The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
This time a year ago, Tyler, the Creator was on the verge of launching his fourth album proper, Flower Boy. Of course, it leaked early, so by release day, many of us had already heard it and spent a great deal of time parsing out its startling lyrical admissions – that Tyler, a rapper who had courted extreme controversy for his misogynist and hateful bars directed at women and LGBT folks alike, was coming out of the closet.
Far from a reductive view, that narrative remains the most crucial element of Flower Boy‘s already burgeoning legacy in both Tyler’s career arc and the catalog of this decade’s most essential hip-hop releases. Musically, the album was heralded as a landmark accomplishment for Tyler, an assessment that still holds demonstrably true today. The rich, orchestral arrangements are every bit as lush as the record’s evocative title suggests; tracks like “Boredom” and “Glitter” are elevated well above the similar forays on his preceding album Cherry Bomb, rife with the same sense of fussy tinkering behind the booth but sharpened by a sense of concision and maturity that was previously lacking.
Tyler’s technical skill in delivering bars remains as fierce as ever, but wielding these skills to deliver nuanced laments and touching anecdotes, as opposed to clever rhymes and schoolyard taunts, is what truly sets Flower Boy at a caliber above the rest of his projects. His plea to literally turn back time to heal the ennui of his nostalgic, romantic longing on “November” is manifested in radiant reminiscing; details like the “rose-tinted cheeks” and “dirt-colored eyes” of his lover on “See You Again” or his adorably melancholic plea to “Find somebody who love me and raise a couple of lizards” on “Pothole” serve as a means of accessing empathy and understanding with his listeners at a level far deeper than he ever dared attempt before.
All of it is in service to the bombshell revelation at the heart of Flower Boy‘s centerpiece, “Garden Shed,” the song that confirms a male object of his intense desire. Even though subsequent lyrical asides like “I been kissing white boys since 2004” on “I Ain’t Got Time!” and musing at the notion that he would alienate his own fan base thanks to “Garden Shed” on “November” all but confirm his coming out (not to mention a variety of hints and perceived jokes over the past several years), some were hesitant or reluctant to immediately embrace the album through this critical lens, in spite of the obvious connotations telling otherwise and the media circus that ensued.
Generally, every celebrity that makes any indication of a non-heterosexual orientation is given a showering of attention in the news cycle. In Tyler’s case, it seemed all anyone was able to talk about. A prominent figure in the hip-hop world coming clean with their alternative sexual preferences already faces a disproportionate level of judgment from within their community compared to, say, a pop star, but Tyler was met with just as much (if not more) blowback from the other side of the aisle. With his well-documented affinity for trolling and criticism for his exhaustive use of the slur ‘faggot,’ a degree of hesitation at drawing such a definitive conclusion seemed appropriate.
I expressed such hesitation in a piece reflecting on these exact circumstances this time last year. As a queer-identifying individual, I had long made peace with Tyler’s confrontative persona – I have, and always had, interpreted his performance practice as intentionally off-putting; an exaggeration of oppressive tropes with an aim to highlight its inherent absurdity, not to further them outright (It’s worth noting that Flower Boy was initially unveiled as Scum Fuck Flower Boy, a clear reference to punk provocateur GG Allin’s backing band. Allin was known for, among other things, his physically violent stage shows that showcased songs dealing brusquely with such themes as racism, sexism, pedophilia, rape, and anti-religious sentiments. That said, he maintained that none of his music’s subjects correlated to his off-stage behavior – remind you of anyone?).
Of course, I do not speak for everyone. Tyler’s notorious use of the slur ‘faggot,’ or alternatively ‘fag,’ perpetuated its use as a derogatory term for a generation of rap fans (his debut album Goblin featured it a whopping 213 times across its 15 tracks), and many have every right to take offence at its careless usage – let alone at the appalling, often nauseating depictions of violence against women. Even if the personalities he inhabits on his songs are just that, and even if his derogatory insults are levied with a knowing wink, they can still cause a great deal of damage.
The parties he targets with his aggressive attitude are justifiably victimized by its consequences, clearly a stance that the governments of the United Kingdom and New Zealand took when denying him an entry visa on the grounds of inciting violence. One only needs to recall indie duo Tegan and Sarah’s open letter asking Tyler to reconsider his problematic candor towards women and members of the LGBT community when he first rose to prominence in 2011, a letter to which he responded, “If Tegan and Sarah need some hard dick, hit me up!”
This is not to suggest that Flower Boy, and the string of one-off singles that have accompanied in its wake, exists as a document to be debated over in regards to its creator’s identity; nor is it a grand statement of purpose or a means of explaining or correcting past ills. Quite the contrary, the album functions as a rhetorical probing of how the world will react to Tyler adopting such an identity – never does he go so far as to actually claim the identity for himself. Even as he becomes more forthright in his romantic preferences – this year’s single “OKRA” offers the instantly-iconic “Tell Tim Chalamet to come get at me,” which was merely the first of three tracks to reference to the neo-queer classic Call Me By Your Name in as many weeks – Tyler’s true feelings remain as obscured as ever, buried beneath layers of self-aware ridicule and labyrinthine wordplay.
What remains clear a year removed from Flower Boy is that a need still exists for Tyler to reckon with how his past behavior is very much in dialogue with his current state of, if not maturing, blossoming into a more empathetic individual. Whether he has explicitly stated as much or not, there are now those who will look to him as an inspiration for their own inner turmoil regarding their sexuality, and his very presence on the platform he commands can be comfort enough for these fans. The burden of making sense of this same Tyler with the Tyler who has rebuked ‘fags’ and empowered the discrimination of their community at the hands of those wishing to inflict violence upon it should not be shouldered by them alone; there is a middle ground open to Tyler that would allow him to address such concerns without having to explicitly label himself a certain way.
This point could not possibly be better illustrated than by the aftermath of my initial response to the release of Flower Boy last year. Anthony Fantano, the popular online music critic known as the founder of The Needle Drop, took direct aim at me and the piece for ‘not wanting Tyler to be gay,’ a conclusion that any close reading of the text would not support. Per his response, my personal social media accounts were flooded with death threats and calls for me to kill myself as an “ignorant faggot.” They heralded themselves as Tyler’s ‘true fans,’ the ones shielding him from the prying eyes and the poison-barbed pens of writers such as myself.
That sort of reaction represents the ‘old world’ fanbase of Tyler, the Creator’s, one that is in direct opposition to those commending the artist for revealing the intensely personal truths that mark his new work. Flower Boy is a clear-eyed plea for understanding from one of hip-hop’s most notoriously misunderstood youths, and yet the principles on which he still stands prevent that same level of understanding from reaching those who need it most.
For more like this, read our take on the stakes BROCKHAMPTON faces ahead of their upcoming album release, ‘the best years of our lives,’ right here.