“This is not Bastard. This is not Goblin. This is not Wolf,” tweeted 28-year-old rap superstar Tyler, the Creator ahead of the release of his fifth studio album. “This is not Cherry Bomb. This is not Flower Boy. This is IGOR.” It’s kind of a funny statement given Tyler’s output thus far – never settling on one sound, persona, or aesthetic for long, anyone who is even a casual fan of his music would have expected anything but a repeat of the past.
Since releasing his debut solo mixtape Bastard while still being at the center of the Odd Future collective in 2009, Tyler has embodied a wide range of identities, from a problematic teenage psychopath to heartbroken gay fuccboi. Some have been more performative than others, but it’s seems that Tyler himself sees IGOR as a clean break from the rest of his discography, not just a new direction but an entirely new chapter. While that may be somewhat true, it feels more like a continuation of a theme that he’s been exploring at least since he dropped his critically lauded, Grammy-nominated Flower Boy album two short years ago – sincerity, but this time from the perspective of a fractured, heartsick rebel rather than a sexually frustrated Cali slacker.
IGOR opens with a startling blast of drone on “IGOR’S THEME,” kicking off an ominous tone that permeates every nook and cranny of the album’s 12 tracks. Amidst a stuttering backbeat and crackling tape hiss, Tyler and Lil Uzi Vert trade primitive hooks as Casio synths chatter around them. It’s more of a mood than a song, establishing imagery of 1980s pop-soul, spooky minor chords, and oppressive basslines. But it’s not long until we’re thrust headlong into the meat of IGOR: “EARFQUAKE” introduces the theme of loss and lovelorn strife, with its refrain of “Don’t leave/ It’s my fault” swirling around and around like dirty bathwater circling a drain. Tyler used to rap about suicide, rape, and ultraviolence, relying on shock value to paint a picture of emotional bankruptcy, but on IGOR, his fear, anxiety, and paranoia is in the music, and it’s much more compelling than the antics he became known for earlier in his career. Upon first listen, Flower Boy seemed more authentic and vulnerable, a milestone that successfully shed his bad boy image. In contrast, IGOR is too dark and too stylized to not be a more magnified and theatrical facet of his persona, but that’s not a bad thing.
That said, Tyler hasn’t completely left his darker days behind him. On “NEW MAGIC WAND,” he threatens to off his crush’s girlfriend: “You under oath, now pick a side and if you don’t/ I’ll pick you both/ It’s not a joke, murder she wrote.” If Flower Boy was Tyler showing a journey of maturity and coming-of-age, taking stock of his place in the world, IGOR is like a devilish hangover, a bleary journey into what it really means to grow up and get your shit together. In some ways, IGOR could almost qualify as a breakup album, albeit one that deals more with what it means to fuck up and drive someone away than the aftermath of a relationship.
Tyler and Santigold plead in soulful unison, “please, don’t leave me now,” on “NEW MAGIC WAND,” whereas on “GONE, GONE / THANK YOU,” Cee-Lo Green’s layered vocals form an angelic choir around the chorus “My love’s gone.” The real gut-punch comes from “A BOY IS A GUN,” an almost blow-by-blow account of the hot desire of longing for someone and the bitter frustration of always being relegated to the outskirts of their affection. Blame the patriarchy, but dating men can be its own special hell, and lines like “Take your hoodie off, why you hide your face from me?” and “You invited me to breakfast, why the fuck your ex here?” are lyrics on par with such iconic kiss-off albums as Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me in terms of male-generated romantic angst. Laid down over a deceptively soothing sample of the classic soul track “Bound” by Ponderosa Twins Plus One, “A BOY IS A GUN” is the cross section of everything Tyler represents: the anger of thwarted passions, the morbid fascination in deconstructing your own depression, and running below the surface, a sadness that he can’t even begin to quell. It’s masterful, and it makes everything Tyler has ever been through and rapped about worth it.
Musically, IGOR falls neatly into the modern pantheon of genre-pushing R&B, suitably on par with Solange‘s A Seat at the Table, Frank Ocean‘s Blonde, and Childish Gambino‘s “Awaken, My Love!”. These are the albums that are redefining what that genre means to this generation, and IGOR’s featured cast is like a who’s who of black music in 2019: Solange, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Playboi Carti, and Lil Uzi Vert are among some of the artists that lend their talents. The features aren’t showy, and it works well, as Tyler is able to shine through, the ringmaster in his own creative circus. By the time we get to the closer “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” when the record finally crescendoes, the song’s utter euphoria feels earned, like Tyler and the listener have both made it through the storm, a little worse for wear but generally uninjured. Within the framing of Tyler, the Creator, IGOR does feel like a triumph, the best of both worlds, a balance between the crazy kid he was and the precariously stable adult he’s still trying to become.