A traditional structure calls for a beginning, middle, and an end to even the barest stories. Every narrative needs a throughline. Yet, creating a story that’s accessible is easier said than done.
On his sixth album, IGOR, Tyler, The Creator’s story begins with a flutter of the heart. The boy who cried Wolf finds love and then loses it, a fairly straightforward narrative arc strengthened by lyrical breadcrumbs tucked into the margins.
Toward the end of “I THINK,” for example, Tyler goofily admits how bewitched he is by his new love interest:
“I’m your puppet, you are Jim Henson” —Tyler, The Creator, “I THINK”
Carefully, Tyler has planted the seed of an idea that eventually will grow into its own concept five songs later on the aptly titled “PUPPET,” on which he openly wrestles with being under the spell of someone who couldn’t care less: “You’re parasitic / I do not have self-control / I am startin’ to wonder / If this my free will or yours?”
This feeling of helplessness coexists with Tyler’s overeagerness on “EARFQUAKE,” leading to the song’s sweetly sung refrain: “Don’t leave, it’s my fault.” Those feelings turn sour once the relationship crumbles on “GONE, GONE,” where the phrasing evolves into “It’s my fault, you gon’ leave.” Because of his obsession, Tyler’s fears have become a reality.
The breadcrumbs Tyler leaves even lead back to previous albums. On “NEW MAGIC WAND,” Tyler’s insecurities angrily bubble to the surface when he yells “I live life with no fear, except for the idea / That one day you won’t be here / I will not fetch the ball.” This line is a callback to “911/Mr. Lonely,” a standout selection from his 2017 GRAMMY-nominated album Flower Boy:
“I never had a dog / So I’ve never been good with bitches / Cause I never threw a ball, fetch” —Tyler, The Creator, “911/Mr. Lonely”
Two years later, that emotional breadth, which Tyler has been chiseling at throughout his entire career, comes across refined in IGOR’s lyrics, creating a trail between puppy love and an Old Yeller-style sendoff. These lyrical breadcrumbs are more than just Easter eggs for attentive fans; they are important narrative moments that give us a broader understanding of Tyler’s career, and a testament to his growth. He wants to show us the work he’s put into refining his voice while not beating his audience over the head with on-the-nose lyricism. Rather than shouting “Look, I’m different now,” Tyler is offering a touch of foreshadowing and some fine stitching.
Subtlety in plain sight is a tactic producer Slauson Malone is also familiar with. His debut solo project, A Quiet Farwell, Twenty Sixteen to Twenty Eighteen, is a sample-delic rendering of perseverance while facing the end of the world. Racism and anxiety claw at the edges of the 2019 release, its hazy and lo-fi sounds reflecting the constant push through the fog that comes with fighting back oppression.
Amid the calm and chaos lies Malone’s “Smile” song series, featuring four different dispatches of the same message: “Smile at the past when I see it.” Smiling while looking back on all that we’ve accomplished is sometimes the only way we can face what we still have left to work toward.
Malone presents the series out of order, starting with “Smile 2,” featuring Def Jam emcee Maxo, who relays the theme with indifference over a somber guitar before kicking a verse about outgrowing home and finding solace. “Smile 1" follows, featuring Caleb Giles telling a story of seeing stars in the sky over loose piano keys. Malone reserves “Smile 3” and “Smile 4” for himself, speaking on Black poverty and trips to the stars over pitch-shifted vocals, respectively: “Can’t smile at the past when I see it.”
The final two songs in the series being placed next to one another blend Malone’s message. Smiling at the past is both detrimental and a coping mechanism. But hopelessness can welcome, too. By grounding the album with the four-part “Smile” series, the journey through A Quiet Farwell is more palpable, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that threads the narrative of an otherwise heady album.
Grappling with the sins and spoils of the past is a tactic Tempe, Arizona trio Injury Reserve employs for an entirely different reason. Across their discography, the only story rappers Ritchie With A T and Stepa J. Groggs, and producer Parker Corey, seem to be interested in developing has been their own. A latent self-awareness permeates their self-titled debut album, released on May 17, 2019, which they use to converse as much with themselves as they do with the ghosts of hip-hop royalty.
Much like with Tyler, The Creator, the Injury Reserve breadcrumb trail stretches back to their earliest recordings. Unlike Tyler, however, these crumbs don’t exist as changed callbacks. Instead, they’re direct lifts that put their latest work in conversation with everything that came before. Ritchie pulls “I can’t wait ‘til a nigga get to stuntin’ / Get a Tesla and take it to West Coast Customs” from the first verse of Floss cut “S On Ya Chest” and places it in the first verse of their raucous single “Jailbreak The Tesla,” announcing to the world he’s that much closer to ghost riding the whip of his dreams.
Both Ritchie and Groggs give weightier context to older bars across the album. On “What A Year It’s Been,” we hear Groggs reconfiguring the hook from Floss cut “Look Mama I Did It” while proudly reminiscing on writing bars with his daughter by his side (“Look mama I made that / Look mama I made that”). Ritchie later uses one of his most infamous lines from Live From The Dentist Office standout “Washed Up” as a deep-throated broadcast from the summit of their biggest project yet:
“You Mr. Me Too’s, I’m Mr. Miyagi / I fathered these niggas, this shit is a hobby” —Injury Reserve, “Washed Up”
“How was I too cowardly to go to your fuckin’ funeral? / But still feel like rappin’ about your death was fuckin’ suitable? / Was I true to you, or usin’ you? / Or the unfortunate events to make my songs more movable?” —Injury Reserve, “Best Spot In The House”
By tailoring their fans to expect the unexpected, Injury Reserve makes growth and reflection a part of their brand. Leaving a trail of lyrical breadcrumbs puts each release in direct conversation with the other, effectively bigging themselves up or chopping themselves down before anyone else can.
These small details might seem insignificant, but they can reap big rewards for listeners willing to dig beneath an album’s surface. They are the difference between having a story to tell and having a story worth following.