album review

Tyler, the Creator Has Come Full Circle

Call Me If You Get Lost is Tyler riffling through old yearbooks, laughing at how small your youthful worries seem now but quietly missing their simplicity. Photo: Tyler, The Creator/YouTube

A decade ago, Odd Future — a ragtag group of rabble-rousing artists, skaters, and jokesters hailing from Southern California — stormed the gates of the rap game without the support of the major labels and the popular bloggers that, for a time, acted as intermediaries between listeners and the endless flood of new music available online. The group’s open contempt for tastemakers and A-listers ran counter to the charm offensive that got you into a career in hip-hop back then, when legends were built one blog post, famous co-sign, and guest spot at a time. Odd Future was a self-contained unit housing all the rappers, singers, and producers needed to make records. Members featured heavily on each other’s songs, taking a page from the Wu-Tang playbook in the quest for domination. As crabby as it was savvy, the collective built a vast and impressive catalogue of prickly songs that lashed out at icons, idols, and influencers high and low. Having studied and truly internalized the pressure-point stimulation of Eminem, who made his millions in part by identifying and uttering the most provocative statements possible in any given scenario, Odd Future waged a campaign of deliberate transgression that netted support and outrage in equal measure but, importantly, used the attention to shine a light on the stellar crafts of its members. As time passed, its art blossomed and its sensibilities mellowed, but the group drifted apart.

In de facto Odd Future leader Tyler, the Creator’s biting new song “Manifesto” — a long-overdue reunion with his old squad’s gifted stoner rapper Domo Genesis — he revisits the heat of the moment where his group blew up and mass outrage ensued: “Protesting outside my shows, I gave them the middle finger / I was a teener, tweeting Selena crazy shit / Didn’t wanna offend her, apologized when I seen her.” The cut traces Tyler’s growth from an aspiring internet troublemaker to a live performer picketed at his own concerts and banned in countries overseas to the boundlessly creative 30-year-old polymath of today. It curiously steps back into the cranky, devil-may-care style and attitude of his early days as he spells out all the ways he’s changed since then. Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler’s sixth proper studio album, is a full-circle moment where the lighter and more soulful aesthetics of 2019’s Grammy-winning Igor are scaled back in favor of brash beats and raw rhymes. Call Me patterns itself somewhat after the Gangsta Grillz mixtapes of the aughts and early 2010s, where the veteran rap-whisperer DJ Drama linked with a who’s who of rap royalty, scoring classic tapes like Jeezy’s Trap or Die, Lil Wayne’s Dedication 2, and Pharrell’s In My Mind (the Prequel). DJ Drama goads Tyler on throughout the album as the rapper, producer, director, actor, and designer luxuriates in comfort, opulence, and exquisite taste, sated though no less spiteful. It’s like riffling through old yearbooks, laughing at how small your youthful worries seem now but quietly missing their simplicity.

Where the aim with Igor seemed to be to stretch Tyler, the Creator’s compositional abilities to their limits, Call Me If You Get Lost follows the string of rap-centric loosies he released since the last album in putting Tyler back in touch with his still-formidable foundations. He’s one of the coldest wordsmiths working when he wants to be. He’s shipshape here. “Massa” muses on struggling before fame and wrestling with the pitfalls of celebrity as Tyler reveals that his mother lived in a shelter when his breakout single “Yonkers” landed in 2011. It details the unsettling feeling of being reviled by strangers in a jumble of snide rhymes: “You can’t relate to these things I say to these instrumentals / Whether it’s wealth talk or shit that’s painful / I paint full pictures of my perspective on these drum breaks / Just for you to tell me, ‘It’s not good,’ from your lunch break.” Returning to rap full-time means figuring out how to provoke listeners without resorting to the careless line-stepping of Bastard and Goblin, where Tyler made a concerted effort to offend anyone who took themselves too seriously and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He came to count powerful figures like former U.K. prime minister Theresa May among his enemies and was widely criticized as one of the music industry’s preeminent homophobes, this before revealing in 2017’s Flower Boy that he dates men. The challenge here is to flaunt the finer things without seeming materialistic, to grouse without being ungrateful, to prod without drawing blood. Tyler, once known for gleeful profanity, now bristles at the word “bitch.” But “Manifesto” proves his famous distaste for organized religion remains intact, and throughout the record you can hear him grappling messily with stereotypes and preconceived notions of Blackness. The disaffected, lanky teen from Bastard is made now, but it feels like there’s still a chip on his shoulder.

