The release of his 2011 album Goblin followed a solid 18 months of fanbase expansion and beard-stroking think pieces concerning Tyler’s depravity and supposedly generation-defining voice. But the entire process was an undiluted assimilation of underground rap culture into the popular consciousness. While Goblin could have been a lunging reach for the brass ring and Hot 100 acceptance, it turned out to be Tyler’s darkest work, taking the stomach-churning bleakness and introspection of his 2009 mixtape Bastard to new extremes.
And that makes Tyler’s latest album, Wolf (released ), his most accessible release yet…but that’s grading on a curve.
Even with Wolf’s more polished production, handful of solid hooks and fleeting instances of infectious melody, it still remains an uncompromising document of Tyler’s restless, unhinged creativity. It’s less incendiary and monolithic than Goblin, but more self-aware. Tyler, blisteringly honest as ever, works through obscenity-barbed insecurities about his rising public profile, fatherless upbringing and increasingly confounding relationship to women. The sonic cohesion here is impressive, too, but Tyler could still benefit from some self-editing (Wolf is a hefty 18 tracks) and tighter songcraft. And, yes, the most shocking aspects of his lyrics (the rape-culture misogyny, ignorant homophobia) are still present, only now they seem tired, serving no apparent purpose beyond trolling.
Tracks like the imaginary drug paean (Tyler has always been sober) ”Jamba” and “Domo23″ showcase his honed ability to warp standard hip-hop production into funhouses of burping gurgles, while his flow proves to be limber without losing his signature snarling edge. “48″ features the album’s most conventional yet accomplished beat, with sprinkles of horns and deflating organ parts as Tyler parses out a story of a well-meaning drug dealer who constantly apologizes for his profession as he puts food on the table: “I sold that soap and I killed black folk, I’m sorry / But I got a nice car, put my sister through school while my momma all cool, I’m sorry / I’m in too deep and I can’t see the shore, I’m sorry.”
While Tyler’s beats seem friendlier, they still remain in line with his favored sonic textures of sea-sick synth lines, chintzy string parts, sparse lower key piano lines and nightmarish ambiance. The searing “Stan” homage “Colossus” and demented album centerpiece “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer” bump with an uneasy lurch. Wolf’s trio of “love” songs — the stumbling hook-up of “Awkward,” the psychotically confused “IFHY” and the Coco Owino/Erykah Badu-assisted “Treehome 95″ — all resemble fever dreams bouncing around Tyler’s subconscious. And that subconscious is on full display, with his anarchic sociopathy set up in the opening vignette, “Wolf,” and anchored throughout the record with running conversations between his alternate personalities: Wolf (a more extreme version of Tyler), Sam (a more extreme version of Wolf) and the vocoder-masked TC (short for Tyler’s conscience). It’s early Eminem for the GIF generation.
The palpable depression of “Answer,” again with deflated organs and a brittle guitar line, has Tyler speaking not to an alter ego but directly to the father he never knew, rebuking him while sarcastically thanking him for his success: “Now I’m stuck with this shitty facial hair/ Also stuck with a beautiful home with a case of stairs / So you not being near fucking fire-started my damn career.” Tyler’s self-conscious angst boils over on “Rusty,” as he takes aim at his entire trajectory by dismissing his alleged homophobia (“Saying I hate gays even though Frank [Ocean] is on 10 of my songs”), his dissolved underground credentials (“Hated the popular ones, but now I’m the popular one”) and his ultimately hollow VMA win for “Yonkers” (“And MTV could suck my dick, and I ain’t fuckin’ playing / Bruh, they never played it, I just won shit for their fucking ratings”).
It’s a chillingly convincing performance, showing Tyler’s obvious development as a lyricist who has outgrown the confines of his own shit-stirring youth and demands that his distinctively challenging vision be assessed on its own merits, outside of what the world has decided he represents. The songs may not stick in your brain the way his most outrageous lyrics do, but ultimately, Wolf is a success because Tyler has sharpened his musical aesthetic without dampening the visceral bite of his independent roots.
Best Track That’s Not The single: “Rusty” finally offers Tyler’s brutally honest and pointed response to his rise to fame, his detractors and his future as a rapper.
Best Listened To When: Skateboarding and loitering outside the Circle K on Prarie Ave. in the Hawthorne neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Idolator Score: 3.5/5
— Patrick Bowman