Nature loves a forest fire. Humans see only the destruction, but nature sees a fresh start, a chance for some of the younger trees to grow without their elders blocking their sunlight. Without the occasional forest fire the forest itself would eventually wither away; ironically, only by occasional destruction does the forest keep living. Hip-hop is no different. Established artists do everything they can to hold their entrenched position, and that means fighting tooth and nail against change. Every so often the culture needs a forest fire rapper to burn the game to the ground and allow some new saplings to flourish. Tyler, the Creator is a forest fire rapper.
In an age of mega-luxury rap, Tyler and his nihilistic, zero-f**ks given, skateboarding, hotel room trashing, still not too good for a 7-11 churro crew Odd Future have done everything possible to burn down everything in their path, and while we may be accustomed to them now, zoom out and the scale of their success has been staggering. Do you realize Tyler is only 22 years old? Starting as a teenager, in just a few short years he’s gone from some skinny kid on Fairfax Ave. to an artist that, love him or hate him, can’t be ignored.
Of course, the danger with forest fire rappers is that they can burn out quickly. Destruction is all well and good, but stick around long enough and we’re going to expect you to build something. The bad news for those hoping Tyler would fade is that his new album Wolf is the best proof yet that he’s capable of much more than pissing people off for the sake of pissing people off.
I should pause for a moment to acknowledge that Wolf has a running storyline, and I’ve heard hardcore OFWGKTA fans delve into explanations involving multi-album narrative archs, re-occurring characters, and multiple personalities. I won’t pretend to have spent enough time with Goblin, Bastard or Wolf to be able to either confirm or deny the possibly staggering complexity of Tyler’s storytelling ambitions, but regardless, it says something that the albums contain enough depth for fans to dive that deep into.
At this point in his career, if Tyler should be compared to anyone, it’s an early-Eminem. Like Em circa Slim Shady, Tyler is an outsider with a chip on his shoulder, seemingly obsessed with saying exactly what he “shouldn’t” and beset by well-deserved misogyny and homophobia criticisms. While Tyler doesn’t have Em’s genius lyrical complexity - although his rhyme schemes are slowly but surely maturing—it’s not hard to hear Mr. Mathers spirit in tracks like "Domo23" and "Tamale," right down to the alternating swagger and self-deprecation. But what truly set Eminem apart was his ability to be both obscene and intensely personal, and that’s where Wolf makes the most progress. "Answer" finds Tyler delving into his hatred for his absent father, a hatred that he admits might not be forever, while the semi-epic "PartyIsntOver"/"Campfire"/"Bimmer" both incorporate some of that aforementioned storytelling skills and reveals the vulnerability underneath all the raging. And of course, there’s no way I could mention Eminem without also mentioning "Colossus," Tyler’s exploration of the downsides of fame; think about it like "The Way I Am" or "Stan," only with a fraction of the thought and nuance.
With all the attention his lyrics get it can be hard to remember Tyler is also doing the vast majority of his own production, and it’s really his beat making skills that have come the farthest. Wolf’s production features a more textured and subtle sound than we’ve ever heard before. Just focus on the beat and Tyler’s sound has far more mainstream hit potential than his on-the-mic persona would ever suggest. The looped guitar line and organ overtones on 48 are hypnotically perfect, and the pairing of snapping percussion and sparkling synths suggests he’s absorbed whatever lessons The Neptunes had to teach, and made his own. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Wolf, and by extension Tyler, is that when Pharrell actually stops by on "IFHY" it’s almost impossible to notice the difference.
Like any teen idol, only without the bleached teeth, the worst thing that could possibly happen to Tyler, the Creator is that he becomes entirely defined by his early success and is sentenced to a life of juvenility. If Tyler’s still doing the “let’s see how many times I can say f**k per verse” routine when he’s 30, we’ll have long moved on. But while far from perfect, Wolf is the album of a (dare I say) maturing artist trying to figure out how to truly say something, not just say anything. Hopefully, we’ll look back at this album as the turning point in his long career. And if not, at least he’ll have burned a few things down in the process.