At its best, Call Me takes after “You Can Do It Too,” the In My Mind cut where Pharrell kicks fleet rhymes about success and urges listeners to pursue their dreams as he did his. “Lumberjack” balances boasts about hosting sold-out arena shows and owning multiple businesses with reminiscences of being a high-school weirdo no one took seriously. “Manifesto” ends with Tyler owning the weight of his responsibility to his fandom and the occasional crotchetiness of his public persona, then making sure to offer encouragement to fans who might see him as a role model: “I feel like anything I say, dawg, I’m screwing shit up / So I just tell these Black babies they should do what they want.” (Note that this is almost the exact same message he was selling two albums ago. To quote Flower Boy’s “Where This Flower Blooms,” “Tell these Black kids they could be who they are / Dye your hair blue, shit, I’ll do it too.”) Maturity comes and goes, though. Call Me is just as likely to settle for thumbing its nose at haters, at yawning on boats and cruising in expensive cars. Listening to rappers flexing on-record is often inspirational all by itself in the same way some people watch porn and envision themselves in the scene. Our para-social relationships with these artists allow us to take pride in their accomplishments, but it can get dicey when the record is calling you broke. Call Me largely skirts that kind of spite, though, opting instead for a giddy glee that even Tyler’s mother takes part in when she appears on the “Momma Talk” interlude, laughing at the parents, teachers, and principals she fought to defend her son from in grade school. What Call Me If You Get Lost lacks in chill, it overcompensates for in gorgeous sonics, well-placed samples, and entertaining sparring with guests rappers and singers.

Look between the many detailed descriptions of Rolls-Royce interiors, beautiful boats, and international travel, beyond the over half-a-dozen mentions of passports, and you’ll find a love story. Call Me If You Get Lost introduces a new alter ego on its cover and its intro. The nickname’s Tyler Baudelaire, presumably a reference to French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, an extravagant spender who wrote passionately of love and lust and faced charges of obscenity upon the release of his most memorable work, 1857’s Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). Like Baudelaire’s “Une Charogne (A Carcass),” a detailed, grotesque meditation on the interconnectivity between decay and growth in nature, Tyler, the Creator’s music strikes an unsettling balance between beauty and ugliness. There’s the juxtaposition of speaker-busting noise and crisp soul-jazz anchoring the underrated Cherry Bomb album to the use of a deep, gruff vocal tone to sell pretty melodies in songs like Igor’s “New Magic Wand,” Wolf’s “Answer,” or Flower Boy’s “Garden Shed.” Similarly, Call Me peppers its coarse words and disorienting productions with a trio of songs about a love connection that soured. “Wusyaname” is a sweet, innocent meet-cute recounted over a sped-up sample of Houston R&B trio H-Town’s horny car jam “Back Seat (Wit No Sheets).” Later, “Sweet/I Thought You Wanted to Dance,” the traditional Tyler track ten two-parter, deftly cycles between funk, bossa nova, and reggae as excitement ferments into regret. Toward the end of the album, “Wilshire” goes for broke and details an instance of the artist falling in love with a friend’s girlfriend, and how and why the duo, wracked with guilt about betrayal, ended the affair. So the story of Call Me If You Get Lost isn’t just that Tyler is cozy in his prosperity. It’s this jet-setter insider being denied access to the one thing he craves the most.

Call Me If You Get Lost draws contrasts to various points in Tyler, the Creator’s career. The focus on rap feels like a rejoinder to the melody-forward Igor. The presence of Domo Genesis and DJ Drama recalls early Odd Future releases like Radical from 2010, the year Tyler tweeted that he wanted his own Gangsta Grillz tape. The love songs mirror Flower Boy, the last time the artist opened up about his love life in this much detail. (Igor covers love the way pop songs often do, informed by a writer’s lived experience but broad enough to connect with a massive audience, which is different from the first-person narratives and revelations of “I Ain’t Got Time!” and “Garden Shed.”) Then, he was gesturing at a secret same-sex romance he felt he couldn’t reveal to the world. Here, he wants to be open and forthright about his feelings for a woman but falls into old patterns. This stuff’s not easy; navigating romantic fluidity can complicate a person’s understanding of who they are. Some people spend a lifetime grappling with this. Tyler vents in “Massa”: “Everyone I ever loved had to be loved in the shadows / Tug-o-war with X and Y felt like a custody battle.” The monologue at the end of “Wilshire” spells out more: “I’m mad private with this side of my life ’cause people are weirdos, and I just try to keep anyone I care about in the shadows, safe from the commentary and spotlight and thoughts ’cause it’s just a story for the people outside of it.”

As much as Call Me If You Get Lost is a bookend to the yearning for acceptance, attention, and affluence that characterized Tyler, the Creator’s earlier work, it is also a catalogue of the hindrances that come with scaling the mountaintop. You can while away summers on a yacht on Lake Geneva. You can be friends with Lil Wayne. You can have your actions, ideas, and love interests picked apart and scrutinized. You can become the subject of perplexing rumors. What to get for the man who has everything? Peace and quiet.

Tyler, the Creator Has Come Full Circle