The Personal Reckoning of Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy

Tyler, the Creator. Photo: Scott Dudelson/WireImage

Consider for a moment that Odd Future — those SoCal skate rats and potheads we took to task for rampant homophobia six years ago — has secretly been the queerest uprising in the history of mainstream hip-hop. Frank Ocean shocked everyone by coming out on the eve of his debut studio album Channel Orange and still topped the charts. Engineer Syd Bennett stepped out of her role as mixer and DJ and blossomed as the lead singer of the Internet, where she writes songs about women with a warmth the sexaholics on urban radio lack. Steve Lacy, Bennett’s guitarist and songwriting partner since 2015’s elegant Ego Death, has hinted at having a boyfriend but, like Frank, resists labeling his sexuality.

Inferences on the new Tyler, the Creator album Scum Fuck Flower Boy about same-sex romance (“I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004,” he raps in “I Ain’t Got Time!”) have recast the Odd Future story in a new light. Was Tyler a wrongheaded straight ally using his out friends as shields to defend his unfortunate coziness with gay slurs? Or did he have more in common with them than he cared to say? The bluesy deep cut “Garden Shed” feels like a call for absolution: “Truth is, since a youth, kid, thought it was a phase / Thought it’d be like the phrase ‘Poof! Gone’ / But it’s still going on.” Foggy fan theories immediately suggested Tyler was just joking — anything to sidestep the idea he might be lifting the veil on his own unspoken truth.

The curse of being a jokester and a provocateur, accidentally or on purpose, is that it is assumed that you’re “on” all the time. When people feel like they’re being worked, they get suspicious. No one believes a boy who cries Wolf. Suddenly your earnestness scans as performative grandstanding and clumsy candor gets misconstrued as deliberate transgression. Shortcomings ring louder than successes. It’s a suffocating sensation; like a circus animal, you feel both restricted and constantly aware that you’re being watched. Caught between a fandom weaned on the grit and putrescence of Bastard and Goblin and a culture at large growing weary of edgelords and shock jocks, Tyler, the Creator broke free of both.

Flower Boy is a radical act of destruction. It’s Tyler Okonma, the restless polymath taking a shovel to the face of his brutish alter ego. The new songs shuck away many of the core building blocks of a Tyler, the Creator record — confrontational verses, horror-movie melodicism, white-hot rage, that word — without losing intensity. The music is delicate and light, hooky without falling back into the tinny, post-Neptunes wonk of earlier works. The raps are pointed and personal (“What if I’m hustling backwards? / What if my accountant ain’t paying my taxes?” “Tell these black kids they can be who they are / Dye your hair blue, shit I’ll do it too”) but often outstripped by singing, as Tyler adorns his rich, sweet productions with spots from Frank Ocean, Pharrell, Estelle, Corinne Bailey Rae, Steve Lacy, and others. It’s easy to forget in some of the gauzier stretches of the album that you’re listening to a guy who once considered himself a student of Eminem. If there’s a spiritual antecedent for Flower Boy’s emotional rap/funk/soul hybrid, it’s the star-studded, lovey-dovey quiet storm of Quincy Jones’s The Dude.

This is a welcome reinvention after 2015’s Cherry Bomb, an album that grated by ballooning Tyler’s puckish lyrical instincts out into an abrasive and sometimes physically painful mix, stranding great Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Roy Ayers, and Charlie Wilson collaborations between challenging noise experiments. Cherry Bomb was a half-gesture, the kid seeing how many drippy, happy love songs he could sneak into a track list before grumps clamoring for more “Yonkers” clones got restless. Hedging bets by jamming jibing styles into the same record seemed like a function of fear, but it also bushwhacked space for Tyler to branch out further here. Flower Boy is a frank assessment of wants, needs, and insecurities in a space once reserved for rants and gripes, an overdue bout of personal reckoning in a solo recording career that began, ironically enough, on a psychiatrist’s couch.

I had a drink at my favorite bar a few days ago with an acquaintance who asked me what I was writing about this week. I explained that a very popular rapper appeared to have just quietly come out on his new album and that I was stunned by how many people simply refused to believe it. At one point, my bar buddy said, “Well, you pass,” “passing” in the LGBTQ vernacular meaning looking, by outward appearances and mannerisms, like a cisgendered straight person. He doesn’t. I told him that passing is its own curse, that the base assumption that you’re straight makes it harder for people to understand that you might not be. If you aren’t, you end up having to qualify your sexual orientation all your life.

I am loathe to engage in very much sleuthing into Tyler’s music and social media for past hints about his private life. (A Rolling Stone profiler once felt intrigued enough by the rapper’s sense of humor to ask Tyler point blank if he was gay. Don’t do that to people.) At a minimum, we can use Flower Boy to pick apart some shaky notions about masculinity: Tyler shouldn’t be fretful about tenderness. He shouldn’t have to crack jokes about the love songs here costing him fans. If Flower Boy is the celebration of a budding same-sex love that it sporadically plays at, let’s reckon with the reality that a rapper once cast as one of the era’s most unrepentant homophobes was never that at all, that his use of rainbows in his clothing designs and his shifty attempts to recontextualize slurs weren’t careless oppression but, perhaps, woefully misguided moments of self-expression?

The quality that attracted listeners to Odd Future in the first place was a brusque defiance rooted in an inescapable sense of otherness. Tyler ran the show with the voice of a hellion, but lean in, and you got to know him as a lanky, straight-edge asthmatic with an overactive imagination and pronounced abandonment issues. Flower Boy, in recentering Tyler’s music in the feelings that drive him rather than the palpable disconnect he feels when strangers fail or refuse to accept him, ought to restructure the conversation around his art. It’s the first Tyler, the Creator album where his ambition and musicality meet on the same level, and the only one to paint a picture of the man himself instead of the grotesqueries of his teenage worldview. Are we ready to forgive him yet?

*A version of this article appears in the August 7, 2017, issue of New YorkMagazine.

The Personal Reckoning of Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy