The most interesting song on Tyler, The Creator’s 2009 debut mixtape, Bastard, is also the most intimate. On the surface, “VCR Wheels,” the project’s tenth track, scans as juvenile and agitated as the rest of the project. Though Bastard has the aggressive and sinister energy of a horny 16-year-old with an unlimited supply of Red Bull, on “VCR Wheels,” Tyler replaces his shrieks with coos: “I don’t wanna play you / I just wanna tape you undressing.”
On “VCR,” fuzzy synths and programmed drums reach for Jodeci and satin sheets but instead land in the lap of The Neptunes—if they idolized Ill Bill instead of A Tribe Called Quest. Tyler’s ideas of romance can be crass and violent, and wholly unacceptable (“The thoughts to rape you turns me on”). He tells his lover he’s the “clearest copy” of their “dream movie” and “I’ll kill if I find out you’re watching some other movies,” but this approach proves to be a front.
“Wheels,” the song’s second half, reveals Tyler to be drowning in his emotions. The beat cracks open, smothering the track in dark distortion. All the aggression and aversion is window dressing for Tyler’s ultimate desire:
“Can I sleep over / And wake up next to you? / I want to feel you near / Just let me whisper in your ear.”
Beneath his brash shawl, Tyler has always been a lonely boy desperate for connection. “VCR Wheels” reveals his raw desire for love for the first time. The song is an outlier on Bastard, buried in shock value to keep up appearances. Tyler has been chasing that sound and feeling ever since.
Tyler kept the topic of love on the fringes of his next few projects. His sophomore album, 2011’s Goblin, delves deeper, but with more horrorcore maskings. “She” treads the familiar ground with stories of stalking a love interest from a distance. His lust is forceful but tender, hiding desires for a hookup under childish threats and chest-thumping for his homies. “In the back of my top, I’m writing songs about we,” he sighs. His mood isn’t much better by the time “Analog” begins. An attempt to finesse a date at the lake with an eighth turns into another murder spree.
On 2013’s Wolf, Tyler’s third album, incessant pining begins to creep further toward the center of his music. A brighter musical palette clashes against Tyler’s aggressive sensibilities. Take “Awkward,” the album’s fourth track. It’s as nerve-wracking as the title suggests, but beauty cuts through the mental clutter (“This feels like a dream because our lips locked / You officially put my feelings in a Ziploc bag”). “IFHY” is a two-sided love letter to a girl who is possibly in love with someone else, threatening to boil over into the usual hateful antics before giving in to the sensation of being in love.
The much more mellow “Treehome95” is an escapist fantasy to a jazzy treehouse wherein Tyler feels comfortable enough to tell his crush, “you’re my favorite crayon in the box.” It’s a far cry from the introvert who could barely articulate his yearning for connection outside the context of horrorcore imagery.
On his fourth project, 2015’s Cherry Bomb, Tyler expresses his love in a full-on ballad. “Fucking Young” begins with an incredibly awkward tale of Tyler developing a crush on someone six years younger, which melts into the saturated colors of “Perfect,” a duet with Kali Uchis. Uchis and Tyler sing of taking a chance on love over distorted guitars (“Just say the word, girl / Can’t you see the answers are all there?”). For those keeping track at home, Tyler has gone from burying his earnest love songs deep in his tracklisting to releasing a ballad unblemished by scare tactics as a single.
Tyler eradicates the curtain completely on 2017’s Flower Boy and 2019’s IGOR. On Flower Boy, Tyler’s love is free and unambiguous, penning rap ballads fit for a Broadway musical (“See You Again”), and personal voicemails fit for a crush he can’t get off his mind (“Glitter”). “Garden Shed,” the infamous “track seven,” tosses theatrics to the side and stands as openly queer: “Garden shed for the garcons, them feelings that I was guarding.”
On “November,” Tyler’s shame over burying his affinity for love songs—and, by extension, his longing for love—come out in full force. He’s afraid day one fans and friends will become “three, fours because of track seven.” We quickly realize Tyler’s been afraid to express himself in earnest. Without shock tactics, without gruesome horrorcore, there were no guarantee fans wouldn’t turn their backs on the rapper. But he had to live his truth regardless.
By the time Tyler delivers his latest album, IGOR, his fear was nullified in a cloud of pastel confidence. IGOR doesn’t just contain love songs; the album’s narrative details the genesis, evolution, and crumbling of a genuine and very queer love unrestrained by expectation. A song like the RIAA-certified Platinum single “EARFQUAKE,” with its bubbly chords and raw singing power, wouldn’t exist without the dank homemade sex tape vibes of an 18-year-old on the verge of a missed connection from “VCR/Wheels.” “Just let me whisper in your ear” has become “Don’t leave, it’s my fault.”
We can hear the DNA of “VCR/Wheels” in the bones of IGOR’s music and lyrics. “I THINK” captures the excitement and frustration Tyler feels at giving himself over to love (“I’m your puppet, you are Jim Henson”). Tyler’s more mature and articulate perspective on relationships dampens his usual violent tendencies. On “PUPPET,” he confronts his lover not with violence, but as a dejected sidepiece stranded on a rainy house stoop. The song amplifies the fears and anxieties of the boy not willing to be alone:
“Back to my house and we pick up our bikes / and we ride through the park, chase the sun / God, that’s all I want, other than air.”
The most apparent stroke of conceptual growth on IGOR is Tyler’s acceptance of letting love go. His lover is never given a voice across the album, but it’s clear their feelings for each other are different. “GONE, GONE/THANK YOU” begins as a moment of defeat (“Thank you for the love / thank you for the joy / but I don’t ever wanna love again.”), but evolves into acceptance and an embrace of self Tyler has rarely indulged in the past. “You never lived in your truth, I’m just happy I lived in it,“ he frankly tells his dodgy lover. “But I finally found peace, so peace.“
The peace Tyler finds in himself is more important than the peace he was searching for in other people on “VCR.” Tyler has come a long way from feelings left to rot in the basement and on the hoods of parents’ cars. Given that his discography is mired in unstable emotions, ending his latest album on solid emotional ground is the most gratifying sense of growth possible. Tyler isn’t afraid of himself or his desires anymore.
Tyler hides love and longing across his entire discography. All the evidence you need is hiding in his old VCR.