“I just knew if this album wasn’t good I would be fucked. Some people would disagree, but I was like, ‘Man, I’m nothing right now.’ ’Cause everyone hated it,” Tyler, The Creator says in his Flower Boy conversation with comedian Jerrod Carmichael, referring to his clusterfuck of an album Cherry Bomb. “Cherry Bomb was hard to get into ’cause it was a whole album of bridges and shit going everywhere. So I was like, ‘Okay, let me, for [Flower Boy], add all the chords I like but do it in a way they can digest.’”
Flower Boy is certainly digestible. Better yet, it's delicious. Brimming with lush chords, sing-along hooks and vulnerable introspection, Flower Boy is Tyler’s most accomplished and mature album to date. His most commercially successful one, too: it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, narrowly losing out to Lana Del Rey’s Lust For Life; it sold a career-high 106,000 copies in its first week; and it earned Tyler his first GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Album at this year’s awards (which went to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., along with every other rap GRAMMY that night).
While Flower Boy stands tall like a sunflower in Tyler’s growing catalog—and deservedly so—it’s easy for its towering beauty to overshadow the plot of land where those seeds were first planted: on Tyler’s middle album, Wolf, released five years ago today.
The follow-up to 2011’s hell-raising Goblin, Wolf was somewhat of a left turn for Tyler, The Creator. Not a hard turn that crushed your torso up against the car door, as passengers of Tyler, The Amateur Racing Driver are known to experience; “Domo23” and “Trashwang” kept Goblin’s juvenile spirit alive while “Cowboy” and “Pigs” brought the motherfuckin’ ruckus. But sonically, it was an unexpected and often brilliant detour, transporting Tyler’s complex and conflicted psyche from nightmarish Transylvania to the gorgeous lakeside location known as Camp Flog Gnaw (more on that later).
If Goblin was an X-rated psychological thriller, Wolf felt like a Sundance-winning romantic drama. The album fused soul, jazz, rock, R&B and hip-hop elements into bright, beautiful and vibrant compositions (“Answer,” “48,” “IFHY”). Those dreamy piano chords that drift into focus on the intro is what waking up in Heaven probably feels likes. Just 10 seconds into the album, it was clear that Tyler was drawing from a different well of inspiration on Wolf, one that glistened with the sounds of Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers and Tame Impala—not exactly names you associate with a supposed Satanist-worshipping misogynist who fantasizes about stabbing Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus.
These influences, along with the likes of The Gap Band, Justin Timberlake and, of course, Pharrell, also clearly shaped the sun-kissed sound of Flower Boy. From the slinky jazz of “Pothole” and Disney-fied R&B of “See You Again” to the Soul Train-worthy “911," which flips The Gap Band’s “Outstanding," Flower Boy is rooted in the fertile soil from which Wolf sprouted, only it blossoms even more spectacularly: its production more textured, more expansive and able to wreak havoc with a straight face (“Who Dat Boy,” “I Ain’t Got Time!”)
Even Tyler’s collaborative approach on Wolf’s “Treehome95,” a soulful, bridge-laced gem that put Coco O and Erykah Badu’s stunning vocals center stage, is a distinct feature of Flower Boy. Rex Orange County soars for extended periods on “Foreword” and “Boredom,” Estelle’s angelic vocals give “Garden Shed” its wings, while “Dropping’ Seeds” might as well be a Lil Wayne song. Arguably his best in years. "My goal with this album was to shut the fuck up and let all the features be the leaders,” Tyler told Jerrod Carmichael.
Thematically, there’s another trail of crumbs that can be traced from Flower Boy back to Wolf. Aside from the stunning revelation that Tyler, The Creator, purported homophobe, might actually be gay (“Garden shed for the garçons / Them feelings that I was guardin’”), Flower Boy makes it known that Tyler is lonely as fuck. Not quite the bleak isolation his buddy Earl sweated through on I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, but lonely enough to dampen his success because he has no one to share it with: “Five-car garage, full tank of gas / But that don’t mean nothin,' nothin,' nothin,' nothin’ without you shotgun in the passenger."
