Here’s another surprise we can add to humanity’s season of reality inversion and upheaval: 31-year-old Tyler, the Creator, former rap provocateur and teenage gross-out artist, has matured into one of the last major American pop stars capable of saying anything interesting and true.
As revealed through the legions of children at FTX Arena in Miami on March 20, Tyler has bridged the generation gap between moody millennials and diffident Zoomers better than nearly any of his peers. Call Me if You Get Lost, his chart-topping album from last summer, is a half-satirical fantasy of escape and material fulfillment wrapped around a dark personal saga of sexual ambivalence and betrayal. Structured as a tribute to DJ Drama’s influential run of rap mixtapes in the 2000s, many of which came out before most of my fellow concert-goers in Miami were even born, Call Me has two songs that run beyond the patience-testing eight-minute mark. But the record is apparently not too challenging to have stopped it from becoming wildly popular among the Tik Tok-conditioned youth. On his arena tour, a complex and monumentally scaled performance art piece whips crowds of teenagers into a terrifying frenzy. Many of these fans were in kindergarten when the first mixtapes from the Tyler-led Odd Future LA hip-hop collective thrilled and horrified an earlier generation of listeners, back in the late 2000s.
So what gives? The LA rapper whose lyrics got him banned from entering the U.K., who dropped uncomfortably hostile diss-tracks about the father he never met, and fantasized about stabbing Bruno Mars in his esophagus has grown into the rare artist capable of being both profound and original without trading in the ability to make fun music. If America and the Earth in general have become ever more hateful and stupid places since Tyler Okonma burst onto the scene in 2008, Tyler—of all people—has found his depth as everything else got shallower, as did his Odd Future comrades Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean, who also evolved from youthful terrors into folk geniuses. In Tyler’s case, a rapper condemned for rape fantasies and frequent use of the word “faggot” is now an unassailable old-school paragon of artistic purity.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. Tyler’s entire career traces the familiar process through which the raw and unformed emotional lives of teenagers prime them for actual wisdom. Present-day Tyler is the mature expression of a young person’s angst, his music a chronicle of how the fire warps in the winds of a progressing life.
Unusually for a hip-hop artist, Tyler produces and composes his own albums, giving them a coherent musicality that subsumes their more puerile elements. Like Tyler’s other two recent masterpieces, 2017’s Flower Boy and 2019’s Igor, Call Me has moments of jarring beauty, with woodwind- and piano-driven segments running into grimy drum breaks, interpolated shouts, puzzling spoken-word passages, patches of self-conscious musical kitsch—phrases that seem lifted from hotel lobbies or radio jingles—and sheer noise.
The title of this latest album, like much of its content, goofs on the earnestness of a dead era: People only get lost today when their phone batteries run out, in which case they wouldn’t be able to call Tyler or any other person for help. DJ Drama, the early-century mixtape impresario, serves as a kind of Virgil figure across the soundscape, a narrator for our descent into an anxious age. The constant reference to a time that just slightly predates the memory and even the existence of many of Tyler’s fans seems to have little to do with nostalgia. Instead, the anachronisms contribute to a thrum of opposite sounds and clashing ideas that creates the urgency, the element of now-ness, that all great pop must have.
Millennial listeners—by which I mean me—experience Tyler as a reformed troll and a trickster-poet struggling to burst through the limits of a generational irony that he both embodies and transcends, as well as reassuring proof, or maybe the unattainable ideal, that we can grow up without having to lose much of our edge. For the still-uncorrupted Zoomers, from the mosh pit of high schoolers down in the $500-a-ticket floor section to the shrieking children’s chorus surrounding me up in the 300s, Tyler is a scowling punk rocker, an emissary of lit-ness, a maker of songs that have to be screamed along to. His music and his persona activate a dark yet weirdly liberating suspicion that there’s no balance to be had, no final synthesis of the real and the frivolous that can resolve the raging spirits of rap visionaries, music fans, or entire nations. We are all wandering between inner and outer poles that can’t be reconciled—what we see and hear from Tyler is our condition now.
He’s dealing with everything a lot better than we are, of course. “Remember I was rich, so I bought me some new emotions/And a new boat cuz I’d rather cry in the ocean,” he sneers at the end of “CORSO,” a highlight from Call Me. Both the song and the boat make an appearance on tour—Tyler crouches on the prow of an antique wooden-hulled speeder that carries him from the main stage to a field of fescue set up in the back of the pit area. He’s got a 1930s Rolls Royce, too, cartoonishly bulbous and painted in a paisley bluish-green that he must know to be revolting. There it is, parked right onstage.
On every stop of this tour Tyler appears in a bearskin hat with the flaps folded up, wearing one of various loudly colorful Hawaiian shirts atop bright chino shorts. He is dressed for a vacation to nowhere. Behind him is an early-20th-century mansion on a lake, with filigreed porches and grand staircases facing one another. Like the car parked out front, the facade is painted an awful color, an almost-Gatorade blue. It’s a neon dollhouse—something between a closely held fantasy and an expression of existential boredom. The attention to detail is total. Before his set began I looked down on a swarm of production hands layering panels of fake pinewood flooring atop the stage, a detail the big spenders in the pit area wouldn’t even be able to see.
