You imagine Tyler, the Creator as Don Johnson –– a weirder Don Johnson who loves The Neptunes –– speeding around Miami in whites and pastels, in very expensive cars, in and out of love. IGOR sounds as if it was finished in a giant rented house on synthesizers and cocaine, past its deadline and way over budget. It’s big and glossy and follows a branded EP for the latest Grinch movie; it’s dotted with stars who go uncredited, but whose very uncredited-ness is part of a brief but elaborate PR blitz. It’s about a breakup, obviously.
IGOR is Tyler, the Creator’s sixth album if you include Bastard, which you should. That record was dumped onto MySpace and Tumblr on Christmas Day in 2009 and, by the end of the following year, had become a crude sort of rallying cry for fans who were largely young, male, and full of angst. Today it serves as a time capsule for the kind of abrasive DIY rap indebted to horrorcore and early Eminem that was made right as every facet of our lives was moving onto the internet.
IGOR sounds nothing like Bastard, but it sounds very much like the music Tyler had always mused about making in the future. It’s strange to consider a record so unlike its predecessors to be the natural progression of an artist’s career, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Tyler spent this decade accumulating the musical chops and cultural capital necessary to make a record like this –– one that’s poppy without irony and aims to express earnest love and hurt where there was once sarcasm.
Not only do the guests on IGOR go unlisted, but Tyler’s voice is frequently manipulated to the point of anonymity. (Lil Uzi Vert, who seems perpetually poised to become rap’s biggest star, is merely added as texture on the album’s intro.) The voices are also, usually, slotted low in the mix. Like a careful bit of film editing, this nudges the audience’s focus toward the songs’ production and arrangements, which are, on the whole, smart and unindulgent. It also avoids the impulse to sell the experiments on the basis that it’s Tyler who’s making them: IGOR works on its own merits and in a vacuum, without relying on the audience’s goodwill or trying to score points simply for being diversionary. It’s as if he finally got the latitude to take a sizable creative risk and then decided, at some point during the sessions, to work without a net.
The production is marked by fuller and smoother arrangements than on Tyler’s more jagged albums –– especially those up to and including 2015’s divisive Cherry Bomb. There are still times when he allows you to see the seams, but they’re fewer and farther between than ever before. IGOR will be described as experimental and genre-hopping, but in truth there’s nothing here that feels baroque or extraneous. The airy pop songs work as airy pop songs, the moody ones the same. Still, some of the most interesting and effective production is when that airiness is married to something meaner — something that recalls the heaviest, most vicious moments on his older, more rap-centric records. See the pointed “New Magic Wand,” or the moment on “A Boy is a Gun” when it sounds for a second like the song is going to lapse into Vince Staples’ “Blue Suede.”
The syntax in all of these songs is underdeveloped, like it is in much of Tyler’s music. This gives the tracks, even the ones where he’s biting around the edges of a big emotional climax, a certain repressed quality, as if they’re dealing in the language of high schoolers to express feelings that have grown murkier and more gnawing than whatever you feel as a teenager. Generally speaking, that works for Tyler; there are moments when he’ll drop absolute groaners like “You started building a bridge and turned it into a fence,” but it also gives some of the darkest songs on here an even eerier quality. Take “Puppet,” which at first sounds bright and playful, but is really about the way you might tie yourself in a knot chasing someone who’s slipping away from you, giving into their will and losing your sense of self. Tyler compares himself to Santa and asks where Rudolph is. It’s basic, and it’s goofy, and it’s deeply uncomfortable in the way the song is supposed to be. (“Puppet” also features a Kanye cameo that is mostly a mumbled reference vocal –– far more enjoyable than any realized Kanye verse you can picture right now.)
“The tension between a beat-down cynicism and a desire for something rawer but kinder, less reflexively guarded but more rewarding, is something that a lot of people feel very acutely today.”
Leaving that vaguely childlike quality in the songwriting also allows Tyler to continue with what’s become the central tension of his music. As far back as Bastard, he’s been seen as a provocateur: saying outlandish, sometimes violent things, getting himself banned from foreign countries, being cited by parents’ groups and cultural conservatives as a threat to the youth. Taking that throne in the 2010s has meant having a fluent, slippery relationship with ironic onlinespeak, where you’re always one tonal step ahead of the adults in the room. This has always leant Tyler’s music some subversive cred but, as a device, has been at odds with the moments –– which became more and more frequent as the decade wore on –– when he wanted to grapple with topics in an earnest, open, even tender way.
He never fully shed his old voice, his old approach, which is what has made his later music compelling: the tension between a beat-down cynicism and a desire for something rawer but kinder, less reflexively guarded but more rewarding, is something that a lot of people feel very acutely today. That Tyler is unable or unwilling to lose the grimace is more interesting than if he went full, lovestruck pollyanna. On the closing song, “Are We Still Friends,” he says to his ex, “I don’t want to end the season on a bad episode.” You could overread this and write a treatise on love in a digital age and how even relationships between non-celebrities have become public performance, how a No. 1 album about private moments reminds us that some people are living every second of their lives in a way that they’ll want to and be able to broadcast later. Or you could chalk it up to the fact that this is just how everybody talks now.
IGOR is fast and fun and Technicolor and probably does not suggest that there are more albums to come in this exact vein. It’s at once a deeply personal, unusually –– even for Tyler –– confessional record and a style exercise. But songs like the sneering “What’s Good” indicate that Tyler’s becoming a producer whose sounds are more airtight and (in theory) more adaptable to vocalists other than himself. It’s a transitional record, but one that shows a new, exciting technical acuity. Sometimes the most indulgent premises yield the most useful results.