Once one of the strongest and most infamous hip hop collectives around, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All’s influential apex around the time of the release of their debut album, The OF Tape Vol. 2, in 2012 has since seen the group gradually lose their status as the most important panjandrum of the indie rap zeitgeist. Although a significant portion of the rap troupe’s slow but sure dimishing in relevancy can be attributed to their prolonged bouts of silence and inactivity, with no material from the Odd Future camp having dropped since The OF Tape Vol. 2 and with incessant rumours of their disbandment making the rounds on the Internet, perhaps the salient force behind the outfit’s movement away from the spotlight is the success of many of its members’ solo projects. With artists such as Syd departing from the collective altogether, acquiring increased recognition both as a solo singer and as the frontwoman of soul band The Internet, whilst some of the crew’s strongest musicians, most notably Frank Ocean, have achieved such tremendous success off the back of their solo output that they are seldom thought of as merely associates of Odd Future, it would seem as if the future of the ill-famed Wolf Gang is not a priority for many of the mob’s members. This arguably became most apparent early into 2015, with Earl Sweatshirt unveiling his critically acclaimed sophomore album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt, which featured no help from any of his Odd Future comrades and was soon succeeded by the release of Cherry Bomb, the divisive third record from the collective’s leader, Tyler Gregory Okonma, known by his stage name of Tyler, The Creator. With this album also lacking help from any Odd Future personnel, whilst also being split between noisy hardcore hip hop and indulgent neo soul, Cherry Bomb was arguably Tyler’s most audacious project thus far in his career, even if it yielded a mixed bag of results in terms of overall song quality, and alluded to the rapper being resolute in pouring the majority of his creative efforts into his solo material. With 2017 having bestowed the music world with Flower Boy, Tyler, The Creator’s fourth record and first release under a major label — rather than through Odd Future Records, as was the case with his previous two albums — it seems as if the focus of the collective’s co-founder and chief has shifted almost entirely onto his own output.
Although this may seem like a large leap in logic, the fact that Flower Boy also witnesses Tyler, The Creator refine his sound and mature as an artist adds a great deal of weight to this proposal. Indeed, anyone even vaguely familiar with the artist’s previous work, his Internet persona or the ceaseless controversies to have surrounded him since his rise to prominence will recognise that the words “Tyler, The Creator” and “mature” would have never appeared in the same sentence prior to the launch of his latest record. Even now, however, the depressingly cynical nature of clickbait online journalism — if it can even be called that — has seen the rapper’s artistic evolution overshadowed by the fact that Flower Boy is supposedly his “coming out of the closet” album. Of course, the MC’s reference to his homosexual interactions are unequivocally significant to the thematic arc of the record, but the oft-cited lyric in which Tyler passingly mentions that he has been “kissing white boys since 2004” on the track I Ain’t Got Time! has been blown to such an overstated proportion that, without hearing the record, one could easily be fooled into assuming that the musician’s confessions concerning his sexual preferences are the only point of growth displayed across Flower Boy. In reality, however, Tyler’s focussed efforts on his newest album produce uncharacteristically cultivated and well-rounded results. Like Cherry Bomb, Flower Boy can quite concisely be divided between its more hard-hitting tracks and its sleeker, more soulful tunes, with the record’s original title, Scum Fuck Flower Boy, appropriately representing the two sides to the material presented across the course of the tracklisting. Whilst the MC unquestionably exhibits sweeping improvements to the overall conceptual and stylistic focus of his music on Flower Boy, however, that’s not to say that Tyler has ironed out all the creases in his sound. Indeed, there most definitely exist some rather apparent songwriting shortfalls that prevent the record from being the defining statement of complete, comprehensive maturation that it could have been. Nonetheless, the artistic refinement and development evident throughout the tracklisting amounts to Flower Boy being Tyler, The Creator’s most consistent and convincing project thus far, with the future looking bright for the Odd Future boss should he continue weighing in on a more tempered attitude towards developing the central themes of his lyrical observations.
