“DO the 666 hot pink!”
Tyler, the Creator, said this twice, to let everyone around him know that he was serious.
On a recent Tuesday one of his managers was on the phone at her dining-room table, talking to a person making custom outfits for Tyler and his crew, Odd Future. (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, for the wordy.) The 666 was to be the number on Tyler’s baseball jersey. The hot pink made him laugh. And he likes to stand out.
For that he doesn’t really need the jersey. Over the past few months Tyler and Odd Future have been speeding from the margins of the Internet toward the center of forward-thinking music circles thanks to a barrage of self-released albums, mayhem-inducing live performances and an ability — at this point, it’s verging on desire — to instantly polarize listeners.
Tyler is Odd Future’s central rapper and producer and also its main visual artist, merchandise designer and video director. He’s the crew figurehead and its raison d’être. On Tuesday he will release “Goblin” (XL), the first album of his on a proper label, and the one that will transform him from curiosity to conversation shaper.
“Goblin” is spiteful, internal, confident, vitriolic, vividly bruised stuff, a shocking — and shockingly good — album that bears little resemblance to contemporary hip-hop. It has more in common with the stark, thick-with-feelings independent rap of the mid-to-late-1990s and also the improbably rich-sounding minimalism of the Neptunes in the early 2000s. For every caustic rhyme about violence there’s a pensive, unexpectedly gentle production choice to go with it. Unlike the maximalism of hip-hop radio, you can feel the air in these songs, the gasping for breath.
“I’m just a teenager who admits he’s suicide prone,” Tyler raps on the title track. “My life is doing pretty good, so that date is postponed.”
In real life Tyler Okonma is 20 years old, 6 feet 2 inches tall, lanky and sinewy and irrepressibly goofy, with a vibrant antisocial streak. He’s partial to flamboyantly patterned shirts, gym socks pulled up to the knee and desiccated Vans; loves bacon and doughnuts; says he doesn’t drink or do drugs; and can barely get a sentence out without a curse.
Later in the afternoon, after the merchandise details are sorted out, he, his friend Jasper Dolphin, and the co-manager Kelly Clancy went shopping at some discount stores for a golf outfit that he wanted to wear the following day for a video shoot. Along the way, at a party-supply store, he appeared to steal a pack of Justin Bieber stickers; later he tossed a half-full Wendy’s Frosty from the passenger seat of Ms. Clancy’s Porsche S.U.V. at a group of respectably dressed people lined up near the Grove mall.
Juvenile stuff, all of it. “I never want to grow up,” Tyler said later that day, in the backyard of his manager’s house, holding a long-coveted Burger King SpongeBob SquarePants toy watch he bought on eBay for $6.
He’s nurtured now, shielded. He wanted a trampoline for his birthday and got one. Keeping Tyler happy, and focused, is everyone’s priority.
Bigger questions loom, though. With imagery depicting rampant drug use, systemic violence against women, and any number of other distasteful things, Odd Future has become the flashpoint for reigniting the culture wars in hip-hop for a generation that hasn’t previously experienced them, that didn’t realize culture wars were still a possibility. No act in recent memory has engendered so many think pieces about music, think pieces about critics and think pieces about think pieces. Are the group’s lyrics reports of literal desires? The goofs of misguided kids? Does the difference matter?
“They don’t know me; they don’t get it,” Tyler said of critics. “Weren’t they 18 years old at some point, just having fun?”
“Goblin” is an album that anticipates its own critique — invites it, to be sure, but also understands that the listener determines how an album is received as much as, if not more than, the creator. “Don’t do anything I say in this song,” Tyler says at the beginning of “Radicals,” adding, “If anything happens, don’t” — here he added an enthusiastic but unprintable qualifier — “blame me, white America.”
The music of Odd Future — especially that of the long-missing-in-action member Earl Sweatshirt, but also of Tyler — is vexing in the way of early Eminem albums: gross and offensive and entrancing and often brilliant. But for all the darkness of its content, Tyler’s first album, “Bastard” — which he self-released in 2009 — was one of the most soothing hip-hop albums in recent memory, thanks to Tyler’s production. Heavily influenced by the Neptunes, he’s a sucker for lustrous, optimistic chords and lets them set the mood beneath his slinky growl.
“Goblin” is far darker, denser and chewier than its predecessor, and it makes barely any concessions to Tyler’s raised profile, whether it’s the manic horror-film churn of “Yonkers,” the furious hailstorm percussion on “Golden” or the dark-alley menace of “Tron Cat.” He’s a more confident and intricate rapper than before and, if possible, an even more absurd one. “I slipped myself some pink Xannies/and danced around the house in all-over-print panties,” he raps on “Yonkers.” There are at least a couple of unkind references to Taylor Swift on the album, and on “Sandwitches” he acts out the rage of someone who’s always been denied stability: “Let’s buy guns and kill those kids with dads and moms.”
Many of his most troubling lyrics are done no favors by transcription. “Victim, victim, honey you’re my fifth one,” he raps sweetly on “Tron Cat,” while a chorus of “la” softens the blow behind him. “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome.” Again: Report of literal desire? Goof of misguided kid? Does it matter?
