The world of music is ruled by tastemakers, and only the tastemakers know it. When a member of the group Odd Future (OF) called “Tyler, the Creator” released “Bastard” in 2009, some of them took notice.
The world of music is ruled by tastemakers, and only the tastemakers know it. When a member of the group Odd Future (OF) called “Tyler, the Creator” released “Bastard” in 2009, some of them took notice. Upon first listen, they all sighed and unanimously agreed, “Well, this is going to be huge.” And it was.
That is to say, it is. “Bastard” was only a minor commercial success, which is saying something considering the album has not yet been pressed into physicality. However, the waves it sent rippling through the music community when it dropped were unmistakably seismic. An intense amount of hype enveloped Tyler and Odd Future, and that, along with several other releases, cast OF’s first stone into the indie stratosphere. Later, it would be Tyler’s breakout single, “Yonkers,” that brought that stone to rest. Then it cast a hundred more.
“Yonkers” was a megaton bomb of a track. The accompanying video, which featured the young, gravel-voiced Tyler eating a cockroach and hanging himself, enveloped the hip-hop landscape in a thick layer of Odd Future’s spider silk. The indie world was waiting to see what Tyler and company were going to do next. As it turns out, it was a trans-dimensional leap that nobody expected.
On February 16, Tyler and fellow Odd Futurer Hodgy Beats played on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Nobody knows how Tyler managed the feat—Odd Future had only a handful of live performances under their collective belt—but it happened. Before Tyler and Hodgy could take the stage, audience members shouted “Free Earl,” a respectful nod to OF member Earl Sweatshirt, who was sent to military school by his mother for his participation in the group.
With the Roots as their backing band, Tyler and Hodgy performed “Sandwitches,” not the expected “Yonkers,” and the crowd exploded. Mos Def emerged from the electrified audience and stormed the stage, where he yelled “SWAG!” (an Odd- Future-popularized phrase meaning “spread the word”) into the camera. Odd Future’s fate was sealed that night.
In the wake of the “Fallon” performance, Tyler signed a one-album deal with XL records to release his follow-up to “Bastard,” titled “Goblin.” It was released on May 10, and that’s where we are now; did the hype machine bury Tyler’s “Goblin,” or did the creature disassemble the contraption and take over the Earth?
To truly understand the music on “Goblin,” you must first understand Tyler himself. Two years ago at 17, he attended a community college, dropped out after four days and recorded “Bastard” while he told family members he was still in school. “Bastard” was a little goofy at times, but it showed an incredible amount of naked honesty—most of the record is about his father who abandoned him and his mom at a young age. When he offered the record for free, the ensuing media storm essentially rewarded Tyler for his pain and suffering. Tyler, seemingly never expecting people to love and crave his personal anguish, began to write tracks for “Goblin,” and the result is a bleak, soul-paring record that seeks out the loneliest corner of your brain and squats there.
The titular opening track begins as a conversation between Tyler and his supposed therapist. “Bastard” ends with “I’m gonna let this bullet be the hero,” followed by the lines “I didn’t deserve this” and “Bang.” That said, “Goblin” essentially picks up where “Bastard” left off, and when the therapist challenges Tyler’s inability to kill himself, Tyler admits to everyone, fans, hangers-on, record executives, friends and family, “I’m not a fuckin’ role model/I’m a fuckin’ 19-year-old emotional coaster with pipe dreams.” This sets the stage to one of the most cuttingly honest hip-hop records you’ll hear in a while.
He goes on to admit to the listener that he isn’t a very good rapper, that he dropped out of community college, his friends tell him he needs counseling, and presumably, he’s getting it. He confides in the listener that he’s just a teenager trying to do something, and it’s that one sentiment that sets Tyler apart from his contemporaries—everyone has a story but Tyler. He doesn’t know why he does what he does, and that alone makes him a harrowingly dark force on “Goblin.”
Unlike cheesy “horror-core” rap groups (which Tyler derides constantly on “Goblin”) that work laughably hard for their darkness, Tyler’s gloom seems like a natural thing. When it’s a byproduct of Tyler’s style, it allows him to instead plate us other things, like lead-dense instrumentals and viscous, palpable insight.
The record plays out much like a view into a schizophrenic head—the beats, timing and delivery are all over the map. Some synth stabs are cacophonously sour, and some backing vocals occur at intermittent times. In fact, most of the record sounds like it was made in somebody’s bedroom. Because of this, it stands as an incredibly brave release by Tyler’s label XL—a label known for putting out records by Beck, Radiohead and Weezer. The production sounds as if it never left Tyler’s pirated copy of FruityLoops; the beats are dry and crackly, there are sampled 808 hits all over the album and the percussion is incredibly suffocating. However, with Tyler’s throaty, desperate timbre, the home-brew production soars above multi-million dollar cleanup jobs in terms of effectiveness.
The most scattered feature the album contains is long songs that easily could have been bisected. Essentially, this adds to the frenetic nature of the record, but some cases feel like add-ons. This is painfully apparent on “Fish,” where the mid-song transition reveals as close to “party rap” as Tyler gets, which is slightly embarrassing. However, this light-hearted mood break only helps to convey the album’s manic-depressive confession theme.
At 15 tracks, some of which could count as two, there are bound to be a couple areas where the album misses the mark. The aforementioned “Fish” provides a break from an album that is engaging enough not to need one, and two tracks later is the mostly atrocious “Bitch Suck Dick,” which seems little more than a vehicle for members of Odd Future that are on the sidelines for a reason. Thankfully, Tyler’s verses on this track are listenable, but they’re not enough to fully resuscitate the effort.
The best thing about the lulls is that they’re not Tyler’s fault. “Goblin” is at its best when Tyler is lost in the elegy, and only loses steam when outside forces pull the song into near-oblivion. And even then, not all the guest appearances are bad; Hodgy Beats’ contributions to “Sandwitches” are brief but well-utilized, and Frank Ocean’s sultry vocals stick to “She” rather well. “Window” is mostly a plodding dirge of strings and reverb-drenched electronic drums that works as an ethereal tour of the Odd Future team.
The final track, “Golden” is easily one of the best on the record. It begins as the conclusion to his therapy session and contains the best beat on the album, if not one of the best beats of the year. As the song proceeds, Tyler becomes increasingly angry at the therapist, who finally pushes him over the edge by saying he’d have loved to be in Tyler’s shoes at his age, to which Tyler angrily assures him that he wouldn’t. Tyler caterwauls while the therapist attempts to calm him down. His rapping becomes more frantic and heated as he explains to the listener about how success has changed nothing in his life; he’s still living with his grandmother, his mother is still in school and his only friend, Earl Sweatshirt was taken away from him. The track ends with Tyler being ejected from the therapy session, while the therapist’s voice lingers and informs Tyler that he’s actually Tyler’s conscience and that he’s just been listening to himself. Sure, it’s theatrical, but as the conclusion, it works—and the exceptional beat certainly doesn’t hurt.
On its own, “Goblin” delivers, but not in a way most were expecting from the tube sock-clad Tyler they saw getting a piggyback ride from Jimmy Fallon on TV. As a two-part record coupled with “Bastard,” the album sees Tyler as an incredibly powerful artist with absolutely nothing to hide. “Goblin” is, above all else, an exercise in pathos and heartfelt content that demands repeat listens, and another level of indie rap scaffolding that sends the genre further skyward. ?