Odd Future ringleader Tyler, the Creator has a rap persona pitched between shock-riddled misanthropy and confessional reflection; he’s preoccupied with his own press and he uses his music as a vent for anger and frustration. His debut album, Bastard, was filled with sharp darts for rap blogs who wouldn’t post his music, while his sophomore album, Goblin, wanted desparately to prove Odd Future was worth all their sudden hype. In the two years since Goblin’s release, Earl Sweatshirt returned from Samoan exile, Frank Ocean opened up about his sexuality in a heartfelt Tumblr note and released the Grammy Award winning Channel Orange, and Tyler unveiled “Loiter Squad”, an absurdist late night sketch comedy show. As a group, Odd Future embarked on a series of tours that connected them with an expanding base of teenagers and outcasts even as they drew fire from LGBT advocates, women’s groups, and a music press none too amused by the macabre content of their lyrics. A lot has changed, and now Tyler returns with Wolf.
Where Goblin felt like an attempt to shoehorn the whole of Odd Future’s nihilist aesthetic into a single album, Wolf pulls back the curtain and reveal the talented introvert behind the music. The first thing to go is the bratty punk fury of earlier material. The insurgent bravado of “Radicals”, “Sandwitches”, and “French” is scaled back, replaced by songs that flip the conventions of his songwriting inside out. The songs about women are earnest where they used to carry murder ballads’ air of ill intent. Drugs come up, but we also hear about a remorseful dealer surveying the havoc he’s caused and a man having a mercilessly terrible time while high. Wolf is still the balancing act between gruff cynicism and juvenilia that we’ve come to expect from Odd Future (especially on “Pigs”, a bleak radio play about exacting revenge on bullies), but these songs are more three-dimensional. Tyler’s more likely to aim for melody instead of menace.
Wolf as a whole also sounds gorgeous, and that even goes for the bruisers. The polyrhythmic hi-hats of the madcap posse cut “Trashwang” eventually give pause to a piano bridge, and the blustery lead single “Domo 23” gets a bump from a boisterous horn section. Foreboding numbers like “Rusty” (a lush reimagining of 1990s RZA production) and the nightmarish, tribal “Cowboy” are declawed by rich textures and melodicism. “Answer” sets Tyler’s longing for his late grandmother and absentee father to a bright guitar figure and shimmering organs. “48”’s crack epidemic reminiscence is adorned with elegant pianos, string stabs, tasteful guitar, and spoken word interludes from Nas. Tyler’s pet sounds are dark melodies hammered out on wonky synths and clattering breakbeats but here they come padded with embellishments that give Wolf a cinematic breadth. The album is pretty, but beguilingly so.
There’s something not quite right, though, and it’s not just Tyler’s gritty basso profundo cutting through every melodic flourish. Pacing is one problem. Wolf reprises the winding sprawl of Goblin, hitting its stride on a series of midtempo cuts on the front and back ends but losing steam on a midsection that places too many of its longest and slowest songs back-to-back. “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer” marries three unrelated fragments in a manner not unlike Domo Genesis’ Rolling Papers, whose passages of short vignettes gave it an off-the-cuff feel. But the pieces here don’t hang together, and “Bimmer” is too fleeting of a payoff for the uphill trudge it takes to get there. After that, there’s the lengthy “IFHY” (“I fucking hate you,” natch.), a bit of Neptunes worship so adroit that its plinking synths and jazzy chord changes give way to a falsettoed coda from Pharrell himself. (The Stereolab-channeling“Campfire” similarly summons that band’s Laetitia Sadier for a guest vocal.) Later on, the sedate acid jazz of “Treehome95” and the closing comedown “Lone” are inexplicably split up by the shrill M.I.A. send-up “Tamale”. Wolf is full of good songs but in the wrong order.
Still, not all of the depressive sluggishness can be blamed on sequencing. Tyler makes very clear that he doesn’t enjoy the trappings of fame. The album is shot through with harsh words for critics, sheepish venue owners, puritanical parents, and groups who’ve picketed Odd Future shows. But if he’s surrounded by detractors, he only has himself to blame. He was bound to be taken for a ne’er do well by a mainstream public who first spotted him in a video eating a roach and hanging himself, to be read for a homophobe after regaling his records and tweets with offensive slurs. Tyler should know that we don’t get to control the ways our words are interpreted when they leave our mouths to filter out into the universe, and we certainly don’t get to be coarse or crass without blowback. Over the length of the album, the defensive can become grating, and Wolf’s rebuttals are pointless anyhow. By now, you either like Odd Future and have figured out a mental workaround to reconcile their more troubling tendencies with their obvious talent, in which case this stuff is moot, or you don’t, and this acrimonious self-defense is ill-suited to win you over.
With Wolf, Tyler, the Creator displays a radical growth as a producer, composer and arranger, even if, as a rapper, he’s still up to some of the same antics. Still, the album contains a few of the best songs he’s ever written. “48” is a wonder, “Answer” and “Lone” delve into deeply personal matters with poise, and “Rusty” is one of the most arresting lyrical performances on the record if you can see past the self-serving chest-beating. It’s a big screen rendering of the Neptunes-meet-Stevie-Wonder-in-a-microwave quality of Tyler’s earlier works, the sound of a creative mind coming into the possession of the proper means to carry out its ideas. At its best, Wolf manages to make the inroads toward accessibility that Goblin wouldn’t and pulls it off without sacrificing too much of Tyler’s refreshing capriciousness. When the album isn’t busy telling us that we ought to like it more, it’s delivering reasons why we actually should.