Tyler, The Creator’s Scum Fuck Flower Boy was my favourite album of 2017.
Hardly a groundbreaking or contrarian take, the Ladera-based rapper has had an amazing year in which he’s creatively blossomed, developing two TV shows, a number of new GOLFWANG collections and his exceptionally lush studio album. However, when the year begun, I had little reason to expect that Tyler’s record would have such an impact on me. 2017 has been nothing if not a musically unpredictable year, but Tyler’s redemption is perhaps the most unexpected of all pop culture pivots. It’s prudent to ask, after everything that’s happened: how did we get here?
We’ll need to go back to the start.
Ladera Heights: The Black Beverley Hills
Odd Future is something of a legendary outfit - a model for young creatives everywhere, best seen in the 2017 ascension of structurally-indebted boyband Brockhampton. Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All, abbreviated as OFWGKTA, was founded in 2007. Based out of Los Angeles, it brought a thriving group of young artists together and sowed the seeds for some of the decade’s most impressive artists, such as The Internet, Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler himself. Their Adult Swim program, Loiter Squad, brought their offbeat comic sensibilities to a wider audience, pushing them from aspiring artists to full-on entertainers.
Their impact on youth culture is hard to understate - shirts bearing OFWGKTA became stylish apparel worldwide, whilst their countercultural image inspired a fervent cult following. Odd Future presented an image of relaxed innovation and friendly collaboration: they were, first and foremost, young creatives. The commercial and critical successes that followed were merely affirmations of their unabashedly offbeat talents. Despite this string of successes, Tyler has long been a lightning-rod for controversy. His edge-rap sensibilities contributing to tour-derailing visa problems in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. In 2015, following the cancellation of his Australia tour, Odd Future collective-mates The Internet were quick to distance themselves from his more extreme lyrical content, which they felt impacted their own commercial successes by affiliation.
It’s easy to see why Tyler came to represent the misogynistic excesses of hip hop - even his more successful tracks, such as Goblin’s hit single “She,” contain allusions to murder, necrophilia and sexual assault. Whilst critics held the record in relatively high regard, it split audiences down a moral line - one that traced the distinction between art and artist. His outrageous bars - which include the now-infamous “Tron Cat” lyric “victim, victim, honey you’re my fifth one / Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome” - garnered him press attention from some of the world’s largest newspapers, including The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN. He was the kind of rapper that parents feared; the kind shoehorned into the 6pm news to strike fear into the hearts of suburban mothers.
There’s no question that misogyny remains one of hip hop’s foremost vices - the meteoric rise and subsequent implosion of Florida-based SoundCloud rapper XXXTentacion is but the latest in hip hop’s troubling treatment of women. A$AP Mob affiliate A$AP Bari - a fashion designer who moves in the expansive clique alongside Rocky and Ferg - was caught on tape sexually assaulting a woman in a hotel room, and suffered little to no reprimands from his powerful peers. A public diss during Rocky’s set at Agenda Festival seemed to presage some kind of action, but the failure to follow through has steeped the Mob in hip hop’s unfortunate history of turning a blind eye to sexual harassment and assault. In response to his visa problems, Tyler suggested there was a racial motive at play - indeed, shock-rap pioneer Eminem has been afforded travel privileges despite his vividly horrific depictions of his darker impulses explored on tracks such as “Kim.”
Even the thematic progress Tyler made with his third studio album, 2015’s Cherry Bomb, couldn’t lift him out of pop culture purgatory. He seemed indefinitely doomed to a niche; a successful-but-offbeat rapper with a brief career life expectancy.
Then, one day, something changed.
Flower Boy T
Was is maturation? Potentially. Perhaps it was something lurking underneath the slick, offensive veneer the whole time - the source of Tyler’s artistic rage was the very tool that liberated him from it, seething anger repurposed and directed inward. Scum Fuck Flower Boy offers an escape from his incendiary imagery through shockingly self-aware introspection - Tyler leans into his controversial public image, dissecting his behaviours in the way his now-defunct psychiatrist character never could. Tyler presents himself less as a problem child and more as a complicated assortment of personal issues - themes of loneliness and alienation run throughout SFFB, underpinned by questions of sexual identity and personal fulfilment.
When Scum Fuck, Flower Boy leaked two weeks prior to release, the internet was abuzz with rumours - was Tyler ‘coming out’ on his new record? The hype surrounding this admission seemed to outpace the hype for the album itself, taking on its own life and becoming something of a media obsession. Tyler’s dated, controversial comments - some of which concerned homosexuality - became a focal point, discussions swirling about his enigmatic beliefs. Where do the jokes end? Where does the artist start? Most of all, one question persisted: is he having us on?
The overblown speculation - a sign that Tyler had truly become his own celebrity - only detracted from the record, which makes its mark as a surprisingly contained and placid listen. The album careens between evocative admissions and crystal clear statements, with tracks such as “Who Dat Boy” and “I Ain’t Got Time” falling as punchy asides within a sprawling examination of Tyler’s psyche. He’s both the subject and the object. Whilst he can engage in the rap game’s excesses, he also understands the futility of yearning for fulfilment in commercial and critical praise.
