the role of the youthful disrupter for their entire lives. For ICP, that meant getting more positive, leaving behind songs like "Fuck The World" and "Still Stabbin" in favor of party cuts about taking "time off from [their] serial slaughtering." For Tyler, an artist who-- let's keep it a buck-- has always been far, far more inventive than ICP, that means finally severing ties with his horrorcore-themed (although he was never okay with that label) Wolf Haley persona and making an album that's very different from its predecessors in a number of ways.
Flower Boy is the least abrasive, most introspective, least sonically busy, most mellow, and least menacing Tyler, The Creator album to date. It contains, as headlines have proclaimed in the past couple of weeks, discussions of Tyler's maybe-not-entirely-straight sexual orientation, but it also contains a "pause" joke and a few instances of Tyler using one of his favorite insults, which also happens to be a homophobic slur. For that reason, there's no way you could consider Flower Boy a full "maturation"-- Tyler's still very much operating under the same outrage-baiting guiding principle that informed his early work-- but shedding a jagged rock influence and no longer seeming like he's being provocative for provocativeness' sake alone, Tyler's perhaps attempting a different genre. Compare it to the Farrelly Brothers or Judd Apatow first attempting romantic comedies and winding up with There's Something About Mary and Knocked Up, respectively. There's more heart there than in their previous films, to be sure, but they're also just as funny, and perhaps just as offensive (the political correctness of the former and the sexism of the latter have both been called into question for valid reasons).
I'll leave deep explorations of Tyler's frequent use of gay slurs and possible gay identity to those more qualified than yours truly, but for me, his willingness to open up about any romantic encounter, regardless of who it's with, is a nice change of pace, offering us a chance to see him as a real human being, not just a human Mountain Dew can. There's been an uneasy undercurrent of awkward romance running through Tyler's music ever since Goblin's "She," where stalkerish lyrics clearly stood in for a 20 year old's true feelings, but Flower Boy's the first time where Tyler feels capable of an adult relationship, even if he haven't has as many as his friends with frequent Tenderonis. As recently as Cherry Bomb, he was still puffing his chest out and making it seem like there were depths of uncertainty hiding under his cartoonish confidence, but here, he finally examine that self-doubt.
Musically, Flower Boy is the most focused Tyler, The Creator album, but by most artists' standards, it's still all over the place. The noodly R&B/jazz that first popped up on Wolf's "Campfire" and continued on about half of Cherry Bomb finds a relatively stable home here, where Tyler's love for Roy Ayers and the Gap Band (both sampled on the album) takes precedent over blown out sonics and mosh pits. "Potholes" is like Stevie Wonder filtered through the Neptunes; "Boredom" ends with a "Strawberry Letter 23"-esque bell melody. The aggressive "Who Dat Boy" feels somewhat out of place, as does "Ain't Got Time" to a lesser degree, both sounding more like concessions to day one OF fans who maybe aren't that thrilled about their formerly anti-establishment leader becoming a flower boy, but then again, this wouldn't be a Tyler album without one or two transitions that don't work at all.
As always, Tyler's the modern rapper most devoted to paying homage to his influences. In addition to sampling and featuring some personal heroes, he alludes to Kanye lyrics twice (once with the Lil Boosie lyric on "I Ain't Got Time" and again on "911" lyrics that mimic a "Dark Fantasy" pattern), and quotes George Clinton on "See You Again" ("look both ways before you cross my mind"). More surprisingly, Nat Turner's name is dropped twice on the album. So while Tyler has been one of the more original minds to surface into hip hop stardom in recent years, he's never been a punk in the sense of a "kill your idols" mentality-- he's the latest in a long trajectory of weirdos, and tracing that has always seemed very important to him.
Flower Boy is neither a perfect album-- Tyler's bars still need work a third of the time, and while he's gotten closer to arriving at a weirdness equilibrium that's scalable to album proportions, he's not quite there yet-- nor is it as much of an improvement on Cherry Bomb as most would have you believe (Cherry Bomb has some awful tracks but is still underrated IMO). Most importantly though, it is not Insane Clown Posse's Bang! Pow! Boom! When ICP went "pozzie" on that album, they didn't do anything beneficial to their audience other than suggest that, okay Juggalos, maybe chill out a bit on the aggravated battery and other violent acts, swig some Fay-Go, and just appreciate your fellow Juggalos. When Tyler drops his shtick and finally addresses what's been at the heart of his music all along (fearless individualism), it has the potential to actually enrich the lives of some of his fans. The realization that no, this belief in personal freedom doesn't just apply to figuratively killing people, burning shit, and fucking school in the most juvenile way possible, is a powerful one to kids who grew up worshipping at the OF donut shrine. In closing, I'll leave you with a Tyler tweet that feels like Flower Boy's thesis:https://twitter.com/_/status/888107286161309696