The evolution of Tyler, the Creator from potty-mouth provocateur to aesthetic North Star has been one of this decade’s most vivid transformations, though maybe among its least surprising. Following in the footsteps of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, he understood from his earliest incarnation that hip-hop was no longer strictly music, but also style, attitude and disruption.
He set a template of highly stylized freedom that resonates now more loudly than ever. What Soulja Boy or Lil B were to an earlier generation of internet-first hip-hop instigators, Tyler and his extended Odd Future crew were to the current wave, raised on a diet of abstract jazz and soul-rooted hip-hop, pastel color palettes and unfiltered self-presentation.
The result is that today’s hip-hop world reflects Tyler’s image as much as anyone else’s. “Igor,” his fifth studio album, debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart last month (beating out DJ Khaled, much to the producer’s chagrin). And in April, one of Tyler’s most promising spiritual children, Kevin Abstract, released a new album of eclectically produced wounded ruminations, “Arizona Baby.” Both albums are about the angst that comes with success — Tyler’s challenges are romantic, while Kevin is still learning to walk fame’s cruel tightrope.
“Igor,” alternately lush and off-kilter, is a song cycle about a not-quite-committed relationship that never makes it to full-time status. (More on that later.) Tyler is a stronger rapper than he generally lets on, and on this album he again downplays that skill in favor of filtering and processing his voice in myriad ways, turning his singing into something that lands anywhere from saccharine to morbid.
This Tyler isn’t the renegade of the early 2010s, nor the newly flush, kaleidoscopically colorful melodist of a couple of years ago. “Igor” is idiosyncratic and quirky. Even the most conventional songs here have odd twists — “Earfquake” features distended vocals from the R&B titan Charlie Wilson next to Tyler’s meta-soul, and “Are We Still Friends?” has a quasi-gospel triumph in a tug of war with its tragic core.
Some of this album’s high points are the most up-tempo and sinister: “What’s Good,” which addresses Tyler’s recent car crash, and “New Magic Wand,” which is like an industrial-funk reimagining of Miami bass music. Though the mood of “Igor” is generally consistent, its songs are irregularly shaped, united by Tyler’s by-now signature keyboards, which are warm but a little sweet, and dance gingerly.
As Tyler has gotten older — he’s 28 now — he’s become more willing to engage with emotions. That is the one arena in which his inheritors have outpaced him. Of that cohort, few artists are more bracing than Kevin Abstract, the de facto frontman of the hip-hop collective Brockhampton (which also bills itself as a boy band).
On “American Problem” from “Arizona Baby,” Abstract’s third solo album (on top of ample group releases), which was released in April, he makes the connection literal: “Ninth grade, Tyler was the illest,” he raps. “Going to his concerts, no mask, singing every word.”
Abstract took Odd Future’s playbook and built something even more unlikely. Like Tyler, he is a wildly charismatic figure. But he was delving into challenging emotional terrain early, and on “Arizona Baby,” the tension of his childhood years overlaps with his instincts to push back against his new fame, on songs like the testy “Big Wheels.” (That said, Abstract is more of a pure rapper, and his delivery, on songs like “Corpus Christi,” is more indebted to Earl Sweatshirt than Tyler.)
Like Tyler in his early years, Abstract can sound like he’s burning off excess energy. Some songs here are made with the pop songwriter-producer Jack Antonoff, but while they’re pensive and expand Abstract’s range, they don’t always suit his natural density, making the album less centered than his excellent 2016 release “American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story.”
Tyler’s legacy of top-volume embrace-your-true-self transparency has also manifested in Abstract’s lyrics about same-sex relationships, which still feel like a rarity in hip-hop — mainstream, independent-minded or otherwise. “How do you cope without a rope?/Me and my boyfriend, we lookin’ for hope,” he raps on “Joyride.”
Hearing Abstract speak so directly about his personal life is an exhilarating reminder of how unremarkable this should be. Judging by some of the songs on “Igor,” it appears that Tyler may also be interested in demystifying this subject matter, too.
Over the past couple of years, without making any public nonmusical declarations — unlike Abstract, who posts on social media often about his boyfriend — Tyler has been casually rapping about same-sex attraction. Take last year’s “Potato Salad”: “I cop houses/And fill ‘em with some Leo DiCaps and some Cole Sprouses.” It’s a striking turn given that he freely used gay slurs early in his career, and defended the language in the face of accusations of homophobia.
On “Igor” it’s a recurring theme: the “Call Me By Your Name” reference on “I Think,” or on “A Boy Is a Gun,” where he raps, “This parka is Comme, you’re my favorite garçon.” On “Running out of Time” and “Gone, Gone/Thank You,” he’s seemingly addressing a male partner who’s also involved with a woman (“I know the real you/Halloween ain’t for a minute, lose the costume”). The matter-of-factness is familiar Tyler territory — it’s what inspired the younger generation to speak loudly for themselves, and perhaps he’s nudging himself, too.
Tyler, the Creator