Flower Boy & Tyler the Creator's Reinvention
Tyler the Creator has been, up until this point, one of hip hop's most notoriously misogynistic and homophobic lyricists. His earlier work is peppered with references that degrade women and his overuse of the word faggot on his first album received condemnation from people in the LGBTQ community. Flower Boy, however, sees Tyler almost reinvented. Gone are the slurs and depictions of violence against women. In are references to toxic masculinity, consumerism, individuality and queerness. The result is a poignant exploration of what it means to be a young Black man in contemporary, forever alienated by a sense of difference but still willing to embrace those differences that set him apart.
The underlying melodies are soulful, using piano, synth, percussion and other instrumentation create an intimate and insular world of desire. Tyler strips back his sound, creating a more expansive atmosphere to explore his alienation. The overall sonic landscape feels more at home on a Frank Ocean or The Internet album than the electronic-produced hip hop that dominates the airwaves today. Two exceptions are the anxiety ridden "Who Dat Boy" and the "I Ain't Got Time" percussive, interlaced sounds that seem to defy internal logic.
Many have focused on Tyler's possible references to coming out in "Garden Shed" featuring Estelle and kissing white boys in "I Ain't Got Time." A lot of these discussions have been a way to pin who Tyler is and how he identifies and I've largely resisted these classifications because I think Tyler himself has resisted clear cut definitions of identity through contradictory and unclear statements. Part of what makes Tyler so compelling a public figure is the ways in which he has controlled the narrative of his identity by making it a joke or a game that people have to play along with. My biggest take away from this album is not that Tyler is necessary queer but that he's self-conscious about his appearance, his behaviors, and how he relates to his peers.
On "Where The Flower Blooms," for instance, he remarks, "Tell these black kids they could be who they are / Dye your hair blue, shit, I'll do it too." (Later, we would see Frank Ocean, who collaborated on this song, sporting blue hair.) On "Potholes," one of the standout tracks on the album, Tyler speaks to his distance from peers, rapping, "Everyone is a sheep, me, a lone wolf / Nobody gon' make a peep 'cause everyone wants some wool / Since everyone is a sheep, not everyone here is cool / Man I'd rather drown in a pool by myself than fuck with their fleece."
The biggest question I asked myself after listening to Flower Boy was: does it make up for Tyler's past history of lyrical violence? The answer to this question is complex but I would ultimately say no. In the absence of an apology for what he's said in the past, there is a specter that haunts this new project. But this specter, and the tension it creates between the misogynistic, homophobic Tyler of old and the Tyler prepackaged in a world of flowers and bees, is precisely why Flower Boy is such a powerful excavation of personal transformation. Tyler, by the end of this album, appears to see the world differently.
Flower Boy is fascinating left-turn in the world of hip hop that begins to turn Tyler the Creator into an inspirational figure, someone who the weirdos and queer kids can identify with. The only question that remains is whether or not Tyler will continue down this new path or revert back to his old ways.