Tyler, The Creator, Manchester Orchestra, and more in this week’s music reviews
Flower Boy sees Tyler, The Creator at his most vulnerable and commanding yet
Tyler, The Creator, Flower Boy
On his fifth full-length project, Tyler Okonma has made himself more available than he’s ever allowed before. Better known as Tyler, The Creator, the 26-year-old has never sounded as vulnerable as he does on Flower Boy—or more in command of his talents, both as a rapper and a composer. Rather than a balled fist ready to retaliate, it’s an open hand extended outward, yearning for connection, prepared to do the hard work that comes with introspection. Tyler has always been more upfront than people give him credit for—anyone who’s followed him on social media over the last few years can attest to this—but given his joke-first-apologize-later puckishness, his candor has often been obfuscated, or outright cast off as a joke. Flower Boy is the first time he’s been equally as forthcoming in his actual music.
His flow has tightened up, and for a man whose voice basically destined him for rap stardom, he’s become even better at stretching his booming baritone into novel shapes, employing a plethora of flows (his knotty, dense cadence on “November” mimics the tight corners he raps about navigating in his vehicle). His production, too, has further blossomed out of hagiographic dedication to replicating N.E.R.D.-era Neptunes sounds and into Tyler’s own singular aesthetic. The plush orchestration of “See You Again” gives way to a massive crunch before finding a symbiosis later in the song, balancing the delicate and the heavy. His clobberers still pack a punch, too: “Who Dat Boy,” which features a particularly locked-in ASAP Rocky, lurches with menace, managing to transform the flute into the nightmarish; later on “I Ain’t Got Time!” he turns the accordion into a fun-house mirror, warped and disorienting.
While a certain portion of the audience will focus on lines like “I been kissing white boys since 2004,” other revelations abound on Flower Boy. Many of the album’s lyrics, especially those that concern Tyler’s sexuality, help recast his previous projects as the ongoing untangling of a black man’s two-decade struggle with his sexuality, but there’s another palpable and interconnected thread in the album’s thematic tapestry—a yearning for the carefree irresponsibility of childhood and the unreclaimability of youth. “I guess nothing lasts forever,” goes the album’s first hook; the next track, “Where This Flower Blooms,” begins with “Let’s take it back to them days / Counting sheep on Sadie Hannah’s floor,” recalling not having a bed before he and his friends stormed the gates of rap. “Take me back to November,” he asks on the track titled after the month in question before qualifying (and complicating) his request: “Can we go back to November?” He knows the answer, and he doesn’t have to state it out loud, because we know it, too, even if sometimes we don’t want to admit it. On Flower Boy, Tyler spends a lot of time looking backwards, but in order to move forward.
Alice Cooper’s Paranormal is a stellar distillation of his many macabre moods
Alice Cooper, Paranormal
The Alice Cooper of 2017 is not the Alice Cooper of 1972 (wild-eyed hell-raiser), 1977 (soft-rock dabbler), 1980 (secretly influential new waver), 1989 (hair-metal patriarch), 1992 (Wayne’s World sage), or even recent vintage (Mötley Crue farewell tour appetizer). This is important to keep in mind when listening to Paranormal, the first album by Alice Cooper since 2011’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare. Now, that’s not because the record needs to be graded on a sliding scale or approached with managed expectations—on the contrary, Paranormal is a well-crafted, thoroughly enjoyable distillation of the styles Cooper has explored over the years—but to appreciate fully how a classic rocker finds new things to say within the parameters of a well-defined reputation.
With U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. providing a reliable rhythmic backbone, Paranormal’s songs touch on glittery glam (“Dynamite Road”), bluesy rave-ups (“Dead Flies”), swampy psychedelic rock (“The Sound Of A”), and horror-kissed hard rock (“Paranoiac Personality”). The record’s other guests also add sizzle: Deep Purple’s Roger Glover plays bass on the appropriately creepy title track, while ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons contributes hot-rodding guitar to the sleazy ’70s hard-rock jam “Fallen In Love.”
Of particular interest are the two studio songs performed by the surviving members of the original Alice Cooper Band, guitarist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neal Smith. Musically, “Genuine American Girl” is a nod to the group’s ’60s garage-rock origins, between the sock-hop-like backing vocals and retro guitars, while its lyrics are from the perspective of a transgender woman going out for a carefree night on the town. “You And All Of Your Friends,” in contrast, takes a sinister lyrical approach—in a nod to the us-against-the-world vibe of early ACB releases, it’s about a gang of underdogs destroying their oppressors—but its Cheap Trick-esque swaggering power pop is also irresistible.