Undoubtedly, the most striking change that comes with Flower Boy is Tyler, The Creator’s complete resignation of his status as a professional provocateur, with his lyrics not being framed around challenging taboos and trolling people, but instead seeing the rapper genuinely take his time to explore topics surrounding loneliness, boredom and existentialism in an endearingly controlled and muted manner. Unfortunately, far too many so-called thinkpieces surrounding Tyler’s toned-down and level-headed ruminations on his latest album have attempted (and failed) to argue that this tone shift is merely a disguised new tier to his trolling, with his homosexual confessions simply being a way to make those who have called him homophobic in the past look foolish, but such overtly biased criticisms ignore the context in which Flower Boy has been released. With Cherry Bomb seeing Tyler strive for a degree of isolation, with the artist simply stating that “everyone’s on their own island” when questioned about the lack of any features from fellow Odd Future members, Flower Boy is such a natural progression from this that it could almost have been expected, even in spite of just how antithetical it may seem to the persona associated with the name Tyler, The Creator. Indeed, the roots of most of the record’s major themes can be traced back to the pursuit of social withdrawal that can be found on Cherry Bomb, with the resultant reflections on reclusion and tedium simply being the human outcome of such an arc, and one that even someone such as Tyler would inevitably reach. Tyler, however, isn’t allowing these logical developments to simply run their course across Flower Boy, rather he fully embraces his meditations on loneliness with some similarly meditative instrumentals that, even when at their most hard-hitting, still tend to meander, as if listlessly strolling through the warm, verdant landscape depicted by the album artwork, thus preserving a generally wistful and breezy tone throughout the entirety of the tracklisting. With Tyler handling the production himself, as is to be expected, most of the cuts from Flower Boy make use of the musician’s usual bassy instrumentals that complement his deep, gravelly voice and contrast the bright, funky, squelching synth tones that he tends to pile on top of his beats, but all whilst retaining the ephemeral resonance that reinforces the rapper’s hushed contemplations. As such, the bass-heavy beat and wiry synths of I Ain’t Got Time! can feel perfectly natural bookended by the plucky R&B vocal melodies of Boredom and the syrupy smooth G-funk of 911 / Mr. Lonely in the tracklisting, with Tyler’s understated explorations of the odd disparity that has seen both his success and seclusion escalate in recent times acting as the through-line that binds such stylistically differing songs together. In fact, these sorts of subtly contrasting songs that are placed side-by-side can be found across much of Flower Boy, as is the case with the very first two cuts in the tracklisting. Although the opening track, Foreword, is far from a banger by Tyler’s standards, the feeling of cavernous expanse that arises from its airy beat injects the instrumental with a more intense veneer than much of the rest of the album, which is wherein the luscious strings and piano, the sparkling synths and the watery guitar lines of the succeeding song, Where This Flower Blooms, seem to act in complete opposition to this, given just how much they fill out the space left open in the production. Ultimately, it’s the wispy, light-hearted atmosphere in which much of the album is cocooned that leads to Flower Boy feeling so consistent, which is bolstered by the extent to which Tyler relates his musings on loneliness and monotony to fittingly mundane topics, such as his desire to have someone to eat with on Boredom, but instead confining himself to a self-destrucive state of solitude due to his inhibitions that arise from spending time with people with whom he feels no emotional connection.
This being said, whilst Flower Boy is an impressively cohesive project from Tyler, The Creator, and undoubtedly his most focussed record to date, there are nevertheless points of inconsistency that hinder the overall impact of his inward reflections, whilst other points across the tracklisting can drift listlessly to the point of sacrificing the solid songwriting required to carry such a meandering album structure. In terms of the inconsistency evident at various points throughout Flower Boy, this break in tonal continuity is perhaps best exemplified by the record’s lead single, Who Dat Boy. This song is quite the anomaly, in that, if every song from Flower Boy were completely removed from the context of the album as a cohesive whole, Who Dat Boy would likely rank amongst the strongest songs, but contained within the record, it arguably acts as the most substantial hindrance to the development of the album’s narrative. Not only do the discordant tangles of squawking electronics and grumbling bass leave a gaping hole in the record’s sonic consistency, but Tyler, The Creator and guest MC A$AP Rocky’s bombastic bravado play far more towards the territory of Tyler’s earlier output, leaving Who Dat Boy as an odd outlier in the chronology of Flower Boy, which is perhaps only appropriate, given the reference to a dead meme in its title. The instances in which the record’s fluency is arguably most notably broken, however, come in the form of many of the more mellow and slick R&B tunes that land across Flower Boy, wherein Tyler also tries his hand at singing. Although songs such as See You Again and Garden Shed capture a somewhat compelling fragility to the MC’s singing voice, especially as it plays against the cushions of vibrant synth tones, a cut like the penultimate track, Glitter, provides very little in the production to potently uphold Tyler’s crooning, giving his weak vocals nowhere to escape to during the hook. Likewise, just as the instrumental to this song ambles slightly aimlessly at times, Tyler also offers nothing in particular resembling a strong conclusion or even wrap-up to the album’s thematic arc, with the final cut, Enjoy Right Now, Today, being a rather directionless instrumental that doesn’t provide any real semblance of a strong ending to Flower Boy. Given how well-constructed and generally logical the linear conceptual structuring of the bulk of the record is, the fact that Tyler should fail to finalise his thoughts at the key point at which his resolve or closure could be displayed as to underline the definitive purpose to his thoughts across the album unfortunately leaves the end of Flower Boy feeling like somewhat of a non-entity, which is particularly disappointing when reflecting on just how decisively honest and self-aware the rest of the record had been.
Looking back on Tyler, The Creator’s back-catalogue, although many of his previous projects produced wildly divisive results, there nevertheless seems to have existed a sense of purpose that drove his character towards a point of revelation on Flower Boy. When also factoring in just how much the rapper has matured and refined his stylings on this new album, it really is a fantastically satisfying release that re-contextualises his artistic persona in such a way as to carve out another dimension to the rapper’s already individual musical identity. Similarly, with this artistic advancement comes a stylistic and sonic evolution that makes for what is unequivocally Tyler’s most dynamic and vivid record from an instrumental perspective. Of course, it is unfortunate that there are nevertheless holes in the tonal consistency of Flower Boy and a lack of a conclusive ending to cement the conceptual purpose of the album in a gratifying pay-off. However, such issues are ones that could easily be resolved through heightened focus and, if this record has taught us anything, it’s that Tyler, The Creator is capable of harbouring artistic maturation to a degree that few people could have predicted, meaning that future material from the infamous oddball could prove to be even more exact in its conceptual execution.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10