Who is Tyler, The Creator? That was the burning question during the height of the media circus surrounding Odd Future four years ago. The music press wanted to know where this fatherless provocateur came from, what inspired his incendiary rhymes, and how he rationalized his most risible lyrics. And so Tyler answered them. On his 2011 album Goblin and its 2013 follow-up Wolf, he poured over his every thought, doubt, flaw, and contradiction in exhaustive detail, but in the process he drained himself of the very commodity that made him so interesting in the first place: his mystery. It’s one thing to have critics think-piece your work to death; it’s another to do it to yourself.
There’s a reason Tyler’s cohort Earl Sweatshirt continues to capture the public’s imagination: We don’t know him very well. Earl’s latest album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside—arguably the best Odd Future-related release yet, non-Frank Ocean edition—was a focused 28-minute dispatch that left some of its most powerful sentiments unspoken. Tyler’s not capable of that kind of brevity, but at 54 minutes, his third commercial album Cherry Bomb is a step in the right direction after the suffocating, 70-plus minute marathons of its predecessors. Even more encouragingly, he’s escaping his head a little bit. It’s his first album since his breakthrough that isn’t obsessed with dissecting the Tyler, The Creator phenomenon, and with that looser focus comes some new sonic exploration as well. Cherry Bomb may have been entirely self-produced like Wolf, but this time it doesn’t feel like the work of just one producer. He’s branching out.
Opener “Deathcamp” teases some of these new tricks. Tyler’s always been a disciple of Pharrell Williams, but here his N.E.R.D. fandom gives way to outright homage with a spiritual remake of “Lapdance,” right down to the grinding guitars, huffy beat, and anti-establishment sloganeering. “In Search Of… did more for me than Illmatic,” Tyler raps, lest anybody mistake his muse. And he’s not just a fan of N.E.R.D.’s bangers, either; he’s also into the soft, drifty tracks that most people skip over. “Find Your Wings” is an unhurried elevator ride of piano, xylophone, and saxophone, while “Fucking Young / Perfect” delves even deeper into the mellowed-out soul of group’s Fly Or Die era. Pharrell looms so large over the album that his guest appearance on the penultimate track “Keep Da O’s” might have functioned as a climax—the moment the man himself arrives—if Tyler hadn’t slathered both of their vocals in so many effects that it becomes impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends.
Cherry Bomb’s other dominate influence is more of the moment. Whenever the album threatens to peter off into cloudy bliss, Tyler shoots it back down to the mud with fits of over-modulated noise-rap, taking cues from Death Grips and Kanye West’s Yeezus. As usual, Tyler doesn’t disguise his debt; he introduces the caustic title track with the boast “I am a god,” making it clear that any similarities to Yeezus aren’t accidental. For all their blown-out abrasion, though, Tyler’s harder tracks never dazzle the way West’s industrial experiments did. They merely cloy.
At 24 years old, Tyler still hasn’t outgrown his teenage urge to alienate, and he still demonstrates the compulsive need to sabotage his own victories. He can’t make a pretty beat without offsetting it with a shrill one. He can’t let a song clock a clean three minutes; he has to draw it out with meandering, joyless skits. And, most frustratingly, even though he’s toned down some of his shock-rap impulses, he still punctuates his verses with the noxious sign-off “faggot.” Even at his most pleasant, he can’t resist leaving a foul taste behind.