As the latter song implies, Paranormal has a vibe of unease, whether it’s the title track’s night-stalker main character or the deadly car crash mourned on “Dynamite Road.” “Rats” and “Dead Flies,” meanwhile, are metaphors for the way people are, respectively, manipulated by surface pleasures and exploited by religious fakers. Things aren’t all serious, of course: The self-referential bits of “Fallen In Love” are rather amusing (“I was a Billion Dollar Baby in a diamond vest / Now I’m a dirty desperado and a steaming mess”), even if lyrics such as “I used to be a stud, now I’m a powder puff / ’Cause I’ve fallen in love and I can’t get up!” elicit groans. But such over-the-top cheekiness is part and parcel of how the Alice Cooper character has evolved over the years, and he and the rest of the band play off those lyrics appropriately, by delivering them using a mix of guileless earnestness and rakish charm.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Paranormal is even more intriguing when it delves into heavier territory. The descriptive, almost poetic “Fireball” describes someone who dreams of a biblical apocalypse and then wakes up and realizes that what he’s imagined is coming true. “Holy Water,” a soul-rock revelation with rollicking horns and Cooper’s most expressive, carnival-barker-meets-charismatic-pastor vocal performance, is even better. The song isn’t preachy, but a celebratory howl whose underlying sentiment involves embracing life and all of its joys. For Cooper, this may seem like an oddly positive thing to express, but it actually perfectly illustrates his music’s innate bundle of contradictions—and the real-life zest he brings to the project. In fact, Paranormal is a fantastic reminder of how and why Alice Cooper has endured and continued to thrive: He’s never let the Alice character become stagnant or too cynical.
Aminé follows up “Caroline” with an album of deliriously fun pop-rap
Aminé, Good For You
Few rap singles in recent memory have been as immediately irresistible as Aminé’s “Caroline,” an effervescent come-on riding a punchy harmonium and an exuberant vocal turn from the Portland-based rapper. The track sounds punched full of sunlight, like “Luchini” by way of Chance, hooks tumbling organically into double-time flows. That track came out more than a year ago, but it still appears early on Good For You, his ensuing debut LP. And it still sounds great. It probably always will. If there’s any justice in the universe, “Caroline” will have an eternal shelf life, still popping up to riotous response on wedding playlists in 2050.
Accordingly, like many debut records pinned to massively successful singles before it, Good For You attempts to recreate that success a handful of times throughout its 15 tracks. But it learned the right lessons: casually crooned earworms, a bright economy of sound characterized by immaculate samples and peppy minimalism, and a preponderance of slick one-liners. (It’s sort of surprising no one’s taken “White girls love me like my first name Coachella” already.) “Spice Girl” glides by on a Migos-like ocarina and a goofy “zig-a-zig-ah” hook, and on the remarkably petty “Wedding Crashers,” Aminé and Offset grumble through an ex’s nuptials, making each other laugh. Throughout the record, as on “Caroline,” Aminé’s primary mode is whispering jokes into a girl’s ear on the dance floor, casually picking up the bar tab and promising a life of endless leisure. The record’s a triumph not so much of rapping or flashy production but an easy confluence of the two, of immaculate sonic choices that allow Aminé to stay in his Pharrell-like pop-rap comfort zone. Nothing’s quite as good as “Caroline,” but then, few things are.
Manchester Orchestra’s latest is overproduced and exhausting
Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile To The Surface
[Loma Vista Recordings]
Andy Hull is prolific as hell. Not only has he released roughly 11 albums with Manchester Orchestra, but he’s also pumped out experimental material through a variety of different side projects, including Bad Books and Right Away, Great Captain! He also co-wrote the score to last year’s Swiss Army Man, the results being a predominantly a cappella collection brimming with heart, creativity, and whimsy. Pretty good for a dude who’s barely 30. Through it all, Hull’s songwriting has more or less remained vibrant and distinctive. That A Black Mile To The Surface lacks so much personality is both a disappointment and a surprise.
The hooks are there—there’s no doubt that “The Gold” and “The Moth” slay live—but Hull’s vocals have been layered to death, stripping them of the intimacy for which the band has always been so lauded. Mix that with the endless morass of mounting synths and a surplus of drop choruses/verses and you’ve got a batch of songs that evoke more Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters And Men than they do Hull’s work. Hull has said the band’s initial intent was to “strip back” with this album, but they seem to have gone in the opposite direction—with all the layering, samples, and shout-alongs, A Black Mile To The Surface is bombastic to the point of exhaustion.
But a little bombast is good here and there. “Lead, SD” has a chorus exciting enough to transcend the cluttered production, while “The Grocery” showcases the genuine power of Hull’s vocals. Later in the album, gorgeous ballad “The Parts” offers a little breathing room and touching, heartfelt lyrics. Still, the unnecessary echoes applied to Hull’s voice only serve to distract from the song’s intimacy. There’s some beautiful songwriting here, but it’s buried beneath the smudges of its producers.