Three Artists Painting Shades of Queerness Into the Portrait of Popular Culture

There is a majesty to the way we make love and art, and face adversity.
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There is a poetry to queerness. There is a poetry to our pain and to our pleasure, to our struggle, and always to our laughter. There is a majesty to the way we make love and art and face adversity. In everything and all of that art, there is mindfulness of the body. That body is gorgeous. It’s heady and romantic. To be queer and make queer art is to find beauty in your fits of angst and oppression. Fair or not, making something of the feeling of being extinguished, to make a fire beneath a cloche, is the task.

There are artists who find it within themselves to light these oxygen-deprived flames, artists who stand with torches for other artists. The queer community is strong and multiple, and somehow always in conversation. This camaraderie is how Tyler, The Creator, Steve Lacy, and Kevin Abstract all lit fires and stood triumphant on their most recent releases: IGOR, Apollo XXI, and Arizona Baby.

Apart and together, these artists are changing the tides in hip-hop, making it a more welcoming and inclusive space. Their music does more than promote queer themes; it gives body to the shades of queerness. Their music gives life to the obsession of desire and pursuits of validation that so colors our humanity. These artists released albums that spoke the language of the collective queer unconscious and brought our culture into the realm of pop culture without commodifying it.

That is their triumph, and this is their ode.

Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR is the breakup album of all our lives, and the story of a concluded “November,” but it is also a look at the way queer love has the propensity to turn obsessive. There is something to our desire that is so teeming with intensity, that it embers in the crag in our chests and consumes us. The album is littered with shades of obsession, desire, and heartbreak.

Look at the album's staple song, “A BOY IS A GUN*,” which opens with the admittance that the boy in question is so “motherfuckin' dangerous.” Here, we find brushes with danger are quintessential to queer love. There is something so aching to finding your perceived love within the community because love is embalming in a fear of loss. Tyler captures the anxiety of stepping into the world and basking in your love when that pleasure could lead to violence unto the body.

There is also the notion that falling in love, itself, is dangerous; that love is violence unto the body for the simple truth it has the potential to cause so much strife. Yet, we cannot help ourselves. When performing queerness, there is often the desire to “get it right,” to find a successful partner and live a life that is valuable within the heteronormative society. 

That’s why there is so much pressure on queer love. It is seen as lesser and hedonistic. That’s why Tyler stays in his relationship despite singing: “How come you the best to me? I know you the worst for me / Boy, you sweet as sugar, diabetic to the first degree.” There is a drama to queer love that Tyler, The Creator brings to pop culture in earnest strokes.

That drama and intensity soon become an obsession on “PUPPET,” where Tyler is literally chasing down his lover, demanding they speak and breaking down his agency all in the name of love. When he declares himself the boy’s puppet, it is a nod to how desire and this incredible pressure to find companionship in the queer community makes us crazy. From the outside, we see that Tyler is obviously in a toxic situation, and yet he cannot help himself.

Thankfully, this obsession reaches a resolution on “GONE, GONE,” where Tyler admits that the lover he thought he knew is all but vanished. Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR elevates beyond a simple breakup album to be a portrait of what queer love and loss really look like. No gimmick, no desire to teach, and all honesty, IGOR thrives in a universal context because of its queer specificity. Tyler makes his music the rule of heartbreak by sticking true to the minutiae of the queer community.

This is about me and what I am / I didn't wanna make it a big deal / But I did wanna make a song, I'll admit / Uh, I just wanna, just see who can relate, who's out there” —Steve Lacy, “Like Me”

Steve Lacy’s obsession, conversely, is internal. At the heart of his debut album, Apollo XXI, is “Like me,” a pansexual anthem wherein Steve declares he does not see gender, only energy. The song opens with a telling preamble, with Steve admitting he isn’t seeking external validation. He doesn’t want to make a show of his sexuality, but he wants to connect with people and help them connect with themselves. That is his triumph: he centers himself and his community in his coming out, not the perceived reaction.

Lacy continues privileging himself on the front half of the hook, singing: “How many out there just like me? / How many work on self-acceptance like me?” Unlike Tyler, who obsesses with his love and anguish, Steve obsesses with self-love and personal growth. Not only is Steve coming out to the world, but he is also letting us in on his impetus. To love himself, he must live fully in his truth, and share that truth with his fans.

Contrast this with the end of the hook where Lacy upends “How many others not gon' tell their family? / How many scared to lose their friends like me?” The triumph of this song lies in its ability to give strength. Lacy finds the strength to make this song, to face his old fears. In doing so, he gives that same power to his fans to come out. These fans now know they have a home in Steve Lacy’s music. Where queerness celebrates chosen family, consider “Like me” Steve Lacy’s welcoming fans into his proverbial home with open arms.

Kevin Abstract has not been shy about his sexuality—because he shouldn’t be. Kevin’s latest album, Arizona Baby, presents a competing narrative to Lacy’s tale of self-acceptance. Where Steve focuses on the internal, Kevin obsesses over the external. Across Arizona Baby (“Big Wheels,” “Georgia,” “Baby Boy,” “Use Me,” “American Problem,” “Crumble”), he details and deals with the external pressures and pangs of being openly gay.

The album begins with a fear of false perceptions: “My n****s back home ain't proud of me / They think I'm a bitch, just queerbaitin'.” Kevin establishes his sexuality as a point of contention as if to say it scares him that his queerness is not valid because of how he's seen as only a queer artist, using his sexuality for clicks. This anxiety speaks to the larger anxiety within the community about letting your sexuality devour your humanity. No one wants to be seen as a monolith, and Kevin breaks that aversion down for us in two bars.

Two songs later, on “Georgia,” Kevin mulls over acceptance once more—from an external perspective. At no point on Arizona Baby is Kevin as concerned with accepting himself, as if to say that work is done; that the biggest problem within the community is not self-love, but a distinct lack of tolerance. “I often question, I often wonder / If I told this class I liked the n***a that sit in the back / How bad would it make me suffer? Agh,” he sings. Suffering at the hands of a society is the source of Kevin’s obsession on Arizona Baby

These feelings come to a head on “American Problem,” where Kevin closes by rapping: “I was a flaming faggot, that's what the principal called me / Not to my face, but I felt when I was stuck in his office / I'm just a, I'm just another American problem.” The messaging here is thick and self-explanatory. Kevin identifies the pain and hatred trapped within a glance, how it can feel like entire systems are against you.

The appeal of Kevin’s music is much the same as Steve Lacy’s “Like me,” wherein fans locate themselves within the tunes and the queer themes, and identify that they too suffer. Yet, knowing they can mirror their pain in Kevin’s work, the isolation of being queer all but melts away. There is the promise of community and acceptance—somewhere—and for so many of us, that promise is good enough. We are, not for nothing, a community of faithful people. Resilience and holding strong are innate qualities.

Really, the appeal of all these artists’ music is that they paint shades of queerness into the portrait of popular culture. IGOR is, at present, the No. 1 album in the country. This is cause for celebration. While inclusion is messy and tokenistic, these three artists are making sure they present the bevy of queer narratives with sincerity and tact. That is their triumph. There is no single way to be queer in hip-hop, in music, or in life. There is no single queer story. There is no single queer sound or image.

Tyler, The Creator, Steve Lacy, and Kevin Abstract want their fans—queer or otherwise—to know this and relish in that fact. They give us the opportunity to bask in the multiplicity of the queer experience; that is the essence of its poetry. 

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