My phone buzzes with a new message.

“There’s a secret show that I think you’d like to attend.”

Concerts have been shut down in New York for the past year and a half, so I’m already down before I even know who’s playing. 

Another buzz. It’s Tyler, the Creator’s show, and he’s playing in front of a small audience at an intimate venue in Brooklyn called Music Hall of Williamsburg.

I’m in. Of course. The last time Tyler came through New York was for a sold-out Madison Square Garden show on the IGOR tour in 2019. That night was full big-budget stage theatrics, but a secret show at a 500-person venue? That’s something we haven’t seen from him in years. When Tyler last played small venues like this, he wasn’t far removed from gobbling a cockroach, and people were still yelling, “Free Earl!”

In 2021, Tyler arrives under totally different circumstances. He just released a new album, Call Me If You Get Lost, which is well on its way to a No. 1 debut and is already being touted as his best project yet by some. And it’s here at the exact moment the world is finally opening back up after 16 months of shuttered venues and canceled live events. 

Nothing about this show feels ordinary, and there are a few questions in the air before it begins. How will Tyler approach a small room like this after playing large arenas for years? What will these new songs sound like in a live set? And, uhhh, what the hell will it even feel like to be in a crowded room full of people again?

When I show up to the venue, I see “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST” written in all-caps on the marquee, and a few hundred fans have already filed inside by 7:00 p.m. on this Thursday night. As I walk in, Tyler enters a side door behind me and a security guard blurts out, “Wow, he’s tall as fuck.”

For the next 45 minutes, there’s some awkwardness between fans and staff members as everyone slowly remembers how to act in situations like this. Some people reflexively put on masks out of politeness as they step inside the room, before looking around and quickly taking them off again. Venue staff hands out free T-shirts, and everyone breaks out in small talk.

Each conversation follows a similar script: “This is the first show I’ve been to in almost two years.” “Yeah, me too.” “This is crazy.”

There’s no opener, and Tyler starts his set promptly at 8:00 p.m. A camera crew flanks the stage to record the show for an Amazon Music livestream on Twitch, and the first thing we hear is DJ Drama’s voice blaring over the speakers during the opening song, “Sir Baudelaire.” Tyler walks onstage with a trunk in hand, a blue Golf Le Fleur jacket draped over his shoulders, and a fuzzy hat on his head. Mr. Tyler Baudelaire has arrived. Unlike the IGOR tour, though, this is where the stage theatrics begin and end. Tyler isn’t here for that tonight, though. He’s here to shake off rust after the past year and a half—just like the rest of us.

“I honestly am doing these small little shows because I just miss being around fucking humans,” he tells the crowd. “I wanted to practice and just see what the fuck y’all react to. I don’t know what songs n****s like off it.” Referencing two other small pop-up shows he did earlier in the week in LA and Dallas, he adds, “I ain’t going to lie, though, there’s a few old songs that I forgot the lyrics for, so please do not judge me. I did ‘Who Dat Boy’ last night, n***a, I don’t remember shit. So if I fuck up, it’s been a year and a half, n***a, cut me some slack.”

“OK, let’s see what songs y’all like,” he adds. The beat drops.

For the next 20 minutes, Tyler runs through new songs from Call Me If You Get Lost in order of their appearance on the tracklist: “Corso,” “Lemonhead,” “Wusyaname,” “Lumberjack.” Then he skips to “Sweet,” his personal favorite. 

Seeing Tyler in a small room like this feels a lot like watching a superstar comedian show up to a small comedy club and work out new material before heading out on an arena tour. But instead of Chris Rock trying out new jokes at the Comedy Cellar, Tyler is sitting on a stool and screaming along to DJ Drama ad-libs.

He hints that the whole reason he’s doing these pop-up shows is to practice for festival season, and he makes a point to check in with the crowd and see which songs they like the most. Basically everything works, but two early standouts in a live setting are “Lumberjack” and “Wusyaname.” The horns on “Lemonhead” sound like they were made for headlining sets in front of tens of thousands of people, and it’s already clear that NBA YoungBoy’s part on “Wusyaname” will follow Playboi Carti on “Earfquake” as everyone’s favorite guest verse to sing at shows.

Speaking of YoungBoy, Tyler has a message about his collaborator. “Sending love to NBA YoungBoy, man, for real,” he says. “He’s such a sweetheart, dude. Like, we kicked it a few times. That n***a is a sweet person, bro. N****s think he’s just evil. Like, no. He’s, like, fun.”