On Wolf, these feelings of loneliness began to fester. On “Cowboy,” Tyler confessed, “You’d think all this money would make a happy me / But I’m about as lonely as crackers that supermodels eat.” Later, on “Lone,” he rapped, “Ya boy seem happy as fuck, but truthfully ya boy lonely.” On the fantastic “Answer,” Tyler lashed out at his absentee father before ultimately admitting he wishes he’d pick up the phone if he ever called him—an early glimpse at Tyler’s emotional growth, working through his anger and pain before committing them to wax.
Fast forward to Flower Boy and Tyler is still waiting for someone—in this case, a crush he wrote a song about—to pick up the phone.
“Matter of fact, I’ma just call you, so you can hear it / If you do answer, I’ll play it to state facts / Although I already know the response you gon’ say back / At that point I’ll hang up, disappear and just stay back / And if you don’t, I’ll leave a voicemail with the playback."
Voicemail operator: Hello, no one is available to take your call. Please leave a message after the tone. *Beep*—“November”
Please, somebody, bang his line.
Beyond writing rhymes and making beats, Tyler, The Creator is a prolific director who crafts albums like film scores ("I wanted [Flower Boy] to sound like a Disney score. Just, like, very magical. My perfect little indie movie,” he said). It’s this ability to build worlds in his music that forges another connection between Wolf and Flower Boy.
As the conspiracy theorists will tell you, Wolf follows a loose storyline set at the fictional Camp Flog Gnaw (also the name of Tyler’s annual carnival in L.A.). Wolf, a new kid at the camp played by Tyler, pursues a girl he has a crush on named Salem, who just so happens to be the girlfriend of Samuel, a camp veteran and drug dealer also played by Tyler. The love triangle leads to a crazed Samuel chasing after Wolf like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but the ending is rather ambiguous and anticlimactic. When Dr. TC asks Wolf about Samuel at the end of the album, he shrugs and says, “Nah, but if I seen that n*gga I woulda killed him.” Perhaps if Tyler’s Wolf movie actually happened, the story would’ve received the dramatic finale it deserved.
Unlike Wolf, Flower Boy doesn’t continue the Camp Flog Gnaw storyline, nor does it follow any sort of narrative-driven plot. But there are moments when the album alludes to being the soundtrack to a car journey—one with twists and turns, peaks and valleys, and plenty of stunning scenery. “Where This Flower Blooms” races by with screeching “skrrt!” ad-libs and sounds of a speeding car, Frank Ocean leaning out of the window like The Joker. The Can/Sonic Youth sample on “Foreword” ticks away like that of an idle engine. If that’s a stretch, there’s no doubt about the first verse on “Pothole,” in which Tyler literally takes us on a car ride down the bumpy intersection where friendships become fraught by success:
"So now I’m speedin’ and tryna drive away from the fact / That she was right, so I triple left, tryna double back / The streets are filled with some clues / Like how I ain’t notice that? / Fuck it, I seen some familiar stuck in the cul-de-sac / I pull up, get out, what up? I wanna help / But what you want for some, some n*ggas / Really don’t want for themself / Now do I stay? Do I go? That’s my dilemma / And traffic is picking up, if I don’t leave I’ma get stuck / So I speed off, we talk barely and it seems awkward / And I heard through some words that you’re off it / I got too much drive, don’t wanna steer off path / And crash and get distracted."
As Flower Boy’s journey comes to an end on “Enjoy Right Now, Today,” we hear a car park up and a door slam shut. Presumably, Tyler arriving home to build his next world.
Five years later, Wolf is a beautiful yet imperfect album that ripens every summer. But more importantly, it provides a fascinating snapshot of Tyler, The Creator's trajectory, a 22-year-old creative tornado juggling his love for Stevie Wonder and dick jokes, proving his artistic worth while also sticking it to the critics, dismantling misconceptions about him with pretty chord progressions and heartfelt songs.
It's Tyler’s middle album—not only in the literal sense but because it was the crucial turning point in his artistic evolution. If Goblin made him the poster child for the punk-rap rebellion, Flower Boy reintroduced Tyler as an accomplished artist and composer who demands to be taken seriously (and not just by white kids who wear Supreme). It was Wolf that gave him the fertile soil to grow into the Flower Boy he is today.
"I had an older black lady come up to me a year ago like, 'Hey, I don't like the raps much. But just musically, it's beautiful and I love your brain. Keep it up. I will always be a fan.' This is someone's grandmother!” Tyler said during an appearance Hot 97 in 2015. "It only makes me trust myself more to continue to do whatever the fuck I'm doing.”