“The cabaret can sometimes self sabotage, its intimacy stippled with tiny pitfalls and failings. In such spaces, a singer and a pianist left alone leaves little room for error, scarcely any nook or corner for secreting flaws. At the same time, the potential for honesty lends an excitement to the proceedings, presenting a level of imperfect excellence worth aspiring toward.” —Gary Suarez, “The 10 Best Jazz Albums Of 2018”
We crave intimacy more than we’d like to admit. We are furtive with our desires, true, but no one is above the desire for closeness and no one is above experiencing pangs of longing. After all, this is why we listen to music in droves and seek out new artists with such hunger: we are looking to bond with something.
This, too, is the function and form of the cabaret. The scene sets itself: a piano player, a singer, tried-and-true jazz standards, plush chesterfield couches, smoke rings, and the spiraling feeling of a chilly Old New York night. If this lush setting is inviting to you, then you’ve gathered the point of the cabaret. Equal parts enticing and nostalgic, the cabaret has the ability to transport while also emphasizing rootedness. Here is our musical lineage, and here, too, is the future of a genre.
In hip-hop, we are treated to the cabaret format each and every time an artist skillfully raps over industry production. Each redux and remix is an invitation into the smoky hallows of the hip-hop cabaret. Perhaps no artist understands the format of the hip-hop cabaret better than Tyler, The Creator, who, earlier this year, went on a multi-song run, delivering tight verses over tracks by Jacquees, Playboi Carti, Prophet, Drake and Lil Baby, Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s duo KIDS SEE GHOSTS, and a nod to the film Call Me by Your Name. Each reinvention and callback acts as comfort and shock to the listener. We get that something borrowed and something new in every track, making for the perfect marriage between creator and consumer.
Tyler’s freestyles are successful because he is an immaculate rapper. Yet, they are also successful because of the value proposition presented to the listener. With each song and each familiar note Tyler, The Creator essentially says, “Trust me with this beloved thing, and I will do you one better,” and we certainly do trust him. We tune in to “BRONCO” without a second thought because Drake and Lil Baby’s “Yes Indeed” is one of the biggest songs of 2018, but we stay engaged because Tyler, The Creator can fashion his own universe out of any and all tools. The jazz cabaret works in much the same way. Consider “Yes Indeed” a hip-hop standard, and Tyler, The Creator a precise singer after our own hearts.
As Gary Suarez wrote for Vinyl Me, Please’s top 10 jazz albums of the year list, the cabaret format can be largely unforgiving. There is little room for error. The cabaret presents a heightened sense of pressure for the artist, and an equal willingness to critique rising from the audience. Your every flaw and misstep is highlighted to the untrained and trained ear alike because to take on a standard is to place yourself in the lion’s den. We know what “Yes Indeed” should sound like, we know how the track should make us feel, and what an artist does with those two “should”s must be doubly rewarding. Should you execute successfully—as Tyler does, again and again—the payout is also doubled.
“BRONCO” is special precisely because Tyler, The Creator skirts perfection. Not a live performance, he could have easily cut the final seconds of the freestyle, wherein he admits, “I just ran out of words,” but he chooses to leave it in, to show his flaws just as readily as he shows his superb craft. We get some of the same on “TIPTOE” (“I ain't say nothing this off top of the dome) as well. Not only does the petering off of the verse endear us to Tyler, since we’ve all ended a freestyle on a comically sour note, but we also get a taste of that “level of imperfect excellence” Suarez discusses in his review of Cecile McLorin Salvant’s The Window. Tyler, The Creator uses “BRONCO” to give us a window into his process, but to also be honest with us. He is not a perfect rapper, but for that reason, we love him.
For hip-hop, the honesty of the cabaret transmutes into a new sense of intimacy and understanding between artist and fan. For one, we know what you’re listening to, and sharing music is building community. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we get to watch the creative process in action. Certainly whatever follow-up Tyler, The Creator delivers for Flower Boy, his stint of remixes will have their fingerprints on the album in some capacity. These are Tyler’s creative cogs turning, and we get an exclusive into every steel-to-steel interaction.
The cabaret, too, is about paying homage to musical lineage. In addition to dropping “GELATO,” a remix of “No Validation” by Jacquees, Tyler also took to Twitter to note that he is a big fan of “No Validation.” A small touch, but one that replicates the function of performing jazz standards that have someone touched or inspired the singer. And for those who assume that a simple “cover” of a song cannot provide a narrative, the counter we can present is that the pick is the story. Take “TIPTOE,” a remix of Playboi Carti’s “R.I.P.,” and the little vignette Tyler painted on Twitter prior to releasing the track.
This moment makes the final “Shout out Carti” a point of storytelling and not simple filler. We get a glimpse of Tyler, The Creator’s tastes just as “BRONCO” allowed us to peer at his flaws. Tyler uses his remixes, uses the format of the hip-hop cabaret, to showcase himself as a fully-formed artist and fully-formed human being in the same turn. There is no question that Tyler is talented, but now that we know his limits, there is the sense that our relationship to him is all the way limitless. Where fans are always looking to connect with real people through music, Tyler’s demonstrating his creator’s reality may play just as bare as his coming out on “Garden Shed.” At the least, we feel the same closeness, and this time, we’re laughing along with him.