The back end of the record - specifically “November” into “Glitter” and “Enjoy Today, Right Now” is a pointed declaration of love to an unlikely suitor. Tyler combines a wistful recollection of glory days past with a seemingly overdue phone call to his crush. “Glitter” is narratively bookended with Tyler’s intentions - he plans to call, reveal his deep-seated affections and abruptly hang up. The track combines innocent lyricism (“I hope that we can be more than just friends”) with understandable angst (“What you feel? What you feel?”), making it more of a genuine romantic portrayal than a straight-up love song. Whilst the declaration within may be the message, it’s the way in which it’s presented that makes it such an emotive and relatable song.
Despite this artistic maturation, Tyler's rehabilitation is slow going. It seems unsurprising that Tyler was shut out of the Grammy's - a combination of a strong field and a troubling past likely derailed his campaign. Similarly, Tyler's conspicuous absence from Triple J's Hottest 100 may very well come down to his divisive public persona. Triple J is as much a bastion of progressive political statements as it is a youth radio station, and the promotion of a divisive and oft-offensive emcee seems unlikely.
Is it right to punish an accomplished artist based on their incendiary approach? Tyler's inflammatory content was unsavoury, but such an approach helped Odd Future gain footing in popular culture. It's because of his much-discussed persona that acts such as The Internet, Syd, Matt Martians, Earl Sweatshirt, Hodgy Beats and Frank Ocean first came to light. Whilst Scum Fuck Flower Boy suggests a reformation of sorts, it's likely not enough to win over those who've already made up their minds.
There's an understandable apprehension underlying this redemption: a cosign can be a dangerous thing. XXL's endorsement of XXXTentacion, for example, implicitly condones his disturbing behaviour and lends him the credibility he needs to continue prospering in light of these accusations. Continued coverage of artists such as Chris Brown and Nelly has also allowed them to continue cultivating a loyal fanbase despite their horrific transgressions. Unlike these cases, Tyler's predicament is more concerned with persona. Though the shock-jock comments that helped Tyler rise to fame are understandably offensive, they're phrases divorced from actions. Tyler's been arrested a single time, for inciting a riot at SXSW in 2014. Whilst not a commendation, it's hardly a charge as heinous as those facing many prospering rappers. Tyler's slights are, as far as we know, just that: verbal jousts and envelope-pushing asides meant to attract attention and steal spotlight.
Verbalising vicious criminal acts is nothing new, but the effect is has on one's career is anything but assured. Tyler wouldn't be the first artist to shake edgy beginnings for a more approachable sound - take the most successful emcee of all time, Mashall Mathers. Eminem's "Kim," off 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP, remains one of rap's most confrontational releases, both an insight into Mathers' internal turmoil and a frightening display of musical catharsis. It's as violent and suggestive as anything Tyler's released, even going as far as to use the real life name of his then-wife. On one hand, the cathartic release of anger may help others with similar thoughts navigate their complicated feelings. On the other, it's a terrifying message to pass on to young fans. Despite this, MMLP became the fastest-selling rap album of all time.
Ultimately, it's a work of art that doesn't necessarily reflect the artist's beliefs. "Kim" walks the line moreso than anything Tyler's released, drawing a clear line from Eminem to his then-wife. There's an important takeaway: Eminem's shockingly violent lyrical content didn't stop him from becoming America's sweetheart. Indeed, he didn't suffer through visa problems like a young Tyler. Whilst a redemption is possible, it seems as though it's hardly necessary for some.
Even were Tyler to overcome his alienating past, would he receive the praise he rightfully deserves? The mainstream is a lot of things: lucrative, fickle and largely family-friendly. The issue of re-establishing a public image is compounded by the genre in which Tyler is working. Hip hop has long been maligned in mainstream culture, and whilst rap has recently become the most popular genre in the United States, there are still many barriers to be broken. Legendary artists such as Talib Kweli and Mos Def have long discussed the intricacies of racism and discrimination, but Eminem's uninspired anti-Trump contribution to the BET Cypher was met with unwarranted astonishment. Even top-tier artists such as JAY Z or Kendrick Lamar have trouble commanding respect from the Recording Academy. It's been fourteen years since a hip hop project won Record of the Year, despite rap's ubiquitous place in contemporary pop music. Whilst hip hop has undoubtedly become more palatable, it's made little gains in terms of recognition by industry awards.
Hip hop Grammy's tend to be curiously anglo-centric. In 2010, Eminem's lukewarm Recovery beat The Roots' acclaimed How I Got Over for Best Rap Album. In 2014, Macklemore's The Heist beat Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, a win so indefensible that Macklemore himself apologised. In 2012, Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was not nominated for Album Of The Year. The age-old defence of "the Grammy's suck," whilst accurate, does little to correct the industry's failing trajectory.
For Tyler, the path to mainstream fame is likely paved with apologies and acknowledgment. The path beyond that, however, is one that all hip hop stars have walked before - a path paved with mainstream alienation, racial biases, commercial success and critical ignorance. As hip hop becomes the dominant genre in a rapidly changing United States, will rap be culturally reassessed? Will the industry's chief tastemakers shift towards acknowledging the intricacies of the artform, or will they double down on their tone-deaf dogmatism?
One thing's for sure - Neil Portnow is a dick.