When Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys died last year, many memorials made a point of alluding to a very specific line from “Sure Shot” off of 1994′s Ill Communication, the group’s fourth record. “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has to got to be through,” he raps. “To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect till the end.” It was a direct engagement with not only much of the misogyny found in hip-hop at the time but also an apology of sorts for the group’s own rough, immature and at times hurtful rhymes. Judging by the frequency with which the line appeared in writings about Yauch after his death, it struck a chord for many Beastie Boys fans who found themselves maturing along with the group, becoming politically and socially conscious just like the smart-ass, rebellious pranksters of their youth. The implication was clear: Great artists evolve. Much of the pre-release conversation around Tyler, The Creator’s third solo album, Wolf, centers around a similar question: How will Tyler evolve?
As usual, Tyler never lacks for ambition. From the opening piano chords of Bastard to the roach-eating video stunt, to the sketch comedy show to the socks, Odd Future has run not on controversy but on a constant need for attention and a crafty ability to draw eyes while seemingly deflecting them. In the beginning this meant Tyler kicking off his first album by telling a bunch of popular hip-hop blogs to fuck off for not posting his music, but as the years pass and the Odd Future empire has expanded from the inside of Tyler’s head to a mini media-conglomerate, complete with a real-life carnival, which serves as the setting for Wolf’s labyrinth of a plot, that impulse to provoke hasn’t gone away. It’s only gotten more complicated and harder to defend, especially as Tyler continues to toss out homophobic slurs. Now that he’s no longer struggling to be heard, Tyler is struggling to be interpreted correctly, all while maintaining he still doesn’t give a fuck. Things get convoluted fast, like on the record’s horn-filled single “Domo 23,” where he recounts the controversy surrounding the protests at Pitchfork: “So, a couple fags threw a little hissfit/Came to Pitchfork with a couple Jada Pinkett signs/And said I was a racist homophobic/So I grabbed Lucas and filmed us kissing.” Oh, thanks. All cleared up now.
Like Eminem, one of his many musical heroes, Tyler has an obsession with controlling his own narrative, wrestling the specifics of the plot points away from the media that want to misrepresent him and the fans who want to turn him into a cartoon to be worshiped. Anger isn’t the only emotion explored on Wolf, but it’s present on most of the tracks: “Answer” finds Tyler lashing out at his absent father, “Colossus” at his overzealous fans, “Awkward” and “IFHY” at an old flame. More often than not Tyler also turns the camera on himself, chronicling his own insecurities, his fears and his inner turmoil. After thinking about calling his father on “Pigs” he raps, “I don’t know what’s shorter, his damn temper or my self-esteem/I sit in my room and I listen to tunes, I’m amused alone/Because none of the cool kids would let me join the team.”
That confessional aspect has always been a central part of Tyler’s appeal—his albums have always been half horror movie, half therapy session—but his self-pity reaches new heights here. On “Cowboy” he admits to being tired of his own gloomy posturing when he says, “Truthfully I just wanna fly some kites/Grab Salem and Slater and go around, riding bikes.” Salem and Slater are two of the album’s primary characters: the protagonist Sam’s girlfriend and bike, respectively. The bike even gets its own song later (“Slater”), but you’ll be forgiven if you can’t parse out all the details. Though the record is set at Camp Flog Gnaw, it makes room for countless detours and digressions, particularly whenever Tyler has a score to settle or a complaint to make.
The emphasis on reacting to criticism and persona-maintenance occasionally overshadows the significant developments and leaps Tyler has made as a producer and musician on this record. Compared to the group’s claustrophobic, dread-soaked early work, the songs on Wolf have a lush, sunny quality to them. In interviews Tyler has encouraged listeners to experience the album in the outdoors while riding a bike or going for a walk, which is a far cry from the listen-to-this-in-a-bomb-shelter aesthetic of Goblin. The presence of guest vocalists like Frank Ocean and Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab on “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer” and Erykah Badu on the neo-soul track “Treehome95″ brings out the best in Tyler, letting his Neptunes-indebted productions swirl and bloom where they used to grind and pop. Elsewhere his experiments don’t quite pay off, like on “Trashwang,” which combines Trash Talk and Waka Flocka-style revelry without really nailing either. The eccentric, globe-trotting pop of “Tamale” fairs better but doesn’t last long enough to leave much of an impression and still contains groaners like “Lick my dick, how does that sound?” and “How many fags can a light bulb screw?”
Despite his refusal to evolve in the specific ways that certain segments of his fanbase want him to, Tyler remains an endlessly compelling and contradictory figure, the arrogant ringleader of a hip-hop circus crippled by self-doubt. The coded language of Odd Future may have broken through to the mainstream, but there’s still something visceral about diving headfirst back into that universe, especially if you’ve kept your distance. At the same time, you can feel Tyler chafing against the constraints of Odd Future, particularly on the album’s soul-bearing closer, “Lone,” where he dreams about leaving it all behind. Too familiar to be shocking, too childish to be thoughtful, too successful to be an underdog—Tyler has trapped himself in a prison of his own hype. Hopefully he has his “Sure Shot” moment sooner rather than later because at this point he’s only trolling himself.