Album review: Tyler, the Creator’s ‘Goblin’


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Tyler, the Creator is kind of like late chess master Bobby Fischer: obviously some sort of genius, but that doesn’t mean you want to listen to much of what he has to say.

Preternaturally talented, honest, witty, smart, simultaneously poetic and conversational, the L.A. rapper and founder of Odd Future on his label debut, ‘Goblin,’ has a flow that’s curious, assured and magnetic. His internal rhymes can at times be jaw-droppingly clever -- he rhymes ‘estrogen,’ ‘lemons’ and ‘pedestrians’ in one brilliant but unprintable couplet, threatens to ‘stab Bruno Mars in his esophagus’ and discusses his masturbation habits throughout the 73-minute disc, tossing out humor and hate with equanimity.


On ‘She,’ for example, the closest thing to a slow jam on ‘Goblin,’ Tyler the teenager pines for a gorgeous girl to whom he can talk, while crooner Frank Ocean chimes in with a vocal hook. It’s delivered with sweetly juvenile expressions of desire -- except that Tyler peppers the track with a single-word epithet that would earn him a kick in the groin from any self-respecting woman. Even worse, the track feels cobbled-together.

Throughout, Tyler interrupts himself to explain that he’’s young, that this is fiction, that anyone who takes it seriously should be dismissed, ridiculed or murdered. Which is fine, of course, but by now he should understand that legions of fans worldwide take him and his music very seriously. The voice of his conscience -- yes, he’s got one -- is manifested as a slowed-down narrator that comments on what the rapper is saying, a potentially interesting conceit that falls flat -- even when, toward the end of the album, Tyler loses his temper and starts screaming at it.

It’s easy to defend Tyler’s overall approach: He’s one of the only musicians making tracks in 2011 that are actually shocking, and anyone over 30 who doesn’t hear some of Tyler’s rhymes and wonder on the future of ‘kids today’ should be worried about creeping cynicism. He presses the same button that Elvis, Johnny Rotten, Chuck D and Eminem did by making music that feels truly dangerous. He’s pushing boundaries, and you can argue with the words he uses, but truly great art often involves addressing uncomfortable emotions.

The problem is that Tyler, the Creator should get better at being Tyler, the Editor. Half of these 15 tracks could have made for semi-interesting free downloads, but to include them on his first proper album is a mistake. There’s no escaping that, for example, ‘Radicals’ is one of the dumbest, laziest songs of the year -- and that’s track No. 3. Anyone who declares themselves radical over and over again doesn’t get it, and if he’s being ironic he hasn’t figured out a way to express that level of nuance.

But then he’ll drop 16 bars that are so smooth, brilliantly evocative, rhythmically precise and deserving of repeated listens that it’s hard to dismiss him. ‘Tron Cat,’ in particular, feels revolutionary, as does the first single, ‘Yonkers,’ the thread being that it feels like there was honest-to-goodness elbow grease involved in their creation.

The problems extend to the album’s production, most of which Tyler did himself. His style and sound are, even at age 20, absolutely his own: minimal and creepy like the Neptunes and menacing like some of El-P’s spookier beats, with lots of silence and weird synthetic swooshes.


But over the course of 15 songs, the sounds start to lose their uniqueness, and everything turns the same shade of gray. Much has been written about Tyler’s love of genre-busting artists such as James Pants, Stereolab and Bass Drum of Death, which makes it doubly disappointing that none of that vast appreciation for expansiveness makes it onto the album. The most complicated beat and musically adventurous track on the record is ‘AU79’ -- and it’s an instrumental.

What it comes down to, basically, is after about 50 minutes you just want Tyler, the Creator to shut the hell up. The record has very few cameos, and some of the tracks are seven minutes long. The cussing, the horror, the anger, the disappointment, the alienation, the frustration, while real and scary and sad, gets tiresome. That’s a lot of Tyler, and so much ego-maniacal nihilism, while fascinating and at times revolutionary, wears thin very quickly.

Tyler, the Creator
XL Recordings
Two stars (out of four)


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-- Randall Roberts