How Tyler, the Creator Grew Into the Rebel He Always Wanted to Be (2024)

Editor’s note: For more on the 10th anniversary of Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin, check out this week’s episode of The Ringer Music Show here, which features Rob Harvilla and Logan Murdock discussing their experiences with Odd Future and stories from producer Lani Renaldo, who grew up with a young Tyler.

On the fourth track on Tyler, the Creator’s fifth studio album, Igor, comedian Jerrod Carmichael tells the listening audience “exactly what you run from, you end up chasing.” Those words may as well double as the title of Tyler’s autobiography. The interlude appears on an album that features the musician displaying his fullest musical form to date, mixing rock, hip-hop, and pop along with a rollout that saw him dressed in a pink tuxedo, silver shoes, and a blond wig. No longer music’s black sheep, Tyler was now embraced by the establishment he openly mocked a decade prior, shooting videos with Tracee Ellis Ross while serving as a pitchman for Converse. He was singing songs about love and heartbreak without demeaning those around him. At 28, he was openly exploring his sexuality without using the slurs that had made him one of the industry’s most polarizing figures. After eight years of trolling, beef, and all the controversies in between, he had finally gotten out of his own way, all while keeping his crown as music’s most interesting rebel.

All of this wasn’t expected when I first encountered his music 10 years ago, in a high school classroom. It was late February 2011 in Ms. Bell’s first period, where little work was getting done. The homies congregated around a district-issued iMac and listened to a song called “Yonkers” by this weird kid who somehow got Kanye West to tweet out his music video. The beat was unmistakably a nod to East Coast brilliance, and the lyrics were unforgettable. “I’m a f*cking walking paradox,” he opened, before following it up with, “No, I’m not.” By the end, he had threatened to crash an airplane carrying rapper B.o.B and to stab Bruno Mars, and he had eaten a roach. Somehow I was intrigued.

After the video ended, we watched Tyler’s Odd Future collective’s performance on Jimmy Fallon. I was just as mesmerized. The group started with “Sandwitches,” an equally expletive-filled song that had Tyler jumping all over the stage, taunting and inhaling every bit of the attention the platform provided. He rapped about pain and rebelling, and 17-year-old me thought it was great. “The Golf Wang hooligans is breaking up the school again / And showing you and yours that breaking rules is really cool again.” By the end, he was riding Fallon’s back as Mos Def yelled “swag” in the camera. Three months later, Tyler dropped Goblin, an 82-minute piece of morbid self-therapy. It was a jolt, a moment, a rallying cry—and it was everything I thought I needed. But for Tyler, it was a time to get every bit of his pain out into the universe, even if it could end his career before it started.

Goblin, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on Monday, remains a middle finger to the establishment, capturing the spirit of anarchy in a way only a pissed-off 20-year-old can. His targets spread far and wide: On “Sandwitches,” it was blogs like 2DopeBoyz that wouldn’t promote his music. On “Nightmare,” it was his absentee dad. Most famously, on “Radicals,” it was everything. “Kill people, burn sh*t, f*ck school,” the chorus went. As an 18-year-old soon-to-be dropout, the anger resonated with me. It felt like what my grandparents said they felt when they had to sneak to listen to Richard Pryor records in the 1960s.

But sometimes, the rebellious spirit veered into something ugly—something hateful and violent. Take “She,” a song in which Tyler takes on the role of a man stalking a woman, reworking a nursery rhyme to threaten her: “One, two; you’re the girl that I want / Three, four, five, six, seven; sh*t / Eight is the bullets if you say no after all this.” Elsewhere on Goblin, Tyler’s lyrics included so much hom*ophobia that the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation decried the album. This was the flip side to all that youthful aggression, and it was hard to reconcile with the music I enjoyed.

But while listening to the hom*ophobia and songs that alluded to rape and other horrific images felt undeniably uncomfortable, his message of “Do what the f*ck makes you happy” became a life credo. I felt forgotten, bitter, and every other emotion a teenager feels. And Tyler was feeling the same way. He was born in Los Angeles to a Black mother and a Nigerian father, the latter of whom would soon abandon him. He settled near Inglewood, California, right next to the Black middle class. But instead of inhabiting one of the sun-kissed estates in Ladera Heights, he lived with his grandmother in “sh*tty apartments” across from a Bank of America. Outside of the house, he felt like an outcast: He liked skateboarding and writing on his Vans, and his peers teased him for it. (“I used to get called ‘white boy.’ I hated that sh*t,” he told The Fader in 2014. “I’m in seventh grade in Inglewood, too white for the Black kids, too Black for the white kids.”)

He latched on to people he didn’t know: celebrities. He got his comedic timing from Dave Chappelle and his musical tastes from Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, and then he learned how to channel his rage from Eminem. Then he found friends with similar interests and formed a group called “Odd Future.” Boasting as many as 13 members, the crew rode skateboards, made dark jokes, and shared a love for weird sh*t. Some of them sang, like Frank Ocean and Syd tha Kyd. Some of them rapped, but not as good as Tyler or Earl Sweatshirt.