Tyler hasn’t done any press for this album yet, so this is his first real chance to tell stories behind the making of the album. 

“I made that beat for me and [ASAP] Rocky’s shit, but that n***a ignored me for five months,” he says after “Corso.” “So the middle part where DJ Drama is yelling and I’m not rapping, that was for Rocky, but the n***a…”

Before playing “Lemonhead,” he explains that a kid DM’d him a video of a band covering “Earfquake” with a horn section, which inspired him to make the brass-heavy song with 42 Dugg. A few minutes later, he reveals that “Lumberjack” came together after he bought himself a Rolls-Royce in celebration of his Grammy win and drove it to Utah.

Tyler, the Creator live
Photo by Eric Skelton

Tyler’s got jokes, too. Still getting used to being in a room with a bunch of other people, he yells at a fan and asks, “Isn’t it weird that we just be yelling, as humans? Ahhhh!!” Later, he makes eye contact with another fan and says, “A n***a just looked at me in the eyes and said, ‘I want it.’ Pause. He meant it, though. He wasn’t talking about the song. He trying to fuck!”

Call Me If You Get Lost hasn’t even been out for a week yet, but people are already gravitating to standout lines. “Ohhhhh, you look malnourished,” everyone sings in unison. Moments later, Tyler trolls some fans in the front row who have been picking up on every subtlety and playfully calls them “weird ass superfans.”

He gets serious, too, though. Right before “Massa,” he talks about what it was like growing up in front of millions. “I was just at home in deep thought and shit at like 6:00 a.m.,” he says. “I was like, ‘Damn, dude. I used to rap crazy shit. They tried to cancel me and all this shit.’ And now I’m here. Whoa. How did that happen? A lot of people go through their ugly phase when they’re like 14 and shit. I went through mine as a grown ass man. I was 24 years old. Look up the Cherry Bomb era, n***a, I look 50. It’s gross.

“I’ve been famous since I was like 18 or 19,” he adds. “I’ve kind of been on my own since 16, so I developed different than a lot of people. N****s was 21 in college getting their first job. I was traveling the world trying to have orgies and shit. I was on some other shit. Then shit started really making sense for me at 23 or 24.”

A clear shift has taken place from Tyler’s last shows at small venues a decade ago to now. Tonight, the tightly-packed crowd still has plenty of opportunities to thrash around in the pit, but we’re far from the days of Tyler getting arrested for “inciting riots.” Stage-diving has been replaced by singalongs, and Tyler only seems interested in songs from his post-Cherry Bomb era. Everything he plays all night is from his three most recent albums IGOR, Flower Boy, and Call Me If You Get Lost. That reminds me: We really need to talk about where this ranks among the all-time great three-album runs, but I guess that might be a conversation for another day.

Tyler, the Creator live
Photo by Eric Skelton

Hitting the final stretch of the show, Tyler is candid about how he’s still figuring out a way to play some of these songs in a live setting. “I can’t sing this shit live, so I’mma just mouth it,” he warns before “Sweet.” Compared to his attempts at performing melodic songs back in the Cherry Bomb and Flower Boy eras, though, he is getting noticeably better at singing live. You can tell it’s something he’s been working on.

Ironically, Tyler’s biggest stumble doesn’t come during his first-ever reggae song (“I Thought You Wanted to Dance”) or any other new record. It happens on Flower Boy standout “Who Dat Boy,” where he completely forgets the words, raps some nonsense, and cuts it short. “I fucked up dude,” he says. “I forgot ‘Who Dat Boy’ was next. I feel so dumb.”

Moments earlier, I had a similar feeling when I awkwardly fumbled through my first interaction with a venue bartender in nearly two years. It’s OK, Tyler. We’re all getting used to this shit again.

“Doing shows again still feels weird, but I’m happy y’all came and gave energy,” he says.

He closes with “Run It Up,” a Teezo Touchdown-assisted song that’s already become a fan-favorite thanks to its easily-repeatable chants. “We gon’ run it up!” As he finishes, you can see on Tyler’s face that he’s figure out what’s working. 

Before leaving, he addresses the audience, which is full of superfans who signed up for the chance to get free tickets on his website.

“The shit that I do and the music that I make, man, sometimes I’m like, ‘Nah, it ain’t going to do that,’” he says. “But we might have another No. 1 album, going up against them popstars and shit, so I’m just grateful.” 

“Thank y’all again for fucking with me. I appreciate it so goddamn much.”