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It’s been over five years since a young artist named Tyler, the Creator burst onto the scene with his self-produced and self-released debut album, Bastard, which he gave out for free on the Odd Future Tumblr. Many were put off by his excessive use of the N-word and the pejorative insult “f*ggot;” his references to Satan, drugs and the Nazis; and his famous declaration that “rape’s fun,” but something special was brewing underneath the shock and awe tactics. There was a hint of it in his sample choices, which were incredibly mature for a 19-year-old and featured the likes of Dexter Wansel and French jazz funk group Cortex. There was a hint of it in his deep, commanding voice — one of those voices that seemed born for performance, a mature force that contrasted his temper-tantrum lyrics and production style. And as appallingly vulgar as his lyrics may have been, there was something playful there too, with couplets like “My mother raised me a single parent so it’s apparent / That I got love for my mother, none of you other fuckers” and “I cut my wrist and play piano cause I’m so depressed / Somebody call the pastor, this bastard is so possessed” displaying his affinity for clever poetry.
Fast forward to present day and Tyler has just dropped his fourth full-length offering Cherry Bomb, which is a testament to just how much this Bastard has grown up in the past half-decade. It’s quintessential Tyler, full of f-bombs and n-bombs and offensive metaphors, like when he likens “ni**as leaning” to “Forest Whitaker’s blink.” It’s still entirely self-produced, with Tyler exhibiting a production personality that’s as hyperactive as he himself still appears to be, despite being a 24-year-old man and not a 19-year-old kid anymore. And while the mature musical influences are still there, they aren’t just in sample form anymore, with an all-star cast of guests featured on Cherry Bomb (albeit uncredited), including Roy Ayres, Chaz Bundick, Kanye West, and Tyler’s well-publicized hero Pharrell Williams.
The old-school N.E.R.D. vibes are strong right off the bat with “Deathcamp,” which is essentially the evil kid brother of “Lapdance,” and sees Tyler coming out swinging against the “blind ni**as used to make fun of (his) vision,” reminding them that now he “pay(s) a mortage and they stuck with tuition.” This is the vibe for the first part of the album: the songs are hard-hitting and distorted, so much to the point you might think that your speakers are blown if your volume is too loud. On some songs the levels are intentionally off, making it hard to hear Tyler’s voice over tinny beats that sound like when a stylus on a turntable needs to be replaced.
After the minute-long speed hit that is “Run,” — featuring a barely recognizable Schoolboy Q — comes “Find Your Wings,” which is a hazy, soulful jam, reminiscent of “Golden Girl,” the Tyler-Pharrell collaboration from Frank Ocean’s much-lauded Channel Orange. While songs like “Deathcamp” are the Mr. Hyde of Cherry Bomb, “Find Your Wings” is Dr. Jekyll, representing two ends of Tyler’s wide sonic spectrum. The two battle back and forth throughout the course of the album, making for a difficult and slightly frustrating listen, which one has to imagine was the desired effect. For instance, just when you’re settling in to the soothing sound of “Find Your Wings,” the uneasy and unforgiving synths of “Cherry Bomb,” explode like the album’s namesake firework right in your face.
The breezy, jazzy version of Tyler definitely steals the spotlight on this album, with songs like “2Seater” and “Fucking Young / Perfect” really showcasing Tyler’s growth as a producer since his days of the dark, minimal beats that made him famous. “Fucking Young / Perfect” is a one of the high points of the whole album, with a full-bodied, glittery production style that one can only hope Tyler will continue to revisit and refine as he moves forward in his career, because it’s just that impressive. Not only that, the lyrical content tackles a surprisingly complex issue, as Tyler ponders being in love with an underage girl. He manages to approach controversy with both introspectiveness — “A six year (difference) is a ten year (dentence) / And with the (pigment) on my skin / I don’t want to be another (statistic)” — and the humor and clever metaphors that have become his lyrical trademark — “Because I found a goose that I like, but I’m still running off / She gon’ want a nest, that’s why I cannot get fucking caught / That’s a scary word, you could save that shit for the birds / But I found my wings, fuck.” Another standout is “Smuckers,” for both its dazzling piano-based melody and the pure novelty of hearing Tyler share the mic with Kanye West talking the expected Kanye smack about how he’s “the only ni**a to ever check Nike,” and Lil Wayne sporting his tried-and-true, simile-laden flow with lines like, “I’m prayin’ for the new Yeezys / And you pussies prayin’ that we squash the beef like zucchinis.”
Tyler, the Creator has never been one to swim with the tide and certainly doesn’t with this latest offering. It’s far from an easy listen, with its stylized production and ever-changing pace, but it provides a glimpse into the mind of the self-described smart, annoying, obnoxious, creative and borderline genius force who clearly isn’t short of ideas to bring to life and risks to take. And just as the slur-laden shock-rap worked on Bastard, as does the attention deficit, multiple personality rollercoaster ride that is Cherry Bomb.