“I felt emotions of gentleness and pleasure, that had long appeared dead, revive within me. Half surprised by the novelty of these sensations, I allowed myself to be borne away by them, and forgetting my solitude and deformity, dared to be happy.” —Frankenstein’s monster
Some stories are told for so long they begin to take on other lives, perhaps some quite apart from their original telling.
Frankenstein: the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, is one such story. Although the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, creates a nameless being referred to by such names as “monster” and “daemon” throughout the book, many retellings in popular culture—from films to catch-all references for ill-begotten mistakes—conflate the monster with the name of its creator. In the book’s prologue, Victor Frankenstein observes, “We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up.” These words continue to ring true as both Frankenstein and his creation share the same name in the cultural memory of most—half made up by their author, half by their audience.
Tyler, the Creator is no stranger to the multiple lives a story can take on. In his own career, Tyler has grown from his early persona as an antagonistic outcast into the optimistic flower boy. Few, if any, could have predicted that the young emcee once banned from the UK over homophobic lyrics would someday evolve to explore his own sexuality through bright, pop-leaning soundscapes perfect for warmer weather. As he pronounces on IGOR, his newest and perhaps best offering yet, “Y’all said I wouldn’t go nowhere, took the detour.” In this way, Tyler has outlived his story to experience multiple lives on record.
Tyler’s latest album could be named for the strength that he exhibits in overcoming heartbreak. Given the layers of meaning that he often leaves to audience interpretation, IGOR could also take its name from the fictional character most commonly associated with Frankenstein, though the character is nowhere to be found in the classic novel. In fact, Igor did not become Frankenstein’s humble and hapless servant until 1974, when Mel Brooks made his own spin on the story with Young Frankenstein, a film that finds Victor Frankenstein’s grandson, Frederick Frankenstein, attempting to outlive the legacy of his own name.
Curiously, Tyler may see some of his own story in the titular character, considering many rappers do not outlive their early legacies, often struggling to survive in an industry that often does not reward growth and evolution. Tyler, on the other hand, has consistently transformed himself from album to album, and—in his note to fans leading up to IGOR’s release—even went so far as to remind them, “This is not Bastard. This is not Goblin. This is not Wolf. This is not Cherry Bomb. This is not Flower Boy. This is IGOR.” As Tyler has adopted a different persona throughout each album—and even multiple personas on individual albums—his choice to play Igor, the hunchbacked assistant of the Young Frankenstein, is both an odd and revealing choice about his own philosophy of creation.
Igor—though attached to the name of Frankenstein—does not carry the same cursed end as the scientist, nor does the audience carry any preconceived notions of his fate: Who is this character? Where did he come from? Do we know him from somewhere? When he appears in Young Frankenstein, he and Frederick Frankenstein mention their grandfathers working together, but there was no such Igor in the novel or anywhere else. Igor is truly a man without a country, his backstory only a mythical addition to another myth. Thus, Igor is the perfect character for Tyler to embody in his latest reimagining of self because, with little prior knowledge to go on, audiences cannot hold this new character to any prior expectations. Igor is able to announce on “IGOR’S THEME” that “they gon’ feel this one,” in part because we have not felt this one, not in this particular manner, before now.
The novel Frankenstein follows Victor Frankenstein, who, after the death of his mother, begins to seek through science the cure for death, thus the creation of an immortal and towering figure that he immediately regrets making.
In the unfolding drama between the two, Victor Frankenstein and his creation spar over the monster’s existence, the scientist wanting to be rid of what he perceives to be a horrendous mistake and the creature demanding of him a companion to cure his loneliness. But Frankenstein never relents, thus the people around him die at the hands of the monster. There is no bright outlook to Frankenstein, no happy ending, only the horrific unspooling of a man who refuses to learn the moral of his own story. That he does not acknowledge the creature’s need for companionship mirrors the consequences of his own life, and he never does heed the monster’s warning: “I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
It’s not hard to imagine another era in Tyler’s own career when he could have taken on the persona of either Frankenstein or his monster—or both. On Bastard and Goblin, most explicitly, Tyler weighed the darker aspects of his personality through such characters as Wolf Haley and Tron Cat, who were set on paths for destruction, while other voices like Dr. TC attempted to encourage him to healthier actions. In another timeline, Tyler could have easily made albums called Frankenstein or Monster that explored the psychology of the mad scientist and his creation to reveal something of the emcee’s internal conflicts. In his own name, Tyler, The Creator sees himself as a maker, but in his earlier years examined his capacity for burning and tearing down.
