Tyler, the Creator’s music has often been defined by exclusion. He was furious when rap blogs refused to post Odd Future songs. He has gleefully responded to being banned from countries. His songs attempted to reconcile with a divided fanbase. The subtext of Odd Future was that pearl-clutching moralists simply weren’t in on the (obscene) joke—the whole point of being radicals is to be “apart from.” He has also done his fair share of exclusion, too: marginalizing and upsetting women and queer people with violently misogynistic and homophobic lyrics. It has been asked how to reconcile the genius with the foul-mouthed punk.
Flower Boy (promoted as Scum Fuck Flower Boy) is Tyler’s course-correction, surprisingly meditative and beautifully colored, a collage of memories and daydreams that trades bratty subversion for reflection and self-improvement. He probes the things that shaped his psyche—loneliness, isolation, and disorientation—and focuses on outgrowing friendships, balancing the pull of nostalgia and the necessity for growth. Not only is Flower Boy Tyler’s most trenchant work, it’s his most inclusive: “Find Your Wings”: The Album, gentle and liberating. “Tell these black kids they can be who they are,” he raps on “Where This Flower Blooms,” as he grows into the artist he’s always longed to be, and perhaps always was.
While trying to recreate an N.E.R.D. album, Cherry Bomb more or less imploded. But it didn’t completely shed Tyler’s old skin, enlisting a host of colorful collaborators (Roy Ayers, Leon Ware, Charlie Wilson, Chaz Bundick, and Dâm-Funk) for songs about jerking off and underage relationships. His raps were regularly empty games of juvenile one-upmanship, snooty hand-wringing aimed at homebodies and the working class, and vitriolic rant raps aimed at no one in particular. There were love songs, but they were immature and sometimes flat-out creepy. Time had rendered his shock raps pretty toothless, and it was all sloppy. Conversely, Flower Boy is transformational, lovestruck and penetrating. Finally, Tyler gets to the essence of ideas he’s been chiseling at all along: the angst of a missed connection, the pain of unrequited love, navigating youthful ennui. These are hopeful and sincere songs about finding yourself and trying to find someone who values you completely.
Tyler spends much of Flower Boy chasing his “‘95 Leo,” coming out in the process. On “Foreword,” he raps, “Shoutout to the girls that I lead on/For occasional head and always keeping my bed warm/And trying they hardest to keep my head on straight/And keeping me up enough till I had thought I was airborne.” He later writes, “Next line will have ‘em like ‘Whoa’: I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.” The album’s literal and figurative centerpiece is “Garden Shed,” an inward-looking sexual awakening turning an extended metaphor into a watershed moment. Flower Boy unfurls from this revelation and the subsequent romance. He pens songs for his lover (“See You Again”), leaves him voicemails (“Glitter”), and seeks comfort through contact.
Much will be (and has already been) made of what exactly this means for a rapper who once responded to an open letter from Sara Quin criticizing his homophobic words and actions and those who support them by crudely saying, “If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!” Pivotal moments in his catalog are largely dependent on his often shameless and unapologetic use of gay slurs, and while these admissions don’t absolve him of past hate speech, they do paint a portrait of a confused and tactless young introvert in crisis. However listeners choose to interpret this conflict, Tyler doesn’t seem to be rapping to make amends but to be understood. This is not an apology or even an explanation. Flower Boy gingerly disentangles a knot of personal and complicated thoughts and feelings through the lens of flashbacks and love songs.
So subdued, wistful, permissive, and relatable, are these songs—they are Tyler’s most refined to date. Collectively, they’re a kaleidoscopic sonic wonder. Though still obviously taking influence from the Neptunes, his production remains unlike anything else right now—glowing oddball orchestrations with unpredictable chord progressions, adorned by choruses of sweet voices. “Garden Shed” and “Glitter” are among his prettiest creations. He cedes “Droppin’ Seeds” to an in-form Lil Wayne, content to show off his peculiar ear for sound. “Enjoy Right Now, Today” takes it a step further, going lyric-free, accented by light Pharrell vocals. The title and the warm soul interior seem to usher the listener outside. For those chasing a Bastard-esque, punchy rap fix, there’s “Who Dat Boy” and “Pothole.”
In the past, Tyler’s albums have been bloated and messy. Flower Boy is 17-minutes shorter than the average Tyler album with more understated transitions and less disorder and chaos. He has been known to overthink things or get too cute with compositions, tagging on eight-minute posse cuts, piecing together mismatched songs, adding attachments and embellishments where they aren’t needed. These songs here carry in them his tinkerer’s spirit without becoming overwrought. His ambition is a driving force in his work, but he curtails it for a more enjoyable and streamlined listen. The standouts, “911 / Mr. Lonely” and “I Ain’t Got Time!,” are carefully assembled arrangements made of gorgeous parts that fasten together seamlessly. There are several neat aesthetic choices, like playing “See You Again” as a radio request or pitching the halves of “Glitter” at opposing frequencies. There’s the juxtaposition of “Boredom” with “I Ain’t Got Time!”—a song about finding time with one about not having enough—then ending the latter abruptly to take a phone call. Where previous outings were tangled, Tyler’s adds a new elegance to his work.
Though it’s probably an overstatement to call Flower Boy penitent, the album is certainly aware of past wrongs, and Tyler pursues integration through confession. Onlookers have wondered aloud when Tyler would “grow up,” and while “mature” still feels imprecise when describing the rapper-producer, there is certainly an evolution taking place. But this isn’t about the strides taken to make sense of a complicated past; Flower Boy shows thoughtfulness can be freeing. As Tyler, the Creator embarks on a journey of self-discovery, he becomes close to whole.