Tyler, the Creator Recruits an Impressive Entourage for Freewheeling Tearjerker ‘Igor’

Tyler, the Creator has always been something of an enigmatic character in hip-hop, which makes it no great surprise that his latest release “Igor” comes after announcements from the man himself, warning, “Don’t go into this expecting a rap album. Don’t go into this expecting any album.” Such grandiose publicity stunts naturally raise expectations, a reality to which Tyler seems to be strangely oblivious, as his latest release will only live up to the hype for the most dedicatedly imaginative fans. Still, it strikes as very much the work of a musical auteur, whose signature stamp grows more distinctive with every successive release. The record can be quite safely described as a breakup album, although the music is dynamic enough to save it from the sobfest territory that this implies.   

The first sound is buzzy, abrasive bass that continues to drone ominously while the music takes on an otherwise lighthearted direction with old-school-informed hip-hop acrobatics and playfully off-key singing. Shortly before the album’s release, Tyler tweeted out a set of instructions for properly listening to the album, describing,“Some go on walks, some drive, some lay in bed and sponge it all up,” before concluding, “Whatever it is you choose, fully indulge. With volume.” The opener and title track comes in this context, with Tyler teaming up with Kali Uchis for a confident refrain of “Ridin’ ’round town, they gon’ feel this one.” The brilliantly titled “Earfquake” welcomes Playboi Carti, as well as Dev Hynes and Charlie WIlson on chorus duties, in a colorful cut of funk that flaunts both West Coast and ATL sonic signifiers in its mix, and wears its admiration for Pharrell Williams on its sleeve. The plea “Don’t leave, it’s my fault” is delivered with a laidback swagger that couldn’t more belie the sentiment. Carti’s verse takes mumbling to extents that are really quite avant garde.

“I Think” begins with audibly frustrated repetitions of the words “fuck” and “skate, “ before Tyler starts to drop lines that alternate respectively between aggravation and coping maneuvers. The lyrics assume a new openness, with a chorus of “I think I’m falling in love… How can I tell you?” delivered over a lush synth backdrop with intricate piano overlays. This is followed by a brief vocal snippet from comedian Jerrod Carmichael, explaining, “Exactly what you run from, you end up chasing,” zeroing on a helplessness that has been steadily hinted at in the preceding tracks, and finds new clarity on “Running Out of Time.” A decadent arrangement full of twinkling keys, mutating tones and bass bleeps, the song features Frank Ocean singing the titular line over a beat that starts and stops in a way that conveys the lyrical sentiment.

After this relative tease of a track comes the absolute banger that is “New Magic Wand,” a thrilling percussive onslaught with Tyler’s new favorite distorted bass sound taking a new prominence. This is hip-hop with the energy of, say, heavy metal. ASAP Rocky drops a few lines, and Santigold chimes in with simple snippets of “Don’t Leave” that make a world of difference in the mood of the track. A song about jealousy of a former partner’s new flame, it keeps the jury out on the topic of Tyler’s long ambiguous sexuality, with lyrics like “I need to get her out the picture… She’s not developed like we are.” The implications get plenty more overt on the following track, “A Boy Is a Gun,” an elegant demonstration of classic hip-hop sampling patchwork, over which Tyler throws out lines like “You’re my favorite garcon.”

The thematic thread of unrequited love reaches an apex on “Puppet,” with Tyler unabashedly admitting, “I’m your puppet, you control me” over a soundscape of soul samples, pixie choirs, and a slapdash appearance by none other than Kanye West. Altogether, it’s surely one of the album’s most boldly adventurous tracks. At this point, Tyler seems to have let loose to an extent that allows for a fresh freeness of form palpable in songs like “What’s Good,” which inhabits a space somewhere between breakbeats and the Twilight Zone before an exhilarating midsection that turns up both the quirk and intensity, with Tyler making Dracula references and letting out demonic laughs over another driving, gritty bassline.

“Gone, Gone / Thank You” is an effective crystallization of all the lovelorn angst that’s been steadily emerging thus far, with Tyler’s lyrics getting unanticipatedly incisive. He goes full victim glorification with lines like “Comparing scars before dinner,” but keeps it measured with self-aware disclaimers like “Or maybe I’m too dramatic.” Like many of the songs on the album, it’s a multi-phase creation that takes bold liberties with structure, and builds to a powerful culmination with uncredited contributions by Mild High Club and King Krule.

The blunt “I Don’t Love You Anymore” finds Tyler falling into a more mellow flow, as if expressing a certain learned helplessness, before the clipped sample of the titular line sounds off with a quirky intonation that seems to mock the absurdity of the whole situation. Finally, he rounds things neatly off with a number rich in nostalgic R&B character, “Are We Still Friends?” After all the frustrated stumbling, it comes down to this rather desperate entreaty. Somewhat balancing out the sadness of the track is the fact that Pharrell WIlliams, so clearly the influence behind a considerable bulk of the album, himself makes an appearance for a few lines. It all builds up to a melodramatic climax replete with raspy soaring vocals and a mix of emotions that ultimately seems to raise more questions than answers.

“Igor” is very much an illustrative example of the dangers that come with artistic freedom. Having made a proper name for himself and generated a clout that approaches cult-like parameters, Tyler, the Creator makes it very clear on his latest album that he will simply do as he pleases. Of course, this is generally a state of mind to be applauded, but it risks compromising the final product when the music isn’t necessarily up to par. “Igor” has arrived amid such spectacular fanfare and anticipation that the rather tepid set of songs on display can’t help but slightly disappoint. Still, it’s the expression of a unique voice, and a cohesive album with a careful selection of features that effectively taps into a particular mindset with a realized aesthetic.

Igor” is available May 17 on Apple Music.