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Tyler, the Creator: Visionary Rapper or Obnoxious Teenager?

Tyler, the Creator is ringleader and figurehead of the much-discussed L.A. hip-hop/skater/visual-art crew Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Today, XL Records releases his second album, Goblin, the first Odd Future product you can pay money for in a store. Below: eleven thoughts about the album. All reprehensible language and sentiments are Tyler's fault; all overthinking is mine.

1. White People

In March, Cord Jefferson wrote an article about Odd Future for the Root. It was a righteous and well-argued piece, and could have been completely dead-on, if only it were about some other group. "Whites have fetishized black male rage for years now," he wrote, "and Odd Future is just the latest testament to that interest. ... It's the same charge people got from listening to Biggie's robbery schemes on 'Gimme the Loot.'"

I believe Jefferson has the wrong end of the stick. Maybe he assumes that any black man rapping about anger or violence still represents, to white people, some kind of underclass or Other. But that isn't quite the case with Odd Future, and it's definitely not the case with Tyler. On Goblin, Tyler raps about teen angst, therapy, resenting his family, hating college, unsuccessfully wooing girls, cartoonish violence and misogyny, ADHD and suicide threats, and sitting in front of his computer compulsively masturbating. To a maladjusted middle-class white kid in a suburban basement, this isn't the Other. This is just home.

2. Teenage Boys

Tyler turned 20 a few months ago, but on this record he is utterly and totally a teenage boy. A resentful, surly teenage boy. The kind of frustrated teenage boy who's noticed that he's more clever than a lot of the people around him and imagines that might be true of the world in general. The kind of teenage boy who decides life has failed to live up to his standards as a thinker. The kind of teenage boy who mostly wants to spend time goofing around with his extremely homosocial peer group, amusing one another with giggly transgressions and the insular mentality of surly teenage boys nationwide.

Sometimes he seems to imagine his critics as something like a horde of high-school guidance counselors — dim, appalled, clueless, failing to "get it."

I'm pretty sure Tyler's such a teenage boy that he doesn't even realize he's a teenage boy. We tend not to notice these things until we've grown out of them. "They don't get it 'cause it's not made for them" — Tyler says this about his music, during a seven-minute musical dialogue with his therapist/conscience, played by Tyler with his voice pitched down. In certain ways, he is correct; in others, he is not. His mindset is familiar to way more people than he imagines — half of us who have spent time around teenage boys. It's not always a flattering familiarity.

3. Everyone Else

That's a lot of why Goblin is as affecting as it is: Its creator is neck-deep in his own little phase. People his age who are similarly mired in teen-id frustration and emo self-pity may bond with this record like nobody's business, in half-finished basements across the nation. Tyler vents this stuff with total conviction, great thoroughness, and plenty of wit and charisma. He grumbles, groans, throws fits, and makes jokes out of his grim feelings. His records are custom-built to be communed with by misanthropic exurban kids who resent everything and sit up all night doing stuff on the Internet that you definitely don't want to know about.

For everyone else, it might be a question of how sympathetic you are to that particular type and stage. Tyler still gets off a few verses — like one about living out of a backpack at friends' houses, because he doesn't feel like his home is his home — that draw you on to his side. He broods on the strangeness of his sudden success ("My best friend is now my fucking assistant"), which can be intriguing. But mostly it's a pretty high wall: Either this was "made for you" or you can walk.

And the music world always defers to that angry-teenage-boy thing — it keeps telling that demographic they're more vital and important than everyone else. This is precisely what that demographic already believes and likes to hear confirmed.

4. A Thing That's Probably Important

But his production here does an amazing job of matching the personality that's grumbling around it. Tyler likes to play monster, so the corroded, snarly sound of much underground rap features heavily. But he also likes jazz, dreamy electronic acts, and stylish sixties space-out music. The production on Goblin is always winding around something straightforwardly pretty. The breaks on "Tron Cat" sound like Krzysztof Komeda's theme for Rosemary's Baby crossed with an old track by Broadcast, an English band Tyler likes. It's always three helpings of frustration and darkness, then one of idealist daydreams. Then more darkness, out of embarrassment. A little cloud of melody reminds you that the evil grinding can be a put-on; a little evil grinding makes a stretch of jazz chords feel more precious.

5. Women

A lot of Goblin is about women, but they're mostly theoretical. As in the following chorus: "Swag! Swag! Punch a bitch!" Note the indefinite article — "a bitch," in theory. When Tyler raps about an actual, specific woman, on "Her," it's very different: He's just sitting at home masturbating and poking her on Facebook while she's busy "fucking guys that I hate." (Did I mention that he's a self-pitying teenage boy? Game recognize game.) You get the feeling Tyler has been the kind of "sweet kid" for whom women are a little scary and distant, and a bit of a hassle, and what is wrong with them that they keep liking dudes besides very-very-special ME??

6. Paradoxes

Tyler is in love with paradoxes. The first one we heard, on "Yonkers," was clever: "I'm a fucking walking paradox / No I'm not." He keeps doling them out, though. "I'm not a homophobe ... faggot." I think this is meant to underline that Tyler is complicated and will not be pinned down. "I'm not a rapper nor a rapist nor a racist / I fuck bitches with no permission and tend to hate shit / And brag about those actions in a rhyming-pattern manner." I think this is meant to seem complex and clever instead of empty and defensive. He's like a crap French intellectual.