But with Flower Boy, and now IGOR, Tyler has finally self-actualized, forgoing the menacing alter egos of his youth to become a singular soul in search of meaning, equipped with a sunnier outlook. On IGOR, Tyler explores both the highs and lows of love, from his realization of how hard he has fallen on “I THINK” to the final falling out on “GONE, GONE / THANK YOU.” Whereas a younger Tyler may have found himself enacting violent fantasies after love lost, the Tyler on IGOR is grateful for the experience of love and life after heartbreak, and even wonders on the album closer if he and his ex can still be friends.
This is not a mad scientist disgusted with his creation, nor a monster leaving a trail of destruction in the wake of his loneliness. This is a man who accepts—and appreciates—the beginnings and ends of love, and everything that comes in between and after. The emcee who recently made songs inspired by The Grinch finds his heart three times larger and is glad to find it does not collapse on impact. Where Frankenstein is a novel documenting the destruction of two men at the hands of one another, IGOR is an album presumably documenting the relationship of two men, and the result is not destruction, but beautiful, wonderful evolution of self.
Far from becoming a less exciting version of himself, Tyler has never been better at mining the depths of his complexities. Unbound by expectations, as with Igor in Young Frankenstein, Tyler puts flesh on his creation to make of himself who he chooses to be. He is not Frederick Frankenstein trying to outrun a name, but a new character with endless timelines to explore.
Although Flower Boy and some of the material on IGOR (“A BOY IS A GUN”) provide clues to the listener about the gender of Tyler’s lover (a revolutionary naming, to be sure), Tyler withholds an outright announcement: “My brother said I was on the spectrum / don’t call me selfish, I ain’t sharin’” (“NEW MAGIC WAND”). Of course, he could also be referring to a stepbrother who once said he is on the Autism spectrum, but even in the multiple possibilities of the lyric, Tyler allows for an expanded definition of self in an era that is all too quick to label what is not easily defined.
Just as Frankenstein and his monster have become one and the same in the minds of many, perhaps Tyler was tired of being pigeonholed to the existing characters, watching their deformities morph and meld into one another. Perhaps he weighed the burden of outliving a legacy and decided to take a detour, opting instead for a role with less cultural baggage and fewer expectations about his performance. After all, how could Tyler now relate to Frankenstein or his monster? Neither could give up their back-and-forth bitterness, bringing the other to a total loss of self. As Tyler navigates the end of his relationship, he releases his lover—and, more importantly, himself—into freedom and a new lease on life.
In the opening scene of Young Frankenstein, the late Gene Wilder, who plays Frederick Frankenstein, notices Igor’s hunched back and remarks, “You know, I don't mean to embarrass you, but I'm a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help you with that hump.” Igor—played with impeccable comedic timing by Marty Feldman—replies immediately, “What hump?”
I cannot think of a better metaphor for Tyler, the Creator’s career arc. Whatever flaws he has, both perceived and real, Tyler has lived as if they do not exist. Remaining bold in each of his artistic endeavors—music, fashion, and television—he has conceived without caution, and without warning. “Beware,” the creature warns Frankenstein in the novel, “for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Tyler, too, has outlived his early legacy by being fearless, and therefore unstoppable, rapping, “Take one look in the mirror, implications so clear / I live life with no fear.”
Tyler, on the verge of yet another reinvention of his sound and self, wanted not to embody the ill-fated monster nor the accursed scientist, but the one in the middle—or on the outside—added to the story in order to breathe new life into its creation. The moral of the story being that sometimes, for a story to have new life, it’s okay to reroute the plot.
Thank Igor that Tyler learned that lesson before it was too late.