A reoccurring image on Wolf is a house, one whose deed belongs to Tyler Gregory Okonma. He doesn’t talk about waking up in a new Bugatti, he talks about waking up in his new home, where he’s got to climb “eight sets of stairs just to see where [his] fucking roof be.” The fame, isolation, space, pride, and loneliness are represented in this house that Tyler, the Creator references many times on the album. In just three years, he’s gone from sleeping on his grandmother’s couch and making blown-out angst rap with shock lyrics about rape, necrophilia, and misogyny to paying the mortgage on a four-story symbol of responsibility at the young age of 22 and making an album about the trappings of an overactive imagination. If you can imagine how small the six-foot-tall rapper looks in his mansion, you’re getting a good idea of what the scene looks like on his third solo LP, Wolf.
Upon first crossing the threshold into Wolf, it seems like an all-too-familiar portrait of Tyler’s macabre, solipsistic worldview. At over 70 minutes, it’s once again too long, girded with IDGAFs and “fag-” baiting, and so much self-reflexive lyricism that it feels like you’re watching Tyler yell at himself in a house of mirrors. That would explain some of the alter-egos that crop up on the album: Wolf, Sam, and Salem. The album is loosely based around these three characters and their experience at Flog Gnaw, a fictional summer camp with the same name as the Odd Future Carnival that took place in L.A. last year.
And much like real summer camp, there are moments of adventure, immaturity, boredom, love, self-discovery, and, of course, an underlying feeling that you don’t really want to be at summer camp anyway. To Tyler’s credit, Wolf is a stark contrast to some of the endeavors he’s undertaken since 2011’s Goblin. Watch how much fun he has in the posse cut “Oldie” from The OF Tape Vol 2. tape and compare it to the laconic, self-serious jealousy note of Wolf’s “IFHY” that sports the hook, “I fucking hate you / but I love you.”
He’s a trope unto himself: a garrulous puck when he’s around his friends filming outrageous music videos and sketch comedy shows for Adult Swim, and a manic depressive when he’s alone. That’s the house that Tyler built for himself, and spending time with him can be an exhausting, frustrating, singular, and impressive experience.
True to his personality, Tyler is at his best when he’s entertaining guests, and Wolf is stacked with them: Pharrell’s turn on “IFHY”, LÃ¦titia Sadier (of Stereolab) on the Funkadelic-on-lean “Campfire”, and Frank Ocean, whose croon is peppered throughout the album to aerate Tyler’s growl. His asthmatic, baritone cadence sounds most dynamic when paired with someone else, and like “Sandwitches”, Hodgy Beats’ verse on “Jamba” completes one of the most streamlined, caffeinated tracks from the Odd Future catalogue.
If you buy into the rickety summer-camp narrative of the album, Tyler hardly gives anyone else a role in the story, even though they do much of the work on the album (Ms. Erykah Badu all but saves the day on the neo soul redux “Treehome95”). His production helps shoulder the burdens of the album, too, with these jazz fusion chords that mist up behind every track, coupled with dissonant piano lines or a lone guitar riff in some musical mode that doesn’t play well with others. He’s more RZA than Neptunes throughout, favoring slick, backseat funk over cranium-splitting synths. Even when he’s lampooning Lex Luger on “Trashwang”, or channeling some scorched ’60s psych on the heartbreaking “Answer”, he maintains that busted economy in his beats, and carves out a detailed and dynamic aesthetic for the world of Wolf.
Tyler is his own worst enemy, of course. But the buoyancy of the production and the overall intrigue of hearing him struggle with his idle hands prevent the album from getting mired down in too much vanity. And just like the devil’s playground of his Twitter feed, Tyler’s diarheic subconscious on the album is mostly concerned with pleasuring himself. When he deals with anyone other than himself, like super fans on “Colossus” or young love on “Awkward”, he handles it with all the grace and class you’d expect of someone who falsely equates being a gay ally with having Frank Ocean on his record, despite his persistent use of the word “faggot” throughout.
It would be ignorance for ignorance’s sake if Tyler weren’t trying to unpack all these contradictions, too. His pernicious verses exhibit more pathos than pity, more agency than just shock, and those moments of lucidity in the closing track “Lone” when Tyler states that he’s just “using these negatives to develop a portrait” are the glue that keeps this mosaic of mirrors together. At his best, he grapples with how we interpret language with the same kind of “I say that shit just clownin’ dog” defense as Eminem — death threats to boy bands and fart jokes included.
At his worst, he’s an immature egomaniac whose insufferableness comes from being too aware of his own faults. For a guy who was tempered in internet culture, whose personality was always reflected in some digital form or another, it’s an understandable tack to take. Thankfully he’s done a fine job of making the journey to the center of his id a curious and engaging one. Even when he wanders aimlessly around on “Slater”, you know he’ll get bored soon enough and call up Earl Sweatshirt and Domo Genesis for a late-album defibrillator jolt on “Rusty”. He’s an increasingly enigmatic young rap magnate who struggles with self-expression to the point of continuing to play his own therapist on his records. That’s the life of his mind, and inside his house, there’s plenty of room for him to succeed and fail. It’s still compelling to watch him do both.
Essential Tracks: “Answer”, “Lone”, and “Rusty”