Every committed music fan knows it: listening’s all well and good, but talking – and, on occasion, bickering – about a record is half of the fun.
The FACT office is, for the most part, a picture of Edenic harmony, but some opinion-splitting records occasionally cause hearts to thump and voices to raise. Mention Grimes or Triad God to different staffers on different days, and you’ll either get a sturdy handshake or a firm dressing-down. With Socrates in mind, we thought we’d bring together two writers with divergent opinions on a contemporary record for some even-handed, courteous dialogue about its merits and failings. First off: Tyler, The Creator’s well-received Wolf, debated by Chris Kelly (whose favourable review can be read here) and Joseph Morpurgo:
Joseph Morpurgo: For all his trash-talking and thirst for confrontation, it feels curmudgeonly to pull Tyler, The Creator’s new album to pieces – after all, he’s essentially still a teenager with gumption, flair and a commendable work ethic, and therefore wins the argument by default. Still, Wolf has to be taken as what it is: a backwards shuffle being heralded as a leap forward, and the latest stage in the drip-by-drip dilution of a talent that should – and, I think, still can – be incandescent.
Putting aside some of the more obvious grievances – the rapping is technically sound but oddly anonymous; the mood is one of claustrophobia without urgency; the beats lope rather than knock – I think my main difficulty with Wolf is the way it’s been commended in all sorts of quarters as his most “musical” record. Really, though, it’s musical in the same way that jazz is “jazzy”. The lounge-friendly piano trills, trad changes and lilting hooks are all window dressing – spiritless (and deeply conservative) ornaments, designed to cover the general air of exhaustion that hangs off the record like skunk odour on a dog (What do you remember about ‘Yonkers’ – the call-to-arms intro, or the casino bar middle 8?) He’s a furiously talented kid whose eye is straying from the ball – and maybe an intervention is required.
Chris Kelly: First, the “obvious” grievances: while I would like to see Tyler move beyond his tropes, he still has one of the most intriguing voices in hip-hop, with lyrics reminiscent of the venomous wordplay of early period Eminem and that unparalleled baritone; I’d rather listen to Tyler than most of his contemporaries. As for claustrophobia without urgency (and the loping beats, to an extent), I see those as functions of Tyler’s self-conscious ennui: Wolf is the soundtrack for millennial malaise.
As for musicality: the elements might be pulled from the same toolbox, but juxtaposing these diversions with off-kilter beats and punch-drunk lyrics provides relief from all the misanthropy. Tyler is entirely aware of image and expectations, and in his bizarro world, being conservative is subversive. Every unexpected frill is proof that he doesn’t have to resort to necrophilia to be shocking.
And while his youth doesn’t end the discussion, Tyler is a 22-year-old who — despite being dissecting for the better part of three years — is able to stay true to and expand upon his twisted vision. He’s also self-assured enough to do a seven-minute concept piece in the middle of his album, or to know when to hand the keys of the Bimmer to Frank Ocean. So maybe the focus on the musicality is off the mark: the best part of Wolf is watching Tyler put it all together.
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JM: Before we start canonizing Tyler as a provocateur with a “twisted vision”, let’s remember what that vision looks like in 2013: Loiter Squad. Bastard worked because its less palatable elements – the frat-boy friendly goofing, the Eminem-worship, the petulance as opposed to fury – were counterpointed by a DIY spirit and a well-above-average talent. Nowadays, Tyler’s deeply naff extra-musical activities have pushed those uglier qualities to the fore, and it’s had a toxic impact on his musical project. How can we be shocked by his “venomous” non-sequiteurs when we’ve seen him krumping in his boxers with a frog? When Lil Wayne grabs a skateboard, offends everyone and makes videos that looks like Tim And Eric offcuts, he’s mocked from the rooftops – so why does Tyler get called “subversive”?
