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For an album so undeniably 2011, Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin sure starts off sounding a lot like 1993. The first words we hear him spit on Goblin are “I’m not a fuckin’ role model”—a slightly altered version of Charles Barkley’s notorious Nike commercial from Clinton’s first year in office, as well as the driving discourse of Tupac Shakur’s fiery second album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.
It’s a strangely out of time way for Tyler to introduce himself, and it’s not a look the fashion-conscious 20-year-old wears particularly well. In part, that’s because the censorship battles accompanying rap’s extended entrance into American pop culture seem quaint in 2011. But it’s also because Tyler’s fighting a handful of well-intentioned people who chatter about music (including yours truly) who are uneasy about gleefully granting Next Big Thing status to a kid with a Tumblr and fantasies about punching pregnant women.
Tyler’s not sure who he’s supposed to be yet, this much is clear. As a result, Goblin is much more understandable not as a statement of purpose, but as a therapy session. The kid born Tyler Okonma is a fatherless, gawky digital native who came up in a world where it’s harder than ever for a confused kid to get a proper sense of scale, let alone decorum. For every thousand retweets he’s received, you get the feeling he’s spent hours k-holing in messageboard hell. Not once, but twice, he lashes out at those critics and bloggers who dare call his music—and its uniformly gothic, cavernous beats, fascination with the number 666, guttural croak and penchant for detailed rape narratives—”horrorcore.” Fair enough, you don’t want to be lumped in with Gravediggaz. But the devil’s in the details, dude.
Inherent in Tyler’s aesthetic is a lack of impulse control, and at 74 minutes Goblin is far too long by half, a fact not helped by his (and engineer/mixer Syd the Kid’s) fondness for the dark, dreamlike synth pads that underscore nearly every moment. His lyrics are compelling, but in a way that often mirrors his Twitter feed, and there’s a reason the microblogging service isn’t meant as an archive. It’s worth getting to the end of the album, but he doesn’t make it easy. Even with Tyler’s dramatic Taxi Driver-biting ending, the dreary eight-minute posse cut “Window” plays like a dark Hieroglyphics studio goof, and that’s followed by the throwaway instrumental “AU79,” which makes for about two minutes worth of interesting material out of nearly 12.
Those two minutes feature Tyler, of course, and when he’s on—as he is on about half of Goblin—he’s nothing short of remarkable. The still-stunning “Yonkers,” with its opening line of the year “I’m a fucking walking paradox/No I’m not,” feels more polished than much of Goblin‘s material, although it certainly fits well with it. There’s no doubt that Tyler can rap his ass off and switch registers seamlessly, that he has a knack for narrative arcs and theatrical flourishes (no spoilers, but when “Golden” finally arrives, we get a goofy-but-gripping psychodramatic twist), and his production work, while draining in bulk, sets an effectively ominous mood. Goblin is an auteur’s coming-out party, and dozens of kids are going to try–and fail–to imitate it in the next few months.
Yet on a record full of shocks, Goblin‘s biggest surprise is Tyler’s maturity and range, showcased best on the quietly stunning “Her.” His own “Passin’ Me By,” the track is a heart-wrenchingly specific tale of unrequited teen love communicated entirely through the banal distance of digital technologies, epitomized by the sweet/creepy lyric “her name is my password.” (Jesus.) The sinuous Frank Ocean feature “She” ramps up the voyeurism (the hook: “blinds wide open, so we can/see you in the dark when you’re sleepin'”) but keeps things within a Rear Window framework. He admits he’s going through the dating motions strictly to get laid, but he also says that his violent front is just a show for his boys.
But at the same time, fuck that, you know? Because the repugnant misogynistic bullshit on Goblin sort of cancels any goodwill I have toward the guy. Particularly because it feels more like search engine optimization; Tyler makes no bones about his desire to hit the pop charts, and on too much of Goblin, he’s doing it in the tawdriest way possible. There’s the repellent “Bitch Suck Dick,” the aesthetic equivalent of a pop-up window advertising a snuff flick shot in an abandoned Van Nuys condo. The gang-bang fantasy comprising the second half of “Fish”—the girl gives Tyler VD, he goes to find his gun. The previously available “Sandwitches,” on which Hodgy Beats revels in the notion of assaulting a pregnant woman. The Dracula drag of “Transylvania.”
He doesn’t stop at mere descriptions, though: he tries to tell us how to take it by 1) denying his fans an aspirational approach to his celebrity status (“not a role model”), 2) ascribing his worst impulses to his alter-ego “Tron Cat,” and 3) playing us for dupes (“I’m not a rapist”/ “I’m not a homophobe”). Each of these excuses falls flat, because the only way this sort of angry-boy/killin’ bitches/fuck faggots rhetoric works—to the degree that it ever actually should—is by presenting it without remorse or any sort of explanation.
Instead, Tyler keeps talking. He tacks an awkward PSA to the front of “Radicals,” Goblin‘s straight-up hilarious “Break Shit” moment, which he caps with the empty provocation “fuck Bill O’Reilly.” “Radicals” empties the political connotations of that term but keeps the shell, filling it with the more flexible signifier drawn from skate culture. It’s like Tyler saw how “Fuck you/I won’t do what you tell me” devolved in a flash from molotovs to Jager bombs, and thought it the perfect branding opportunity. (If only “Kill People/Burn Shit/Fuck School” hadn’t already been perfected—with a catchy tune, no less—by Alice Cooper nearly 40 years ago.) When the meds kick in at song’s end, you can almost see him drowsily punching the air as he conks out after his tantrum.
Goblin‘s highest points and most infuriating moments come from the fact that it’s a vérité depiction of the worst aspects of American boy culture. You know, hating girls because they don’t like you because you’re a weirdo, hating any and all authority figures because they try to tell you how not to be such a weirdo. But most importantly (and scarily), there’s the part that involves lashing out about being viewed as a weirdo, and being summarily rewarded—i.e. seen as normal—for doing so. (It probably goes without saying that girls don’t have the same luxury.) Nobody cares about Tyler the Creator being someone’s role model in 2011. Which in a way, is the scariest thing about Goblin—too much of his scary fantasizing, for too many boys, is all too normal.