On ‘Igor,’ Tyler The Creator Let Go Of The Past And Made His Best Album Yet

This essay is running as part of the 2019 Uproxx Music Critics Poll. Explore the results here.

Graduating from the hard-earned role of rap’s cheeky neighborhood menace, Tyler The Creator followed 2017’s critically-acclaimed Flower Boy with his sixth full-length studio album, Igor. Foreshadowing the narrative of Igor (which comes in at No. 3 on the Uproxx Music Critics Poll) is the name of one of the album’s best moments, “A Boy Is A Gun,” a play on the title of the 1971 French New Wave film Une Aventure de Billy le Kid/A Girl is A Gun written and directed by Luc Moulle. The film, like Igor, is about the inherent dangers of dabbling in love. Tyler’s decision to swap the word “boy” for “girl” on the song is a direct address of lingering public speculation about his sexuality that suggests the aforementioned danger is present no matter the kind of love.

Tyler taps into a darker and more authentic side of himself on Igor –– a self-produced and arranged project exploring personal evolution and the savage inequalities of heartbreak, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in a first for the rapper. Love and acceptance of oneself are realized in Tyler’s case through the dissolution of a three-sided relationship that finds him playing second fiddle to his lover’s ex-girlfriend, against a backdrop of first-rate funk narrated by comedian Jerrod Carmichael. Buried just below the album’s dominant narrative of partnered love is the truth of Tyler The Creator, who reveals and embraces himself for the first time without the security blanket of mayhem, toilet humor, and weaponized homophobia that infamously colored his sonic youth. It is at this juncture that he gives the world an unfiltered glimpse at the gargantuan artistic potential fans have suspected him to be capable of his entire career. That potential, however, is not related to Tyler’s talents as a rapper. Despite his singularity within the realm of hip-hop, his aptitude as a producer and arranger unbound by genre are what truly make Igor sing.

“Sometimes you gotta close a door to open up a window.” Jerrod Carmichael wedges the statement between “Running Out Of Time” and “New Magic Wand,” where it portends the dissolution of Tyler’s love affair and the beginning of a more violent chapter. More accurately, however, the statement is a neat summary of the musicianship that Tyler prioritizes over his larger-than-life persona in what might be his biggest career risk to date. Beyond thematic explorations of the concept, as it relates to matters of the heart, the danger is most applicable to Tyler, himself in the midst of a very public artistic maturation. While he should not be mistaken for an innovator in the sense that he has created an altogether new sound or approach to production, Tyler should be credited with having a keen ear, meticulous attention to detail, and the ability to seamlessly fuse influences to perfect a sound that, be it grating or dynamic, has always been all his own.

Tyler’s vision for himself is clear on Igor. From the disclaimer on the album cover art (all songs written, produced and arranged by Tyler Okonma) to the use of negative space as a substitute for lyrics and his decision to let his vocals play second fiddle to the lush, cinematic and frequently jarring production of the final mix, he is adamant about working and being billed, first and foremost, as a producer. The musical landscape of Igor strikes a balance between flowery pulchritude and palpable angst with chord changes that recall Thelonious Monk’s dissonant and angular piano signature while challenging traditional song structure and capturing the arpeggiated magic of neo-soul, ‘80s pop, and R&B.

While the influences of mentor-collaborators Pharrell Williams and Kanye West are obvious across his catalog, Tyler graduates from aspirational mimicry to flawless execution of creative ideas that carry direct references to their respective aesthetics without the burden of rehashing them. “A Boy Is Gun” details the pitfalls of vulnerability that might only be mitigated by begging for one’s life in a stuttering refrain that juxtaposes hard stops with the roller rink slow drag of The Ponderosa Twins’ Jacksonian mirrorball soul (using “Bound,” the same song West sampled the song on his 2013 album Yeezus). A careening bass synth underscores an unraveling that descends into a murderous rampage on “New Magic Wand.” The composition conjures the ghost of D’Angelo’s “Shit, Damn, Motherf*cker” and the otherworldly arrangements of The Neptunes.

Tyler offers a percussive nod to party-rocking breakbeat culture and foundational soul bands like The J.B.’s and The Funk Brothers on “What’s Good.” The song vacillates between trunk-busting subs and whimsical melodies that expand into classical piano riffs. The boyish harmonies peppering the preceding track are on full display by “Gone Gone/Thank You” — a bubbly but slightly bittersweet breakup anthem that is primed to score everything from dancing in the mirror to breaking sh*t. “Can We Be Friends?” is the emotional and musical culmination of the album, in which the question is floated on a tender sample of Al Green’s “Are We Still Friends” that blooms from a plodding blues to a Prince-inspired power ballad replete with high-pitched screams and a refrain that calls to mind the pleading denouement of ’90s R&B.

This final display of versatility is the most unforgettable of the release — in part because it is a four-minute portfolio that doubles as a parting shot aimed at anyone skeptical of his ability to execute musical ideas at an elite level. Igor is a body of work that elucidates the depth of Tyler’s ability behind the boards, which had been buried on previous releases where the menacing cadences and clever machinations of his myriad personalities always took precedence in more sparse mixes that utilized florid musical statements as little more than punctuation. The second half of Igor posits that letting go is preferential to losing control and falling in love. It’s a statement made over several songs in which the protagonist narrowly accepts separation to save face.

Tyler’s decision to let go might ultimately be the wisest yet of his career. The willingness to relinquish a good portion of the bombast that defined his freshman persona has resulted in his best work to date.