It's the same shtick that allows him to sneer at hip-hop orthodoxies — to be self-deprecating, or say he's wearing panties, or act like a sniveling misfit skater kid instead of a confident adult. Much of the tizzy around Odd Future stems from the fact that he can do this with music, too. He does blown-up, chintzy piss-takes of hip-hop's standards, the same way acid-fried freaks and smart-ass punks used to mess around with the pomposity of classic rock. Forget "Gimme the Loot" — when I'm enjoying this record, it feels more like listening to the Butthole Surfers or the Dead Milkmen. For all we know, Odd Future could be early instigators of a moment where hip-hop experiences the same spasms rock once did — the moment where its orthodoxies have started to seem old, bloated, or silly, so the anarchic freaks come rushing in to make it their creative playground.

Tyler just has trouble matching that accomplishment with subject matter that's not a full-force assault on either (a) his own life or (b) people's opinions about him or (c) women. His futuristic take on an R&B slow jam turns into a necrophiliac serial-killer fantasy. His over-the-top deconstruction of an "ignorant" fight-starting club track is about punching women in the face.

7. Fitting In

One time Tyler tweeted the following: "I Want To Scare The Fuck Out Of Old White People That Live In Middle Fucking America." (He says the same about most everyone whose life he imagines is more comfortable than his.) I wonder if he realizes that several of his transgressive Yes I Said That misogynist-monster jokes — e.g., "Goddamn I love bitches / Especially when they only suck dick and wash dishes" — would actually fit in just fine among certain old white people in middle America? Sure, he is pretending to be a vampire when he drops that line. But he could just as easily pretend to be an old jerk at a random American bar, two decades before he was even born. Somehow his misfit mentality keeps leading him toward poses that fit in all too well.

8. Music

I haven't yet said much about Goblin's music. That's partly because Tyler's personality dominates the album; there is no getting around it, even a little. Even the way the songs are produced puts his gravelly voice — a compelling instrument, and a huge part of his charisma — up front and center. It's one of those oddly rare records where a specific person is unavoidably lurking in your speakers.

But his production here does an amazing job of matching the personality that's grumbling around it. Tyler likes to play monster, so the corroded, snarly sound of much underground rap features heavily. But he also likes jazz, dreamy electronic acts, and stylish sixties space-out music. The production on Goblin is always winding around something straightforwardly pretty. The breaks on "Tron Cat" sound like Krzysztof Komeda's theme for Rosemary's Baby crossed with an old track by Broadcast, an English band Tyler likes. It's always three helpings of frustration and darkness, then one of idealist daydreams. Then more darkness, out of embarrassment. A little cloud of melody reminds you that the evil grinding can be a put-on; a little evil grinding makes a stretch of jazz chords feel more precious.

If it weren't for those flashes of lightness and calm, Goblin could wind up sounding a lot more like what "Old White People That Live In Middle Fucking America" hear when they hear rap — tiring bouts of amusical noise over which people yell about Bad Things. The album is 74 minutes long. Four tracks break the six-minute mark. There are some pretty draining stretches. Maybe the whole thing is a draining stretch. I have no idea how it manages to also be one of the more musically interesting records I've heard this year.

9. Standards

Andrew "Noz" Nosnitsky — a sharp rap critic, and one of the first to write about Odd Future — tweeted that, for better or worse, Tyler poured his entire personality into this product ... "which is really all you can ask of an artist." He's right about the first part. I'm still trying to figure out the second part. Can't I ask for anything I want to? I mean, Tyler would.

10. Subjectivity

There are a whole lot of things Tyler doesn't get yet — especially things concerning people who aren't him or his friends. Sometimes that makes Goblin a better record: a convincing document of what's running through his mind right now. Sometimes it makes Goblin a much worse record. In the press, it makes Tyler's facade of cleverness fall to pieces as soon as anyone presses him on what he really means. People ask him about homophobia and misogyny, and he turns into a shruggy kid who doesn't really get the fuss. "I have fun and people take it the wrong way," he recently told the Guardian. "Like when I start making fun of people and fucking with them, it's just funny to me." When people fuck with Tyler, however, it can lead to interminable grumbling raps about how put-upon he is, how hard and complicated it is to be him.

11. Growing Up

Goblin wasn't made for me, and I'm glad for that. Trying to enjoy it involves tapping into some feelings I'm glad I never had, and others I'm glad to have grown out of. It involves consciously summoning up empathy for Tyler — who comes off as a wounded, defensive kid, not very skilled at relating to others or the world, and starved for some sense of love and family. He spends all his time stuck in his own head and raging about it, deploying defense mechanisms, showily baring his soul as an additional defense mechanism, and so on. If I make the effort, this can seriously move me — but mostly in a way that feels bleak and tragic.

There are a lot of people, though, who are much, much closer to Tyler's headspace and will not require any exercise of empathy to hang on every word of this album. I imagine some of those people will find Goblin cathartic and reassuring and hilarious, not sad. The way things are going, I would not be surprised to hear those people talking about it, fifteen years down the road, as something significant. That's great for them.

There's so much in the world, though, that's just as interesting! There are personalities just as big as Tyler's; there are better yawps of maladjusted teenage rage; there are better yawps of teenage creativity and vigor; there are musicians who understand so much more about living in the world with other people; there are musicians who understand that the headspace Tyler's locked in is a tinier and meaner sliver of life than he seems to think. There's so much to do that doesn't involve digging through deliberately empty vileness and bile and defensive posturing in search of the raw-nerve humanity that makes it worthwhile art.

But I suppose Tyler will grow older, and I'll keep digging, and get in that car eventually.

Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images