The crew broke out in 2010 as their early songs spread on Tumblr pages and social media. Earl’s eponymous single became the calling card for Odd Future—particularly because of its video, which featured an aesthetic halfway between a skate video and a horror flick. Tyler’s first mixtape, Bastard, also caught on, even if—or perhaps because—the lyrics were of questionable taste. (On “French!,” he raps that he wants to sodomize the Virgin Mary.)

The rage continued when Earl’s mother shipped him to boarding school in American Samoa shortly after Odd Future blew up (which prompted “Free Earl” campaigns across the internet). It continued following the release of Goblin, even as Tyler got more opportunities. He directed a video for Mountain Dew depicting a goat beating women and getting pulled over. It was odd at best, and arguably promoted racism, sexism, and abuse, and prominent Black commentators like Dr. Boyce Watkins called him out. Even some of his own bandmates said they didn’t approve of his antics. Syd, who identifies as gay, said she felt like Tyler and Odd Future used her as a “get out of jail free card.” He felt backed into a corner, and his attempts to defend himself did little to help his cause. The end result was often contradictory: He wanted listeners to gravitate toward his “be you” message without fostering an environment for a core piece of his audience to do just that.

That attitude continued on 2013’s Wolf and 2015’s Cherry Bomb. Tyler hadn’t changed, but I had—I was in my early 20s, no longer a teenager with misguided rage. I wasn’t trying to hear the slurs or the overall immaturity. I wanted Tyler to grow up with me and he wasn’t able to. I was over it all.

Then he dropped Flower Boy.

Prior to the release of the 2017 album, I’d largely avoided any of the rollout, figuring Tyler was still lost. But the 18-year-old kid in me emerged and said, “What the hell? Play it.” The next 46 minutes and 33 seconds were perfect. Frank Ocean sounded angelic singing over the chords of “Where This Flower Blooms.” Tyler sounded relatable yearning for love on “See You Again.” And when rage did surface—like on the buoyant “I Ain’t Got Time!”—it felt controlled. But what hooked me in again was his performance on “Garden Shed,” a melancholic song that many have read as a declaration of his sexuality:

For the garden, that is where I was hidin’
That was real love I was in
Ain’t no reason to pretend
Garden shed, garden shed, garden shed
Garden shed for the garçons
Them feelings I was guardin’

The use of the word garçon—“boy” in French—led to speculation that Tyler was gay or bisexual. He teased his sexual preference in other songs, saying “I been kissing white boys since two thousand and fo’” on “I Ain’t Got Time!” and that he’s currently looking for “’95 Leo” on “Who Dat Boy.” He hasn’t publicly confirmed his sexuality in the years since Flower Boythough tweets from 2015, where he (sort of) came out, resurfaced shortly after the album’s release. But it hasn’t mattered. The man who used gay slurs for much of his career appeared to finally be free in his own skin.

He became the embodiment of Carmicheal’s words, and his latest album, 2019’s Igor, was a classic because of it. No longer shackled by perception and youthful destruction, he was musically liberated. Igor was rock, R&B, U.K. pop, hip-hop, Pharrell, and Ye all in one. We were in Tyler’s genreless world, and that was more rebellious than the chant of “Kill people, burn sh*t, f*ck school.”

The album wasn’t without controversy, however. Except this time, it wasn’t about any questionable lines. The main issue people will remember centers on how the Recording Academy treated Igor—the organization left it out of the Album of the Year category at the 2020 Grammys, but gave him a nomination for Best Rap Album. He won, but he didn’t take it as a compliment, necessarily: “They always put it in a rap or urban category,” he said. “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. That’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”

But the other backlash surrounding Igor may be more instructive about Tyler’s growth. The album was released the same day as DJ Khaled’s Father of Asahd. While the latter had features from Cardi B, Jay-Z, Travis Scott, Beyoncé, and practically every other chart-topping rapper or singer you can imagine, Igor debuted at no. 1. Khaled, 15 years Tyler’s senior and 43 years old at the time, lashed out with social media posts taking not-so-veiled swipes at Igor and a reported trip to his record label’s office to attack the company’s marketing strategy. By comparison, Tyler looked like the mature one.

In an ironic twist, Tyler was on the other side of an outburst. And after a decade of screaming to be heard, the industry was now trying to keep up with him. In an industry built on personas, manufactured clout, and attention, Tyler had triumphed simply by being himself. He’s still funny and occasionally out of pocket, but now he’s accepted. He had to grow, and he achieved the rare feat of being defined by more than his teenage actions. Now he can create. He’s finally free, with his inner rebel still intact.

How Tyler, the Creator Grew Into the Rebel He Always Wanted to Be (2024)
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