Rap Is Not Pop: Tyler, the Creator's Goblin
by Mosi Reeves | May 24, 2011
Perhaps the best thing about Tyler, the Creator's Goblin is that he has mastered the art of intimacy. Throughout this nearly hour-and-a-half-long therapy session, the leader of L.A. hip-hop collective Odd Future sounds as if he is speaking directly to you. However, therapy sessions usually only last an hour. By stretching the listener's patience to its breaking point and offering only modest emotional returns, he impresses with his self-absorption instead of his catharsis.
Tyler's breakthrough arrives in the final track, "Golden," when he announces, "I'm not crazy." As Goblin begins, he subtly broadcasts that he's capable of change in spite of the worrisome obscenities that will follow: "I'm not a f*cking rapist, or a serial killer/ I lied," he says to his "therapist," which is actually his own voice modulated to a low growl. But he doesn't spend much time bidding for the audience's sympathy, because no one wants a pity party. He knows that what we really want to hear are the vicarious thrills of someone calling someone "n*gga," "b*tch" and "f*ggot"; fantasizing about raping and cannibalizing women; and entertaining an interest in Nazism (though that last point is less pronounced here than on his debut solo album, 2010's "freelease" Bastard).
Goblin's wanton blasphemies have been debated ad nauseum in the press and on the Internet. Without excusing Tyler's lyrics, it's worth noting that the history of hip-hop in the past two decades is littered with examples of hate speech, from Brand Nubian's "Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down" (wherein Sadat X raps, "F*ck up a f*ggot/ Don't understand their ways and I ain't down with gays") to Gucci Mane's The Return of Mr. Zone (in which he warns, "I'll rape you like Chester" the Molester). The mainstream rap industry's bridge to international pop ubiquity was built, literally and metaphorically, on the backs of women. Gays and lesbians play central behind-the-scenes roles as label executives, stylists and publicists Odd Future DJ Syd the Kyd, who recorded and mixed much of Goblin, is an out lesbian. Thematically, however, they mostly end up as collateral damage, reduced to slurs and victims (though women are often employed for pornographic girl-girl-guy fantasies).
The difference between Goblin and such incendiary classics as Ice Cube's Death Certificate and the Geto Boys' self-titled debut is that Tyler doesn't aspire to black revolution, or even a crude kind of cinema verité. Tyler's Compton is an exurban dystopia, not N.W.A.'s capitol of gangland tragedy. He plays Xbox in a man cave full of wet socks; he flaunts his designer streetwear in Goblin's CD booklet. With so many toys to play with, his self-proclaimed "Radicals" want nothing more than to "kill people, burn shit, f*ck school." At several points he talks about masturbation, invoking himself as just another bored teenager fapping to the hipsters in Vice magazine. And in "Yonkers," he remembers the time he took "some pink Xanies/ And danced around the house in all-over print panties." He angrily refers to his missing father. He loves his mother, but admits he can't relate to her.
Tyler's production techniques seem inspired by the Neptunes' cracked-out landscapes for Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury and the neo-soul erotica of Sa-Ra Creative Partners. The arrangement on "Yonkers" sounds like a swinging guillotine, and he weaves a haunting synth-funk groove for the instrumental " Au79." The jarring, primordial beats serve as backdrops for his psychotic ramblings; he has a magnetic basso voice, and he raps with a growling leer, flipping rhymes with the casualness of a 20-year-old that grew up with hip-hop and is all too comfortable in its netherworld of hardcore n*gg*s and submissive b*tch*s. It might be strange to older listeners who remember when hip-hop first reached critical mass in the late '80s (or, god forbid, when it first broke nationally in the early '80s), and don't necessarily take its stereotypes for granted.
As a rapper, Tyler's capable enough, but his technical skills pale in comparison to those of Eminem, whose serial killer schtick on The Marshall Mathers LP fomented the kind of indignant protests and amoral industry buzz that now surround Goblin. With so many precedents, it's not easy for Tyler to shock listeners and precipitate what Jon Caramanica of The New York Times correctly labeled "culture wars for a generation that hasn't previously experienced them, that didn't realize culture wars were still a possibility." Yet by delivering his shocks early and often, Tyler wears down, upsets and eventually outrages his audience, conjuring an impressively discomforting anomie.
Goblin's nadir and/or high point arrives during "Tron Cat," when he raps about raping a "pregnant b*tch." He calls himself "the blackest skinhead since India.Arie" and adds, "Said f*ck coke/ So I snorted Hitler's ashes." And for extra thrills, you can catch him in the attic "taking photos of my dad's d*ck."
But overall, this record is not a pleasurable listening experience. Some of the songs are truly awful, like the swag-rap roundelay "Bitch Suck D*ck" with Odd Future compatriots Jasper Dolphin and Taco. (The crew's guest appearances seem irrelevant here, save for a few inspired vocals by R&B singer Frank Ocean.) Other tracks aim closer to raw and unfettered anguish. Some of Tyler's feelings are couched in the everyday hustle for celebrity, and of the predictable alienation that results when he finally achieves it. "Now you want to be nice because the labels want to sign me?" he asks on "Nightmare." "F*ck that!" He rhymes about being stressed out and suicidal. He refers to himself as a goblin, a demon, a genie and a unicorn.
On "Her," Tyler obsesses over a next-door neighbor with heartbreaking sincerity, poking her on Facebook and gabbing with her on the phone and in video chats. "I know she's who I'm thinking of," he raps, adding that he wants to take her like a pirate. "Her name is my password." It's not enough to dispel Tyler's Madonna/whore complex, but it marks halting progress. Unfortunately, Goblin isn't a real-life therapy session, and we -- not Tyler -- foot the bill.