Review Summary: "Sam, the music sounds good, man. You've been practicing."
Tyler, The Creator's junior album is a bit eclectic in terms of concept, but here's what I took away from it: It is not
his third therapy session - instead, it's a stand-alone story that can be interpreted both literally, as actually happening, or figuratively, inside Tyler's fractured psyche. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The premise: likeable troublemaker Wolf Haley arrives at "Camp Flog Gnaw" and encounters the extremely anti-social jazz player/crack dealer (?) Samuel. Wolf starts to make friends with Samuel's girlfriend Salem, much to the chagrin of Sam, who starts a riot in which Earl Sweatshirt is killed. The album closes as Wolf contemplates the death of his (Tyler's) grandmother and threatens violence against Samuel. It's abundantly clear that Wolf and Samuel are two halves of Tyler, the former being a more self-aware individual and the latter trapped by emotional immaturity, and that the former is becoming more prominent as Samuel burns out. If Bastard
was the story of a kid dealing with growing up without a father, and Goblin
was the story of that same kid dealing with the launch into stardom, then Wolf
is that kid dealing with the realizations brought on by the previous two stories.
But regardless of the interesting (if rather muddled) concept, none of that means a damn thing if the music itself can't stand up. Fortunately, Tyler has pulled through on that front. His production has continued to evolve, pulling from a variety of influences: Neptunes-style funk on "Jamba", "48" and "IFHY", neo-soul on "Treehome95", arpeggiated guitar chords on "Answer", and straight jazz on closer "Lone" - the same brand of sonic eclecticism and experimentation that Gorillaz employ on their albums. Yet he retains connection to the sound he developed on his last two albums, melding the darkness of Goblin
with the happier sounds that he's professed to loving - just another example of his beloved contradictions, like when he tears into his father directly, rather than through one-liners or retrospect, on "Answer" over charming guitars and pleasant synths reminiscent of ringing phones. The problematically long hooks of past Odd Future releases has mostly been skirted here as well, only becoming an issue on "Trashwang" Unfortunately, though, some sacrifices have been made despite the progression. The unique if strange percussion on the last album has been replaced with conventional hip-hop drumkits that stand out jarringly from the rest of the production in a bad case of imbalanced mixing - a problem that the album as a whole experiences. But the music outside of the drums sounds stellar, embracing different instrumentation and moods to create a musical work that is, surprisingly, very consistent.
Tyler's lyrics have always been provocative in the vein of classic punk rock artists, and when several songs have a four-beat count-off, it's hard (at least for me) not to think of Dee Dee Ramone shouting "1-2-3-4!" before launching into a show. Wolf
balances introspection and storytelling well, explaining on "Cowboy" and "Lone" that although newfound financial stability has brought improvements, happiness hasn't necessarily come along as a result. He's still forced to deal with the death of his grandmother, who is now "just nostalgia", and contemplate how his friends are all going through their own issues ("Frank is out the closet, Hodgy's an alcoholic/Syd might be bipolar, but *** it, I couldn't call it"), and work through the intricacies of relationships on "IFHY" and "Awkward". He does come close to rehashing points he's already made, like those about critics or his father, but he tries to only touch on these subjects with one-liners to avoid repeating himself too much ("Tyler talkin' father problems" and "fuck critics/(How's your dick?)/Shit, how's your knees?" from "Slater").
Tyler understands the niche that he's found himself in, mostly beloved by white teenagers with either inflated egos or severe issues. This is called to attention on "Colossus", which essentially makes the same characterization as Eminem's "Stan" in a less subtle fashion - a fan who adores Tyler to the extent of obsession and homosexual feelings over rumbling bass and jazz chords. It's an exaggeration, to be sure, and one could say he's putting words into the mouths of his fans, but it demonstrates his perspective on the matter of being mobbed and complimented by fans. And in spite of the success that he touts on lead single "Domo23" and "Slater", Tyler is well aware that said success has stemmed from being relatable - Goblin
could certainly be accused of having its head far
up its own ass, but it still managed to connect with his audience in their anger and worries over the future, themes that he expands upon on Wolf
. On "Rusty", with Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt, he covers how he has become an important figure to many teenagers, staving them off from depression or lashing out and encouraging individuality, and with "Awkward" and "IFHY" discusses the paradoxes and pains of love and lust. Also notable is "Pigs", which tells the story of how Samuel arrives at Camp Flog Gnaw atop menacing organs and police sirens, but also functions as A: a general story of how young people can be pushed to violence by the cruelties of their peers, and B: the story of Tyler's rise to prominence, bullied and mocked into lashing out before recoiling at the backlash of the "pigs".
is well-produced and lyrically compelling, it has an issue with tracklisting and filler. First single "Domo23" is astonishingly out of place between "Awkward" and "Answer", two of the calmer songs of the album, because it's entirely built around hype - it's also one of the weaker songs, designed to pander, with the obligatory celebrity name-dropping that is kept to a surprising minimum through the rest of the album. And production-wise, it's mostly made up of the same synthesizers that were used to great effect on Goblin
, but don't mesh with Wolf
at all - the horns that bookend the song deserved more usage. "Treehome95" quite honestly doesn't fit on the album itself - according to the skit, it's a song by Samuel's jazz/soul band "The Dead Sams", but it still doesn't make sense positioned where it is between the riotous hype songs "Trashwang" and "Tamale". Neither of those songs are particularly bad, however - just out of place. "PartyIsntOver" and "Campfire" are both abysmal songs, repetitive and annoying and crammed into one track with the actually interesting and fun song, "Bimmer".
But although one can nit-pick as though they were a chimpanzee with a refined ear, Wolf
is definitely a development and not a regression or stagnation. Tyler has become more self-aware with his lyrics, but not so much that he has become purely laughable, and his production improves the more he incorporates the music he loves. It's not the conclusion to the trilogy of therapy sessions that were promised, but it's very satisfying.