His mother, for one, doesn’t mind the tenor of the songs, Tyler said. “She looks past that. She just sees her son onstage enjoying his life after the circumstances that he’s had in the past couple of years, been depressed because he hasn’t had a” — here, that enthusiastic word again — “bed to sleep in or couldn’t eat that night.”
Like “Bastard” “Goblin” is linked together with interludes in which Tyler discusses his problems with a therapist, which he plays himself. “I don’t have a therapist, so I use me as my own therapist when I’m making the music,” he said.
The last time that Tyler had a therapist of any sort, he said, was in fifth grade. “I made lists of who I wanted to torture and kill in the class. I was a really smart kid, so they didn’t understand. We had a GATE program” — gifted and talented enrichment — “there was seven kids in there, and I was one of them, it was just such a contradiction.”
For a time he was on Ritalin but went off it because it interfered with his asthma medication. (He often puffs from an inhaler onstage.)
“If I had a therapist,” Tyler said, “I wouldn’t be able to make the music I want to make, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.”
That’s led to songs of uncommon vulnerability, which temper the rougher side of his oeuvre. Some songs from “Bastard,” the title track and “Inglorious,” he no longer listens to, he said, because the subject matter — including his absent father — is too difficult. The same will go for “Nightmare” and “Golden” from the new album. (He does perform the intro to “Bastard” in live shows.)
Those are the things “I think about when I’m alone, that I don’t like thinking about,” he said. “It’s not hard to think about, it’s not hard to make, but I hate thinking about it, so I hate listening to it.”
Besides, Tyler’s at his best when acting out, getting encouraged for his madness. There were the rowdy performances on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and the MTV Woodie Awards. And Tyler’s mania makes for great headlines: in the British hyperbolic music magazine NME: “Tyler, the Creator oblivious of royal wedding as Odd Future hit London”; on YouTube: “Tyler, the Creator Makes Out With Drunk Girl Coachella.” If you wanted to get shot with a water gun at the Coachella festival this year, Tyler was your man.
Then there’s his logorrheic Twitter feed, a series of exultations and barks, and often more thoughtful and intimate Formspring page, where he answers fan questions with a combination of warmth and indignation.
A deep dig into YouTube finds a cache of videos made by Tyler and his friends when they were still in high school, just skate brats pulling lighthearted pranks.
Odd Future bridges disparate constituencies in a manner not dissimilar from how the Neptunes — and in particular the chameleonlike Pharrell Williams, Tyler’s idol — did a decade ago. Those groups — skaters, Internet hip-hop nerds, curious indie rock partisans, idiosyncratic thugs, nihilists-in-training — came to Odd Future naturally. “I am them,” Tyler said.
Eventually established artists like Diddy and Kanye West lent support, jumping on an already moving train. “They came last,” Tyler said, “and it’s usually the opposite. Everyone looks for co-signs. I didn’t need co-signs.” Even if Odd Future never fully overtakes the mainstream — and with its explicit content, and explicit commitment to it, its members have more the makings of cult heroes than pure pop stars — it has still demonstrated just how quickly a small flame can turn blue.
The video for “Yonkers,” the first single from “Goblin,” has over seven million views on YouTube, an impressive number for a black-and-white clip that involves eating a cockroach and ends in a suicide.
But the success of “Yonkers” was a reflection of pent-up demand. It was the first widely accessible moment of a purposely tough-to-access crew. Tyler directed the video himself — he planned to study film in college, though he lasted barely a few weeks — and also designed his album art, as he has for all Odd Future releases.
His hands-on approach is beginning to reap rewards. Odd Future just signed a deal with Sony/RED for distribution rights to its albums, but nothing else. The group will retain “100 percent creative control” and there will be “no third-party participation,” the co-manager Christian Clancy said in a statement.
Distributors have reneged on such deals before. Hip-hop in the ’90s was a minefield of complicated relationships between upstart labels with graphic content and major distributors with concerns about riled-up investors or government interference.
Perhaps Tyler is covering his bases: over the course of two songs near the end of “Goblin,” as he descends into a vortex of self-loathing and paranoia, he guns down his whole crew, liabilities getting in the way of his own madness.
In between Satanic baseball jerseys and nuisance misdemeanors, Tyler had something more serious and pressing to attend to: looking for an apartment, his first. For the four years since his mother moved to Sacramento, Tyler has mostly slept on a couch at his grandmother’s house in the Ladera Heights area. Now he’s moving in with his mother and younger sister, who are returning to town.
He was in and out of one option on a quiet street in a faceless neighborhood in just a few minutes. He liked the apartment but worried that his mother wouldn’t click with the uptight landlord. “I done seen my mom beat bitches up,” he said in the car, laughing. Connecting his iPod to the car’s speakers, he played a couple of foreboding songs that he made while recently spending time with the Neptunes. “I can’t wait to move in” to a new place, he said, and “to get all my posters of them up on the wall.”