Tyler, the Creator’s career is built on winking oversharing. The Odd Future universe sprang from a big bang of Tumblr, Twitter, and Formspring accounts to flood the web with original photography, personal revelations, and iterative in-jokes. Tyler was at the forefront of this deluge, aping the language of therapy to explore his every idea in gruesome, charming, and absurd detail. To listen to his early music was to submerge yourself in an actual stream of consciousness, with no thought—whether vile, embarrassing, or inane—left unsaid. Provocation was built into that openness, and it understandably became the defining element of Tyler’s music (for Tyler and for listeners), but the mock therapy sessions staged on Bastard (2009) and Goblin (2011), and the psychodrama of Wolf (2013), had purposes alongside crude shock and annoyance. They were self-examination, imagination unleashed in hopes of understanding the imaginer.
On Flower Boy, his fifth solo full-length, Tyler has achieved a new level of self-understanding and it’s a marvel how coy he is about that discovery. The writing here is sparse and evasive, full of pregnant pauses, coded language, and outright omissions. Revelations are frequent but unembellished, almost hidden. The album’s opener, “Foreword,” presents itself as a self-reckoning (“Shout out to the girls that I led on for occasional head and always keeping my bed warm”), but is really about delaying the day when that reckoning comes. “How many raps can I write ‘til I get me a chain? How many chains can I wear ‘til I’m considered a slave? How many slaves can it be ‘til Nat Turner arise? How many riots can it be until them black lives matter?” he poses in succession, asking questions to avoid answers. “Who Dat Boy,” the first single, is frank about Tyler’s dating preferences (“I’m currently looking for ’95 Leo”), but buries that openness between goofy boasts.
“Glitter” and “See You Again” are more naked, but still shy away from candid divulgence. “I wonder if you look both ways, will you cross my mind,” he warbles in an unsteady singsong on “See You Again,” emphasizing “both ways.” “Every time you come around, I feel like glitter,” he wails in a cartoonish falsetto on “Glitter.” These coquettish winks are a far cry from the pornographic, play-by-play detail found in past songs. Not only are pronouns conspicuously gender-neutral, but the subject of his affection is off-camera, the nature of their relationship unknown and unstated. There’s no oversharing here, just raw, smoldering longing.
These elisions make Flower Boy more of a settling in than a coming out. Like the Tyler who once confusingly fought homophobia by overlaying a rainbow on a Celtic cross (which is a symbol of white nationalists) and holding a man’s hand, the Tyler on this record is a permutation rather than a reinvention. His protracted use of the word faggot isn’t resolved by its total absence or his newly fluid sexuality; and his longtime discomfort with his blackness isn’t settled by him saying “Tell these black kids they can be who they are” or shouting out Nat Turner and Black Lives Matter. Tyler’s use of the past is more beholden to clarity than contrition. “Garden Shed,” the fulcrum of the album, finds Tyler revisiting the covert blossoming of his sexuality. Fear, shame, security, and peer pressure all factored into his suppression, but he dwells on a single lover he never embraced. “I’mma plant it by the time you hear it/Chittin’ chatter ‘bout to heat it/It will not fucking matter,” he raps. The garden shed wasn’t a prison for him; it’s a room he never willed himself to leave (“Boredom”), an on-ramp he never turned down (“Pothole”), a voicemail he never left (“Glitter”). Tyler, the Creator doesn’t have apologies, but he does have regrets.
These missed opportunities both haunt and embolden Tyler. “I Ain’t Got Time!” makes up for all that time in the garden shed by bragging about his secret life. “I been kissing white boys since 2004,” he scoffs. “How I got this far? Boy, I can’t believe it/That I got this car, so I take the scenic/Passenger a white boy, look like River Phoenix,” he raps, saying in three lines what he couldn’t articulate in seven minutes on Cherry Bomb’s “2Seater.” Tyler’s interest in rapping has dwindled since Wolf, and it felt like mostly a formality on the production-driven, Stevie Wonder-influenced Cherry Bomb, but the rapping on Flower Boy is vital and crisp. When the horns on “I Ain’t Got Time!” fade out and get replaced by quick claps, a squelching synth, and punchy ad-libs, Tyler sounds absolutely thrilled by the challenge, his flow hopscotching along. His rapping hasn’t been this focused since Earl. “Droppin’ seeds on these bitches for the love of the sport,” Tyler says on “Droppin’ Seeds,” recommitted to the art.
Tyler’s production has been steady and confident since Wolf, but here it’s more pointed, compacted into shifty compositions that contract and expand in tight sequence with the vocals. “911/Mr. Lonely” slides twinkly keys, full bass, a Gap Band interpolation, and multiple vocalists in and out of focus with invisible but impeccable precision. It feels conducted more than constructed. “I Ain’t Got Time!” uses multiple ad-libs as a counterpoint to a glitchy metronome and throbbing bass, all while gloomy synths dance on top. It’s one of the most claustrophobic song’s Tyler’s ever produced, and one of his best.
Tyler’s music has always explored loneliness and self-doubt, but Flower Boy marks the first time that struggle has been given real weight. Dissident monikers like “bastard,” “wolf,” and “goblin” hinted at Tyler’s internal battles but flattened them into bland markers of difference, drawing lines in the sand but rarely articulating why those lines mattered. Blackness was a burden in his old music, but here it’s the most definitive proof that he must pursue happiness at all costs. This record is less about rejecting or performing a fixed identity and more about living through expression, drifting from flower to flower and resisting the inertia of fear. Tyler struggles to find the right words and often seems unsure if they even exist, but expression—no matter how inarticulable—continues. The deluge of personal details is narrowed to a cautious drip, but every drop makes a wave.