Where to begin? Rarely do I get to review an album by someone who has generated such a confusing mix of controversy and hype as Tyler, the Creator – someone who has done as much while managing to remain a fairly sincere and sincerely weird public persona. There’s a lot of “outside context” for Wolf to work through: the meteoric rise of Odd Future cohort Frank Ocean, an Adult Swim television show, and a great deal of uncertainty as to whether Tyler, the Creator could “keep it up,” so to speak, without becoming a parody of himself. But Wolf manages to subvert the odd and often deplorable context from which it has risen; rather than cracking – or bloating – under the pressures of his first post-boom album, Tyler, the Creator has produced a record based on a singular, startlingly clear vision. Wolf is idiosyncratic, weird, and its beats are absolutely stunning, and acts as a dynamic showcase of Tyler Okonma’s talent as a producer.
Post-intro track “Jamba” has a sincerely infectious beat, swapping between a guttural, throat-inhabiting bassline and 20th century arcade game style arpeggiated synth lines. Tyler’s delivery on “Jamba” is predictably aggressive; though certainly less overtly homophobic or violent than anything on Goblin (though Okonma has always vehemently denied charges of being a homophobe, it is nice to see him “tone things down”) the lyrics are still buoyantly juvenile – and a little all over the place. “Jamba” and the similarly austere – and perfectly Vice City-esque – “Cowboy” set the precedent for an album made up of absolutely gorgeous beats, and the occasional lyrical spasms that work to undermine their credibility.
Wolf is a beautiful album, with one of the strongest and most coherent aesthetics of any recent hip hop release. Its particular and specific vision could be credited to the fact that Tyler, the Creator is Wolf‘s sole producer (with the exception of a song credited to Left Brain). The album’s flavor is highly synthetic, but there is an implicit naturalness to it, something wholly comparable to the bright optimism of mid-80s synth pop music and also, bizarrely, retrofitted indie pop acts like Twin Sister. Rather than come off as cheesy, the beats on Wolf are delicate and wistful – with a number of songs whose strength is their spartan verses and opulent choruses – showing that Tyler’s aesthetic sense as a producer continues to be outsider-inclined.
Wolf has less to brag about as far as lyrics are concerned. “Domo23” plays sort of like a commentary on Odd Future’s success, and on the perceived homophobia and misogyny in Tyler’s music; though well-intentioned, the song is a lyrical jumble. The message seems to be that Tyler the Creator is just going to continue to do as he pleases, and that he does, quite cynically and smartly, understand exactly what people think of him. The very personal “Answer” deals with themes – absent fathers and friends struggling with excessive lifestyles / difficult decisions – are not uncommon in popular hip hop. But Tyler, as always, deals with things a little differently, approaching even these subjects with the kind of excited aplomb and sense of cheesy irony he smears onto every one of his songs.
“Colossus” follows a similar lyrical progression to that of Eminem’s “Stan,” but Tyler’s delivery is so manic that the impact of the song’s more explicitly upsetting moments are pared down. “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer” is quite possibly Wolf‘s most significant track, and it (amazingly) pinpoints the aesthetic of the entire release to music you might find on the Chrono Trigger OST. Ultimately, this is a dense release, and there is so much non-musical context surrounding Wolf that it’s difficult to know what needs to be said about it. Taken at nothing more and nothing less than face value, Wolf is an absolutely stunning album, and in many ways a knockout.