How Tyler The Creator Became Rap’s Leading Man

Is Tyler The Creator the most dazzling star in the rap constellation right now? Just to ask the question would once have been considered lunacy, liable to see the inquirer exiled to a boarding school in Samoa for an 18-month stretch. We’re talking about the Ladera Heights kid who busted out of the twilight of Tumblr to make schlocky horrorcore tunes, drank “death juice” in warped music videos, and hypothesized in interviews about how humanity was going to become subservient to ostriches.

That is to say, Tyler subverted everything that hip-hop history told us a big-ticket rapper should be. He spawned in Cali, but didn’t look to his regional forefathers for anything; a demon child who rapped in the kind of timbre you would expect to hear emanating from the attic in a haunted house movie, uttering doomed mantras that a hell wraith might recite in an attempt to corrupt the adolescents who entered.

​​I’ve been thinking about those crazy, giddy Odd Future gigs that happened back in the day. They were unruly events packed out with young fans who had probably been dropped off by their parents and let off the leash for their first-ever rap show. Multiple dives per member were typical. When I saw the group perform in Dublin in 2011, Tyler made the gnarly leap despite wearing protective strapping on a foot that had been broken during a previous show, when he jumped into a crowd from the top of a speaker. “Kill people, burn shit, f*ck school” chanted the group and crowd in unison — a ridiculous lyric when you look at it in plain text, but a visceral mantra for mutinous teens. Those six words were probably scrawled across a million school desks. The reverence Odd Future’s fan base bestowed upon them predicted a certain type of intensely devoted fandom that young rappers like Lil Peep and Mac Miller enjoyed before their untimely deaths.

​​It’s a decade later and Tyler has stayed relevant by doing what every teen tearaway artist must do to retain their place in the zeitgeist: growing up. In doing so, he’s become one of rap’s leading men. New album Call Me If You Get Lost debuted at the top of the Billboard 200, his second album in a row to do so.

The evolution of Tyler from rap villain to genre protagonist has been as gradual as it’s been thrilling. The kid who terrified fans’ parents with his lurid lyrics is now a premium artist, both popular and critically loved. It’s a transformation as inspired as it once seemed unlikely.

The misanthropy of Tyler’s early writing suggested an artist who might struggle with fame. Destiny seemed to demand he position himself more as a man behind the music, like L.A. ancestor Dr. Dre or his hero Pharrell. There’s been times in his career when he appeared to want to be anything but a rapper, dabbling in fashion, film scores, and app development. Yet now he stands at the summit of his vocation, looking down on almost everyone else. Maybe Tyler will never be a walking headline maker like Drake, or the epitome cool like Future, or a hit single machine like Cardi B, or sell as many tickets as a legacy artist like Jay-Z, or be considered a wise lauriat like Kendrick Lamar. But Tyler increasingly looks comfortable in uniting many of the elements the public want in their rap stars.

Of course, he can rap well. Early concerns that his gruff voice wasn’t the nimblest instrument — especially when compared to the flow of friend Earl Sweatshirt, an extraordinarily dense linguist — have long been tossed out. On “Manifesto,” from Call Me If You Get Lost, his flow is dense and full of passion. Tyler’s personality is fabulously magnetic — he exudes star quality. And though in the past he resembled a music industry insurgent, hellbent on firebombing everything around him, Tyler has always been dedicated to the classic art of album making. He’s got a clutch of LPs that are distinct and memorable, which is why, like Kanye West’s catalogue, Tyler’s albums lend themselves well to debates about ranking.

Yet Tyler’s rise has been almost the inverse of what was previously considered normal for a star rap artist. His emergence was facilitated by his ability to harness the power of the internet, a nontraditional route to the cultural zeitgeist in the late 2000s. Tyler and Odd Future carpet-bombed Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube with unfiltered thoughts, 140-character protests, and glimpses into L.A. skateboard culture. The group released so many tapes, you had to decide what was worth your limited hard drive space. Songs were recorded on a laptop camera microphone; artists of totally different skill levels were invited into the group with no overarching plan. And while Tyler and the group’s violent language and morbid imagery were controversial, they were often honest about issues such as suicide and depression. They captured the desperate condition we call being young. Tyler would veer from goofy to deeply troubled; from sadistic to just a kid who needed attention. His records played like the tumbling into the teen psyche — and it’s as alarming a place as you might expect.

I wondered if the sounds and content of Bastard (billed as Tyler’s first mixtape, released on Christmas Day 2009) and Goblin (his 2011 debut album) might have aged miserably. Trust me, they hold up. Tyler’s vulnerability laid a path for the generation of open-hearted emo rap that have followed, while musically, the jazzy chords, synth waves, resonant bass drones, and metronome drums still feel fresh and exhilarating. See the sci-fi beauty of “She,” which compliments Frank Ocean’s silvery vocal style. “Odd Toddlers” features the same sample jacked from jazz-funk group Cortex that Madlib used on the MF DOOM track “One Beer,” solidifying Tyler’s spiritual connections to the timeless sounds of the producer and supervillain. Yet Goblin already sees Tyler, just 20-years-old at the time of its release, feeling his place in the rap landscape and grappling with a sense of lost youth. On both the title track and “Golden,” he reveals his regret at the life changes stardom is leading to.

Wolf remains my favorite Tyler record and the peak of the first phase of his musical development. His production feels more vibrant than ever — Erykah Badu stops by to contribute to the jazz club ditty “Treehome95” — while his writing retains its anger, but with more flair and focus than before. “Answer” is a moving account of absent father issues as Tyler envisions what he might say if he could pick up the phone to call his missing dad. Follow up Cherry Bomb is no disaster — the Roy Ayers collaboration “Find Your Wings” is an exceptional piece of generation connecting — but too many songs awkwardly find Tyler looking backwards. To say he phoned it in might be too harsh, but for the first time you can picture a disinterested artist dropping the masters off at his label’s front desk and just heading off and doing his thing.