And as regards those “unexpected trills”, it’s worth stressing that (the admittedly great ‘Answer’ excepted), Wolf is a surprise-free zone. Some production polish aside, the template of sludgy oubliette rhythms and schmaltzy touches has barely evolved from Bastard-thru-Goblin-thru-Wolf. The beats aren’t off-kilter; in the context of his previous releases, they’re thoroughly on-kilter. That’s why I find the rush to toast this album so baffling – whilst Tyler’s cohorts (Earl, Frank, Syd and Matt) are steaming ahead creatively, he’s just thumping away at the same dusty drum.
CK: You drop Loiter Squad like it’s a bad thing! Tyler went from rapping about Cartoon Network on Bastard to having a subsidiary of the world’s largest media conglomerate pay him and his friends to be Jackasses. It’s not exactly the Chicago Seven but there’s still something subversive there.
Meanwhile, those “less palatable elements” have been part-and-parcel of Tyler’s appeal and success since day one. Enjoying Tyler and Odd Future holistically requires the audience to acknowledge their similarly puckish proclivities, whether they shared them at 13 or 17 or 21, which is just about the average age of the OF cohort. The differences between Tyler and Wayne are self-awareness and age: call me if Tyler is still doing this at 30 with Wayne’s mind-numbing lack of self-awareness.
Compared to his previous albums, I’ll concede that the instrumental evolution is not dramatic as much as it is encouraging: he’s refining and streamlining a style that is off-kilter compared to mainstream rap. While everyone else (for better or worse) is beating down the doors of Mike WiLL and DJ Mustard, Tyler is aping indie hip-hop sonics that A) haven’t been in fashion since he hit puberty, and B) were never exposed to that wide an audience the first time around. Even considering the alt-rap resurgence, no one is bringing ’98 back with as big a megaphone as Tyler.
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JM: All credit to Tyler for his payday, but Loiter Squad is essentially subversive art in the same way Hooray For Boobies is subversive art (12-year-old-me loved that album, and, spoddy little poindexter that he was, he’d probably love Wolf, too). And if you’re honestly claiming that Wolf‘s big creative triumph is “bringing ’98 back”, then this discussion’s probably reached its natural conclusion. Go home to your constituencies and prepare for Doris. (side note: if Wolf really should be understood as an ode to the backpack era, it needs to compete with its forebears. Place Wolf next to Funcrusher Plus and tell me who comes out bleeding)
You’re right that digging OFWGKTA requires a deactivation of one’s maturity chip, and that unleashing one’s inner mallrat is part of the fun; to squint at Tyler’s capers and outrages through a critic’s monocle is, ultimately, a folly. But the problem with Wolf isn’t that it’s shocking, or rambunctious, or too musical, or too silly – it’s just predictable, which is the one thing Tyler’s persona requires him not to be. Just about every trick on the record has been pulled by Tyler before, and with more vim and vigour too. On the creative low-points – bizarrely flagrant ‘Stan’ rip-off ‘Colossus’; mosh-pit fodder ‘Trashwang’; ‘Ifhy’, which follows a briefly interesting intro with even more funkless drum-programming and an “I fucking hate you!” chorus – listening becomes a real chore (and that’s putting aside the fact that, like most rap records, it’s five tracks too long).
Even Tyler knows he needs to sharpen up, I think. The album’s strongest lyrical performances (‘Answer’, ‘Lone’) and better instrumentals (’48’) see him attempting to switch up the mood. For the most part, though, Wolf is toothless and fangless – an exercise in going through the motions, and an okay record from an artist who has it in him to be excellent.
CK: I might have missed the mark with ’98 (I chose poetry over accuracy with that one), so let’s push it up a few years. There are moments on Wolf that remind of Vaudeville Villain, Float, In Search Of, or even The Love Below, and while it (obviously) doesn’t stand as tall as those records, I appreciate the reminders of albums I haven’t spun in years.
On Wolf‘s creative low-points, we’re in agreement: even my review noted that Tyler’s “anti-industry, anti-dad, anti-fame, anti-everything schtick” can get tiresome, and that the album filler like ‘Trashwang’ is just trash. But as with most albums, enjoyment comes down to whether or not the high points outweigh the low, and for me, those attempts at flipping the script (’48’, ‘Lone’, ‘Treehome95’, ‘PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer’, etc.) keep Wolf dangerous.
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