Tyler, the Creator
By Calum Marsh | 8 November 2010
Not that we need the recent public outcry over Jean-Luc Godard’s alleged antisemitism to confirm it, but attacks leveled at an artistic figure so prominent and otherwise well-respected serves as a reminder just the same: for all kinds of audiences, what artists believe (morally, politically, and so forth) and how artists behave is just as important as the quality of the material they produce. An off-color remark in an interview can actually transcend the work of the artist who said it, because for a lot of people disliking an artist personally is very easily conflated with disliking whatever it is they do. This can range from the trivial (avoiding War of the Worlds because Tom Cruise acted strangely on Oprah) to the fairly urgent (wishing we could collectively ignore Chris Brown), but the underlying principle remains the same: if you reject the brand, you’ve got to reject the product.
Which I think we can mostly agree is a pretty silly practice. It’s fair to find fault with a figure on moral or political grounds, and it’s fair to bring take them to task for it. But to assume that a book or an album or a movie is fundamentally worthless just because the person responsible for that work has said or done something reprehensible? That makes very little sense, which is why Breathless will remain genuinely great even if Godard himself turns out to be a seething antisemite. But this whole discussion gets messier when we start to consider works by morally disagreeable artists which are themselves morally disagreeable— works which seem to promote thoughts or actions we find reprehensible. Which we ought to distinguish from works which simply contain reprehensible content without actively promoting it (most slasher movies are like this: they may depict violence against women but we understand that the movies themselves don’t condone that kind of thing). It only starts to get problematic when we don’t get a sense of that crucial critical distance, or when the reprehensible content seems like it’s being celebrated or vindicated or glamorized or in some way posited by the work itself. But if you find yourself objecting to a work of art morally, where does that leave you critically? Especially if you find the morally objectionable but otherwise good? Do you grudgingly accept your distaste and continue to champion the work on aesthetic grounds? Or do you opt to reject it outright?
It is exceedingly difficult to discuss or even think critically about Bastard, Tyler, the Creator’s iconoclastic debut LP, without dragging it way down into that debate. Because as morally disagreeable albums go, Bastard is so believable and oppressive in its expression of hate and violence that it makes Flockaveli look like a dayglo fantasy. Of course Waka Flocka himself is something of a divisive figure, too abrasive for some, or too blunt an instrument of gangsta rap convention to be enjoyed for his seismic drops. But compared to the intimacy of the personal malice Tyler expounds, Waka makes hate, writ large across blimp-sized beats, into something of a cartoon. Bastard‘s hate is not writ large but scrawled, notes from underground carved into a forearm; it doesn’t get much more personal than this.
How unmitigated this all seems leads many of the album’s advocates to describe its lyrical content as “pure id,” the suggestion being that Tyler’s apparent advocacy of rape and violence and so forth are acceptable because they reflect a kind of unloading of psychological baggage, or, in the eyes of more extreme proponents, a conscious effort to express some of the deep dark stuff we all think but don’t dare say. And if that sounds like a lame attempt to justify enjoying a record that one can freely acknowledge says some pretty disagreeable things, that is, again, the nature of Bastard: whether you love it or you hate it, this album demands that you confront its questionable content and either reject it or reconcile yourself to it. “Just liking it” isn’t an option.
Hip-hop may be no stranger to misogyny, but Tyler’s specific brand grapples less with objectification than with what seems like an outright hatred. It might be a question of degree rather than type, but if this is about a sense of power then with Bastard it isn’t the kind of power that comes with fame and fortune—two things Tyler stresses he doesn’t give a fuck about. That nihilistic attitude pervades much of Bastard, and if the album presents an accurate psychological portrait of its author—who at 18 is still just a kid, really—Tyler himself comes across as somebody you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Particularly if you’re a woman, since rape plays a central role in so many of these songs. On “French!” Tyler raps of keeping “that bitch locked up in storage” in order to “rape her and record it,” before going into graphic detail, both metaphorical and literal, about how that might go down.
It’s not just that this kind of scenario gets played out so frequently across Bastard, though it does come up remarkably often, but it’s also the vehemency with which Tyler expresses these fantasies that makes the whole experience kind of…well, scary, to be perfectly honest. Tyler is only 18 but he sounds much older than his years, his voice a low, lispy snarl, and when he emphasizes a word or a phrase he seems to want to stamp it out of existence entirely. On “VCR,” when Tyler threatens to “kill you if I find out you’re watching other movies, bitch,” that “bitch” becomes a vitriolic “bitch,” spat so sharply that you can practically feel the disdain. This is part of what makes Tyler’s delivery technically good—he’s a perfectly competent rapper, in general—but it’s also a major reason listening to Bastard can be a pretty uncomfortable and unenjoyable experience. With Tyler it’s always “faggot“ and “bitch“ punctuating everything, each imbued with so much hate that whether he genuinely hates women or homosexuals or whomever else seems secondary to the fact that when he spits it like that, you really feel like he does. Which isn’t to say I need to be placated by music; I like to be challenged. But to what end is Bastard so confrontational?
That Bastard closes with “Inglorious”—a brooding, introspective song across which Tyler vents his anger and frustration over his father’s absence—shows a surprising degree of self-awareness. By framing his depravities as the byproduct of his abandonment issues, Tyler provides a convenient excuse for behavior that now has a cut-and-dry external influence. The blame shifts from the helpless Tyler to the void where his father should have been, wrapping up the “bastard” narrative nicely, maybe too nicely. Redemption, which maybe could have come in the form of remorse or regret or a shred of humility, comes instead in the form of…more hate and more anger. Which, narratively coherent though it may be, doesn’t change the fact that much of this material will be very repulsive to many listeners. And so Bastard‘s central question remains not is it good? but what’s your tolerance for wide-eyed musical celebrations of rape and violence? I’m not sure I have an answer for either.