In that backdrop, Flower Boy felt like a miracle. Naturally growing out of his bratty persona, he turned in a meditative work. After years of hints and rumors, the record feels like real-time depiction of Tyler coming to terms with his own sexuality as he raps about hooking up with men. In doing so, he recontextualizes thorny lyrics of the past, coming across as a young man who once used ugly humor to work through his own feelings. Meanwhile, the most severe tones were stripped out of the music, as Tyler deployed chiming xylophones, soft piano chords, leisurely strummed electric guitars, and soulful vocals to deliver a more summertime experience.

Then came another tight turn with Igor, a glamorama of wild experimentation and very little rapping. I felt some of Tyler’s personality was buried beneath the audio effects, but it served up some of his most daring musical experiments. Just a few weeks before the release of Igor, Tyler took to Twitter to respond with approval at a viral video made by comedian Nat Puff, aka Left at London, that recreated his supposedly predictable methodology. Try parodying “The Boy is a Gun.” You can’t.

​​Call Me If You Get Lost completes a trinity of work that has cemented his status among critics who may have thought his early work problematic. It’s tempting to call it the squaring of a circle: the sunny grooves of Flower Boy and daring genre-bending of Igor placed Tyler in the lineage of Brian Wilson, but under the influence of Westside Gunn, ​​Call Me If You Get Lost sees him rekindle an interest in rapping. Whether that was through direct communication or simply absorbing the music of Gunn and his Griselda Gang comrades is unclear. What is important is that Tyler raps like a man who simply loves rapping. This palpable joy in what he’s doing helps Call Me If You Get Lost navigate various hip-hop eras, styles, and forms. It’s a huge artistic statement that doesn’t go out of its way to tell you that it’s a huge artistic statement. Tyler is at his most compelling, and looks more like rap’s leading man than ever before.

The recruitment of host DJ Drama, the Philly ringmaster who’s helped facilitate some of the greatest mixtapes of the 21st century through his Gangsta Grillz series, ensures Call Me If You Get Lost trades in nostalgia, not dissimilar to the way Kendrick Lamar once summoned the ghost of Tupac. This is not perfunctory back-in-the-day remembrance that simply features a few adlibs from Drama and the famous “Gangster Grizzilz!” taglines — Tyler takes his lead from the esteemed series. The horns of “Lemonhead” feel like something you’d have heard on a classic Lil Wayne Gangster Grillz release. Drama himself slides into the role as Tyler’s foil. His yells of “We just landed in Geneva” inject extra scope into the luxury rap of “Hot Wind Blows.” You can picture Drama in the passenger’s seat snapping photos of the surroundings as Tyler takes them on a spin around the city.

A feeling of contentment ripples through the writing. Tyler is happy to muse on his success: “Mom was in the shelter when ‘Yonkers’ dropped, I don’t say it / When I got her out, that’s the moment I knew I made it,” he intones on “Massa,” an interesting revelation of warmth about his viral single from 2011 having previously rapped on “Colossus,” from Wolf, that he was, “sick of hearing about ‘Yonkers.’” On the more tension-filled “Manifesto,” he makes a point of being unapologetic for old lyrics, no matter who tries to pull them out of context and out of time — “Internet bringin’ old lyrics up, like I hide the shit / What’s your address, I could probably send you a copy, bitch” — and, as a person once banned from entering the UK, highlights the absurdity of famous people who claim to be “canceled” when they experience mild backlash: “I was canceled before canceled was with Twitter fingers.”

We can’t begin to ignore the musicality Tyler displays. Interestingly, he has never needed to surround himself in the studio with fresh voices to progress his sound. Think about how Kanye has recruited everyone from Jon Brion to Daft Punk to help him push things forward; even the lengthy career of Dr. Dre saw him rotated through co-producers, such as Scott Storch and Melle Man. Call Me If You Get Lost at once feels distinct from any previous Tyler release while being instantly recognizable as a Tyler, The Creator piece. After the synchronized piano loops of his early work, he tinkers with more free jazz performance on songs like “Massa.” His deft handling of a lush loop on the dreamy, luxuriant “Hot Wind Blows” is sample-mining that would please J Dilla. “Rise!” feels like an update of “Frontin’” and features the kind of airy hooks he’s been pinching from Pharrell since the beginning.

The guest spots are like a frequently circulated photograph of Barcelona’s talent-loaded bench. Lil Uzi Vert and Youngboy Never Broke Again are fine taste picks for a rap album in 2021. Lil Wayne continues his recent run of excellent guest spots on “Hot Wind Blows.” The presence of Domo Genesis keeps Tyler’s links to his Odd Future origins alive.

Mostly, Tyler just feels more at ease in his own skin than ever before. Maybe this is an emotional reading of the record, outside of usual music crit analysis, but after a tough couple of years for all of us, hearing him talk about enjoying his work, falling in love, and feeling healthy on “Blessed” made my heart sing. Maybe Tyler is simply delivering what his audience needs to hear in 2021. Maybe he really is that content — success is often built on great timing.

Odd Future fans are older now and, of course, more considered. Tyler has entered his 30s with them and feels primed to navigate his audience through another decade. If Call Me If You Get Lost had just been a great album, it would have been enough. But Tyler gave rap more than that. Whether he’s the genre’s greatest star right now can be debated. Inarguable, though, is that right now he’s in a group of one.