Before we get to Flower Boy, let’s consider Earl Sweatshirt for a second. As a teenager, he was the hyper-talented poster child for Odd Future’s nihilistic, violent, troubling aesthetic. They wanted you to cringe, and Earl could do it in the most complicated verses possible. Then he infamously went away, and came back in 2013 with his first proper album, Doris. Halfway through that record, Tyler, The Creator, Earl’s big brother in the Odd Future collective, shows up to rap on “Sasquatch.” It’s a dingy, raw, excellent rap song, but Tyler spends his verse aiming at punchlines, especially a long one about One Direction fans. Then Earl comes in, rapping intricately about “a squadron full of some lost souls.” Doris made this much clear: Earl had grown up, but Tyler wasn’t there yet.
Doris came out in between Tyler’s two records, 2013’s Wolf and 2015’s Cherry Bomb. The former of Tyler’s albums played up his production chops and rap skills, but it also ran way too long and the battle with critics grew tiresome. The latter, meanwhile, is a chaotic mashing-up of styles, a whole with thrilling moments that never quite came together. This has been the frustration with Tyler. He’s a good producer, a good rapper when he can shy away from his penchant for too-obvious attempts at shock, but his albums never cohere. Even if they are supposed to be disjointed, the overall effect feels smaller than the impact of individual songs.
Flower Boy, largely, overcomes these self-imposed obstacles. It is easily Tyler’s most accomplished album, mostly because he sounds confident in his own skin here. Not at east, not at all, but confident and clear in his perspective. The album is personal, very much about Tyler (“Young T” as he often refers to himself), but it’s also about his title, The Creator. Tyler raps, and raps well, on the record, but his production gets as much a spotlight as his words, and the balance he strikes is at the heart of the album’s success.
The album works, first, because it shifts away from the tensions we expect from Tyler, and shifts towards tensions that were always hidden in plain sight in his music. No more defensive vitriol as therapy here, no more hiding vulnerability behind crass humor. That line, that Tyler was obnoxious because he was troubled, was never quite worth the effort. It worked against itself, with his humor cutting away at his audience’s empathy rather than reinforcing it. Flower Boy, instead, pivots towards Tyler’s more compelling musical tensions, his love of both the gritty and the sweet. This album finally drops the who-gives-a-fuck chaos because it’s not as believable as the Tyler we see here. On Flower Boy, we realize that Tyler is, at least in part, a romantic.
The album exists in a limbo between a search for contentment and a romantic’s attachment to the past. “Foreword” sets up the doubt underneath everything else on the record, the song a litany of questions that Tyler doesn’t know the answer to. He wonders, “How many raps can I write before I get me a chain / How many chains can I wear till I’m considered a slave?” It’s an interesting starting point for a guy diversifying his talents, building not just music but, among other pursuits, a clothing line. Where fashion tips from self-expression to burden haunts Tyler early on the record. On “Where This Flower Blooms,” over a gauzy, drifting beat, he claims ice “weighs a ton,” and a second later wants to “Tell these black kids they can be who they are.” The link between what we wear, how we present ourselves, and who we are works on a few levels here. It’s a more subtle turn for Tyler as a lyricist, but it also mirrors his own concerns as both a young man and an artist.
Flower Boy also concerns itself with sexuality and relationships in new and interesting ways for Tyler. He hasn’t quite quelled his provocateur impulses, so many have already clung to lines like “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004,” which may be less a revelation than an attempt to poke at our need to define sexuality. It’s hard to tell with Tyler, and either way the line doesn’t serve as a make-up call for some of his previous lyrics about sexuality. It’s also a bit of a red herring on the album, because the mystery here is relationships — how we find them, how we keep them, how we remember them when they’re gone, regardless of who they’re with. “Garden Shed” is half a remembrance, the music like a tribute to classic soul and R&B (this tribute runs through the whole album, effectively) until the music distorts and Tyler’s brief verse kicks in. “That is where love I was in,” Tyler raps about the titular shed, the mixed-up syntax reflecting the confusion of the moment. He remembers feeling disconnected from friends, another theme throughout the record, and finding this one connection.
A lot of the record is all about the various stages of searching for that connection. Songs like “See You Again” and “911/Mr. Lonely” provides a lovelorn search for that feeling, that connection, for romance. “Glitter” is almost sweet, a long message left to the subject of his romantic interest, although the message goes undelivered in the end. And “November” mires itself, in an interesting way, in the nostalgia of remembering a lost love. The love story in the album links to Tyler’s larger, complicated search for contentment. On one hand, he claims he just wants to make something worth while, to make a life around doing what he loves. He hints that this is his path to connection, community, happiness. On the other hand, on “Pothole,” he claims “Everyone is a sheep / Me: a lone wolf,” still keeping himself at arm’s length, at odds with apparently conforming people around him.
This isolation always felt like a dead end in past Tyler records. But Flower Boy sounds so much like a starting point, and it’s the album’s open-ended vibe that makes it feel more resonant than his other albums. The word “boy” hangs heavy here. The most aggravated, blustering song is “Who Dat Boy.” And Tyler refers to himself as “boy” all over the record, suggesting that we aren’t to full on mature Tyler yet, but that he is growing, he is a bit more self-aware, more in control than before. But it also suggests a path forward. In the instrumental closer “Enjoy Right Now, Today,” Tyler counts off “1-2-3-4” halfway through the song, then lets the beat drift off until the album ends, as if whatever comes next will pick up right there. As if the album doesn’t end, it just pauses until whatever comes next arrives.
Flower Boy isn’t perfect. “Boredom” mirrors the title in structure, stretching out lazily, but while that seems like a good idea, the execution doesn’t work. And Tyler still occasionally lets the music drift off, lingering too long after its made its mark. But Tyler, as a rapper, is at his most concise and refined here. No song gets more lyrics than it needs, sometimes just one quick verse, and it becomes fascinating to see where and when Tyler comes in and raps, and his gruff voice juxtaposes nicely with so many sweet singing voices that pop up on the record. Flower Boy is a fascinating, singular effort from Tyler, The Creator. He’s crafted a record that finally measures up to a promise that has always been there. He’s left behind some bad habits, and turns towards more interesting tensions. It’s not the about-face it might seem, and it won’t bring about some wholesale re-envisioning of Tyler as an artist. That would ring hollow anyway. It’s a start down a new path, though, and an interesting one at that.