The DNA of Tyler The Creator runs through Kevin Abstract’s new album in ways both overt and subtle. There are direct references to Tyler’s work woven into the lyrics of Arizona Baby‘s autobiographical, not-quite-nostalgic tracks, but the two artists have so much more in common. It makes sense on many levels; Tyler was an inspiration to Kevin, from his musical approach to his insistence on controlling as many aspects of his DIY creative aesthetic as he possibly can. But where Tyler’s biography is a history of his rebelling against everything and everybody — including himself — Kevin’s story is less combative, more reflective, and less focused on gross-out humor and bug juice gags than on pulling cinematic entries directly from his middle school diary.
Abstract released his latest album a full day ahead of new music release day, a generous act that still seems like not enough to really live with these stories and feelings. Everything is touched with a gilded glow — not quite nostalgia but a warmth that speaks to the impact and importance of the experiences that inform the music for Kevin. From the lyrics to the sweet, lush production from indie rocker Jack Antonoff, who has produced works full of similar themes for the likes of Lorde, Taylor Swift, and Troye Sivan, Arizona Baby contains so many moments that make the listener feel the aching pull of adolescence. It might be the first time such an approach has been applied to an artist from the growing hip-hop canon. Hopefully, it won’t be the last.
Born and raised until he was 15 in Corpus Christi, Texas, Abstract’s story shares the odd trait in common with the controversial play named after the city. Like the version of Jesus depicted in the play, Kevin found himself an outcast and a wanderer, eventually surrounding himself with a found family of like-minded apostles who would go on to help spread his radical message of self-love and universal acceptance. The fourth song from the album is even called “Corpus Christi” and it’s half confessional and half venting session, depicting his alienation from his family, the rampant bigotry he fell victim to growing up, and the intergroup strife that struck his found family, the musical group Brockhampton, over the past year, mentioning excommunicated member Ameer Van by name for the first time since his removal from the band in May 2018.
Brockhampton still figures prominently into the work Abstract does here, despite his insistence that the themes and music of Arizona Baby were too personal to fit onto a more conventional group project. Co-production is handled by fellow members Jabari Manwa and Romil Hemnani, two of the group’s go-to producers, while Bearface and Joba appear alongside up-and-coming indie singer Dominic Fike to harmonize the chorus of the wistful “Peach,” which calls to mind late-90s, early-00s California alt-rock. Antonoff keeps that vibe coming throughout the majority of the album’s 11 songs, which keeps the sometimes tenderly reflective moments on songs like “Georgia” seeming dreamy rather than dark.
Unexpected flourishes, like the addition of Ryan Beatty’s angelic vocal on “Baby Boy,” make Arizona an unusually pretty sounding album for its often melancholy subject matter. It also gets surprisingly religious; the Corpus Christi parallels aside, “Use Me” makes the subtext text with its sample of the New Jersey Mass Choir singing “The Harvest Is Ripe” on a track that openly faces Christianity’s often hypocritical, hateful stance toward homosexuality — or rather, toward homosexuals. The church is known to condemn this group of people, sometimes violently, justifying bigotry through misinterpreted scripture, despite the fact that the religion’s ostensible leader was himself considered a pariah and a challenger to the orthodoxy.
In fact, that prettiness in its production may be the only mark against it. It is so consistently beautiful on tracks two through ten that it makes the rambunctious bookends seem unnecessarily abrasive and out-of-place. But, that’s exactly how Tyler The Creator got his first taste of the limelight and wound up in Kevin’s esteem as detailed on “American Problem”: “Ninth grade, Tyler was the illest sh*t I ever heard / Going to his concerts, no mask, singing every word.” Even Jesus flipped a few tables when he had to. But Kevin Abstract is at his best when he’s floating somewhere in between the two impulses, vulnerable enough to display the damage that the world has inflicted on him, and plaintive enough to remind the listener that he’s still human, looking to be accepted just like anyone else.
Arizona Baby is now via Question Everything and RCA Records. Get it here.