Tyler, The Creator softens in ‘Flower Boy’

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Tyler, The Creator Flower Boy | Columbia Records
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Tyler, The Creator may or may not be gay.

At least, that’s the major takeaway from his latest release, Flower Boy. Packed with punchy synths, a host of grade-A features and more lyrics about growth and change than about rape and murder, the album represents a major change in Tyler’s work, pushing him toward emotional and technical heights previously unreached by the troll king of offending everyone.

Flower Boy is not Cherry Bomb, and it’s definitely not Goblin — all of which is a roundabout way of saying that Tyler’s latest release is unlike anything he’s previously produced. Gone, it seems, are the days of music videos that end with Tyler hanging himself; Flower Boy is all about Tyler laying claim to his own softness.

The change is twofold, manifesting as powerfully in his lyrics as it does in the album’s sound and production style. His verses are less abrasive than they once were, diving less into the twisted, murderous areas of his psyche and more into a space of meditative loneliness. The tracks on Flower Boy still slap, but they’re prettier than they’ve been — a little less “fuck you,” a little more “fuck me.”

Partly because of the new tone present in his lyrics and partly because of its less-intense production, Flower Boy is more accessible than Tyler’s previous albums. For new listeners, it will be a less shocking initiation into the insular, territorial and often violent world of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the hip-hop collective that brings us Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt and Domo Genesis, among others. Interestingly, Tyler seems to know and own up to Flower Boy’s wider appeal; in “Foreword,” the album’s first track, he asks, “How much cooler can I get until I run out of fans?” — a line of questioning that seems to both call out his own elusiveness and explain the change in tone that in large part defines the new album.

For all of the emotions Tyler lets loose in Flower Boy, the album is still clearly Odd Future. It’s cynical, hard and a little uncompromising. True, he raps in “Garden Shed” about hiding from love, but he also blows his own face off and allows A$AP Rocky replace it with a white face in the music video for “Who Dat Boy.” Nor has he abandoned Wolf Haley, his icy alter ego who represents his own depraved, Freudian id. In “Pothole” — a song that’s about both success and the obstacles that block his path to it — Tyler raps, “Everyone is a sheep, me, a lone wolf / Nobody gon’ make a peep ‘cause everyone wants some wool.”

Flower Boy is strong because it nods toward both the past and future. Tyler knows from where he came — which is to say that it’s difficult to imagine him ever producing a record that isn’t a little violent, caustic or immature. At the same time, he’s forging new paths with this album, both for himself and for other LGBTQ+ artists, if he chooses to take up that mantle.

Is Tyler the new gay icon? Probably not. When he talks about being gay, he either denies it or turns it into a joke, like when he tweeted,  “I TRIED TO COME OUT THE DAMN CLOSET LIKE FOUR DAYS AGO AND NO ONE CARED HAHAHHAHAHA.” Still, nowhere except on Twitter have his fans seen such strong evidence of the queerness he’s been joking-not-joking about for years.

Openly gay or not, Tyler is still Tyler. Now, though, he blends his old style with a new sensitivity and sensibility. His bravado is still there, but it’s different. “I Ain’t Got Time!” brags about “kissing white boys since 2004.” In “Where This Flower Blooms,” he owns up to his own tastes and preferences when he raps, “Look, I smell like Chanel … / I coconut oil the skin.”

Tyler promotes the album under the title Scum Fuck Flower Boy. Half pissed-off and abrasive, half self-aware, it seems to be a self-portrait of this often controversial but talented artist.

Contact Sarah Elisabeth Coduto at [email protected].