Other major rap artists have tried to turn their live shows into epics of world-creation. Travis Scott’s Astroworld—the album, the tour, and the deadly music festival—sought to achieve sensory overload by harking back to the wondrous and terrifying feeling of being a child at a theme park. But Scott lacks the lyrical or moral imagination to make the high concept part seem credible. Kanye West basically pioneered the rap performance as maximalist concept art piece, filling his stages with wrecked spaceships and gospel choirs. Though they were arguably the most innovative and influential live pop shows of their era, Kanye’s spectacles were also light in intellectual content, or at least they were simpler and more obvious than Tyler’s dreamscape, which is genuinely strange. It was the twistedness of his fantasies, joined to his fearsome gift for bringing them to life in music, that made Tyler so controversial over a decade ago. Today, the Call Me if You Get Lost tour might be the first arena show that effectively puts you inside a credibly sideways vision of a great artist’s subconscious mind.
Tyler’s mind proves to be as confusing a place as yours and mine. Maybe, I thought, the stage show is about a young Black man crashing, and thus subverting, a parody of a white-bread ideal of material attainment that was created to exclude people like him. But that’s not the only thing going on here.
“Everyone I’ve ever loved had to be loved in the shadows,” he raps on “MASSA.” What detractors heard as homophobia in Tyler’s early music has been complicated through subsequent lyrics in which the rapper hints that he might be gay. And he only ever hints at it—perhaps in today’s climate, a true rebel like Tyler doesn’t want his art to mistakenly be seen as nothing more than an extension of his various identity categories. Thus the colorful imaginary lake house might be a venue for fantasies that he’d rather not make too explicit. Or maybe the house is the venue for Call Me’s most explicit fantasy and most prominent recurring theme, recounted with poignant humor in the hit song “WUSYANAME” and then in the much more brooding, 8 1/2-minute “WILSHIRE.” It’s a place where he dreams of escaping with the girlfriend of a best friend who he’s fallen in love with and realizes he can never have.
As the set advances, the windows light up in menacing reds, sensuous blues, and deranging greens; in a giant screen behind the house pixelated pine trees sway under apocalyptic skies. He spends a few songs wandering through the fescue with a rose in his hand as the house seems to expand and contract, its facade sunken in shadow behind dark reds before popping in front of eye-straining blues and whites. This could only end like Gotterdammarung, I thought, with the house in flames. Sure enough, late in the show Tyler sat in a tight, sad crouch in the house’s entranceway as the opening keys to “EARFQUAKE” echoed through the arena. By the end of the song, a moody singalong positing that love, or maybe just desire, is as unstoppable and potentially destructive as any other force of nature, Tyler was bursting and spasming across the stage as fire rained down from the rafters.
After “EARFQUAKE,” after an even more cathartic “RUNITUP,” after instructing the crowd to “hold your dicks and get home safe,” I imagine Tyler went straight to the ice bath. Tyler raps in a distinctive baritone that always carries a hint of mockery, but as a screamer and a screecher he is at least the equal of a Playboi Carti or a Lil Uzi Vert or any of his other, lesser punk-inflected contemporaries. He did not seem to use vocal backing tracks—the performance is real, in Miami and every other city. It’s real in every respect: He spins and moonwalks; his face contorts into an expression of soul-deep pain and then droops into dead-eyed detachment within the space of a single verse. He playfully sneaks across the twin staircases as if trespassing on tiptoe, gyrates and runs in place and sticks his tongue out and rolls his eyes. He doesn’t quite live an entire life onstage so much as wink at one.
And of course, he kibbitzes the whole time. The legions of agitated youth—many with their teeth in braces, some with their parents literally with them, in states of bewilderment I can barely imagine—love throwing crap onstage. Up flew a phone early in the set. “Why do you throw your phone?” Tyler wondered. “You’re not getting it back.” Then, upon identifying its former owner: “Everyone boo this dumb motherfucker!” The crowd lustily obeyed. He called on production hands to remove a few surrendered articles of clothing, likely figuring that picking them up himself would basically allow the crowd to control his actions, thus incentivizing fresh waves of yielded items.
We got no storytelling in Miami, unlike the lucky folks in Orlando, who stood rapt as Tyler recalled how he got some poor schmuck to email one of his tickets to that night’s show to his ex-girlfriend, who happened to have scooped ice cream for the rap star earlier in the day. But Tyler did tell the Miamians that he never understood local hero Rick Ross’ music until he drove around their town in a Rolls Royce, a story that I don’t really believe is true. For two reasons: Firstly, Tyler has a history of both ignoring and insulting Rick Ross, including through a complexly pornographic slight on the physically formidable Miami legend’s appetite that he rapped at the tender age of 19, in a song called “Bastard”: “Life’s a salad, I’m a toss it, eat that shit up, Rick Ross it.” And secondly, Call Me if You Get Lost explores whether material comforts can ever really settle you. The Rolls Royce onstage is both a very cool car that only a very rich person can afford and a symbol of boredom as an existential sickness. I doubt Tyler believes that a car he might not want unlocks the meaning of a rapper he probably doesn’t like. But to hunt around for contradictions misses the point.
The best artists reenact an ever-shifting inner life, reminding us that actual human beings are always shuttling between modes and realities, often subtly, sometimes without intentionality or awareness. In times of increasing stridency and bitterness, it makes a strange kind of sense that a provocateur from an earlier era is among the only popular artists with the vision to see things in their true state of messiness and to approach the insoluble problems of human existence free of noxious certainties and absolutist demands. “I know I ain’t got the answer,” he raps on Call Me’s “MANIFESTO.” “I’m’a groove to my own drums/Sunlight in my shadow, baby.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.