Casual behaviour and outrageous comments quickly gave Tyler Okonma a certain notoriety. Recently endorsed by the musical intelligentsia after Flower Boy and a Grammy nod, the Californian is now abandoning his punk attitude and following in the footsteps of his mentors, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. His sixth project, IGOR, confirms both his musical and emotional sensitivity.
Years of Upheaval
In many ways, Odd Future has felt like the embodiment of millennial philosophy. This gang of messed-up youngsters didn’t give a damn and weren’t hung up on hip hop culture. A leading figure in this collective, Tyler was compelled to go too far. Everything in his early music pushed the limits of political correctness. It was resolutely underground. Yet not from a social point of view – the Californian never became a political commentator. On the contrary, his lyrics clearly crossed the boundaries of decency, even for hip hop. Musically, however, the utilization of raw bass and voice distortion were reminiscent of the punk movement.
At this stage, some may think that the early Tyler has given way to a more mature version, with a musical transition to support that view. Certainly, the Californian’s discography clearly points towards a new direction. But where do we situate the beginning of this musical turn? Flower Boy (2017) is by far his most accomplished album. However, songs like “Find Your Wings” and “Treehome95,” respectively on Cherry Bomb (2015) and WOLF (2013), already heralded his new momentum. Ten years in the music industry have naturally helped him to grow, and he can be proud of the result. Everything on IGOR was composed, arranged and produced by the man himself.
During his NPR Tiny Desk Concert, Tyler explained: “I always hated rap music with bands, because I want to hear 808 and shit” – despite the fact that he had just finished a set where a double bass and a drum machine rubbed shoulders. Moreover, the DNA of a dirty rap is found in his most recent projects (“Who Dat Boy” on Flower Boy, “New Magic Wand” and “What’s Good” on IGOR), alongside more elaborate compositions.
The rise of a composer
Tyler tries to provoke emotions by any means possible. While this was achieved through omnipresent shock lyrics on his first projects (“Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome”), the harmonic coloration of his compositions has now become his preferred tool. Indeed, while Cherry Bomb offered harmonic experiments, the overall rawness of the sound gave the album a disjointed aspect. With Flower Boy, attention to composition took over to convey a musical arc in perfect harmony with the themes addressed: solitude and a potential “coming out” that continues to interest journalists – so much so that it has marked a stark contrast with the insolent, lawless artist of the Bastard (2009) and Goblin (2011) period.
Contradiction has always been an appropriate method of interpretation when it comes to Tyler: “How come you the best to me? I know you the worst for me” (“A Boy Is A Gun”). Here, love is painful and asymmetrical, as in a tragic opera. IGOR follows from this idea. The grandiose “Igor’s Theme” and “Are We Still Friends” perfectly emulate the opening and closing of an orchestral piece while incorporating elements of soul and hip hop throughout. The composer’s astuteness can be seen here in the choice of samples used. “A Boy Is A Gun” is the most obvious example because the song’s thematic cherry-picking gives it a firm anchoring in the soul landscape. But it is “Puppet” that does justice to the artist’s upper limit – where he creates like a master craftsman. Seeking inspiration from a contemporary pop group (Part Time) proves a certain eclecticism. Working on the sample to change its size shows real genius. If the original piece is a beautiful sentimental stroll, the sample delivered by Tyler passes over directly to the dream world.
IGOR presents its own share of harmonic breaks. The Californian is satisfied with the rendering of “Think,” the ninth version of the song after a drastic rewriting process. The bridge in the middle changes the atmosphere before returning to its original air, reminiscent of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” We would have expected to find Tyler’s sound closer to the soundtrack of a Jordan Peele movie, rather than one by Tarantino. But such is the result of eclecticism. Indeed, the Californian warned us before the release of IGOR: “don’t go into this expecting a rap album.”
Finding his voice
Tyler has a complex about his voice. Serious and gritty, it doesn’t wrap around the ear like the velvet tones of a Barry White or an Isaac Hayes. As Hippocrates prescribed: “let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.” Yet in the Californian’s case, it is a cockroach that he consumes in the “Yonkers” video.
Vocal prowess and hip hop have always had a tumultuous relationship, in any case. The credibility of the street has sometimes flirted with a crooner, and it was Nate Dogg who gave the syncretism its wings. If artists like Anderson .Paak or Chance the Rapper perpetuate this notion by combining flow and vocalization, such morphogenesis has not always been seen with a positive eye. Common rapped in 2011: “Some ho ass niggas / Singing all around me man, la la la / You ain’t muthafucking Frank Sinatra.” In this respect, Tyler’s evolution is brilliant. From a hardcore and homophobic rap styling, the artist gradually incorporated vocal flights until he almost stopped rapping altogether. Of course, his voice doesn’t have the strength of an opera singer, but neither did Mac Miller‘s.
On IGOR, Tyler enlisted the services of accomplished vocalists: Solange, Devonté Hynes, Frank Ocean, Charlie Wilson and Cee-Lo Green. With this support, and through effects that sharpen his timbre, he allows himself more freedom to deploy his vocal fantasies. Two of his idols went the same way. Andre 3000 had Norah Jones and Kelis in his corner for The Love Below, and Kanye West made generous use of a vocoder on 808s and Heartbreak. An emotional break-up inspired more than one cut on this album, and it concludes with Tyler saying: “Thank you for the love, thank you for the joy / But I will never want to fall in love again” (“Gone Gone / Thank You”).
Tyler, The Creator – IGOR (Columbia Records)