Tyler The Creator can flat out rhyme. It’s easy to forget amid his early career shenanigans and recent career reinventions, but Tyler Okonma is hands down one of the smartest rappers in hip-hop today. While headlines focus on his attention-grabbing confessions and star-powered flirtation, rap fans who simply enjoy hearing wordplay, witty imagery, and stacked, multisyllabic rhyme patterns could easily dismiss Tyler as a gimmick rapper, more interested in shock value than substance. To do so would be a mistake; as his recent run of releases — the latest, “Tiptoe,” as recent as yesterday — from the Flower Boy sessions demonstrate, Tyler has every one of the qualities of the best rappers ever to put a verse to a beat. The time has come to recognize he deserves to be listed among the greats.
When Tyler first landed on my radar around the release of his debut independent album, Goblin, I admit I was skeptical. His stark, surreal video for “Yonkers,” which featured unsettling imagery of Tyler eating bugs and hanging himself overshadowed what it seemed even then he had a rare gift for sinuous internal rhymes and possessed one of the best rap voices I’d ever heard. I wasn’t alone in this assessment; early on in the OFWGKTA tenure, the group would launch trollish tirades against then-popular rap blogs for not featuring their music alongside other burgeoning talents like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake. While each of those artists’ lyrical talents were instantly acknowledged — in fact, they were often cited as the reason for their buzz — it seemed the kids of Odd Future, however talented or skilled they were, had alienated potential outlets for their rabble-rousing rebel music with their penchant for shocking imagery and destructive behavior.
In the years that followed, Tyler and his clique honed their mic skills, even as members of the crew drifted off and others blew up. Tyler and Odd Future became nearly ubiquitous among a certain type of fan attracted to the absurdist, late night humor of Adult Swim, where the producer and his group landed a number of self-produced TV shows like Loiter Squad and The Jellies. Meanwhile, Tyler began to tone down his content, excising the rape jokes and near nonstop use of offensive and homophobic slurs. Some of this may have been commercially motivated; Tyler was banned from visiting the UK in 2015 due to lyrics from his early mixtape Bastard.
All of the growth culminated on his latest album, Flower Boy, but the pen skills that had been sharpened through the last three albums were obscured by an increased focus on production. Also, the buzz surrounding the album latched onto one line in particular from “I Ain’t Got Time!“: “Next line will have ’em like, ‘Whoa’ / I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.” While the line drew attention to one of the rappier tracks on the R&B-oriented album, so much of that attention was focused on that one line that observers may well have missed some of the other many, many fantastic bars littered throughout the song.
Yet, it was the songs that didn’t make the album that turned out to contain the most impressive lyrical displays from Tyler. Only a handful of months after Flower Boy became a critical and commercial success, even garnering a Grammy nomination along the way, Tyler began quietly releasing the album throwaways to his Youtube channel and directing his fans to them from his Twitter. The response was a feeding frenzy as fans began to realize just how talented the onetime provocateur had truly become, or perhaps, always had been. Loose records like “Okra,” “435,” and his freestyle over Trouble’s “Bring It Back” showcased an even sharper mastery of verbal gymnastics than Tyler had ever demonstrated before, even on his best lyrical cuts from Goblin, Bastard, and Wolf.
“Spent dinero like Taxi Driver,” he swaggers over the crashing beat on “Okra,” “Handmade is that thing with tires / But I rode the bike and Vill tail behind me / And he got the Cannon like he bagged Mariah.” Reading the braggadocious lyrics out loud does them little justice; the way his voice languidly slithers into the pockets of the beat, even as he injects a passionate urgency into his gravelly vocal delivery that makes the words leap out the cascading sound to grab the listener and arrest their attention. He’s longer just trying to pass off horror-movie-inspired, id-driven shock value raps, he’s really trying to impress with his wit — and succeeding.
A more recent release, “Potato Salad,” highlights the jump he’s made by adding a foil in ASAP Rocky. It’s long been a tenet held in hip-hop that two rappers sharing a track are competing as much as they are cooperating. “Who had the best verse?” is a question that’s driven rap discussions since the earliest days of the genre — while one or more rappers can be ostensibly working toward the same end of making a banger, they’re also trying to stand out from their peers, elevating their personal efforts even as they push each other to match them. Tyler is no exception on “Potato Salad,” digging deep into his bag for a quatrain that simply begs for repeat plays: “And got a belt with the holster, I ain’t playing games / But got some lil n—-s who would do it so I pass the controller / You get pressed and X’d out, tri-angle your nose / Pause your life if you squares try to mess with my O’s.”
This version of Tyler The Creator seems to be simply playing the game at a higher level than he ever has — except that he always has. The difference is the lack of gimmicks and distractions. Without the shock content, his true skill shines through with riveting clarity. While Flower Boy illustrated Tyler’s growth as a producer, his recent run of furious freestyles, lyrical loosies, and uproarious remixes proves he’s always had the potential of an upper echelon rapper. His newfound maturity hasn’t just benefitted his pocketbook. As more fans recognize his skill as a rapper, it won’t be long before Tyler’s name starts to receive mention among the greats.
Flower Boy is out now via Columbia Records. Get it here.