Tyler, the Creator's Flower Boy is jazzy, cool, smooth – a departure in just about every way from the harsh flow and Jackass-skate-rap energy that once made the Odd Future kingpin famous and infamous. The screaming uppercase tone guitar mosh of “DEATHCAMP,” from Tyler's most precious work, Cherry Bomb? Gone, replaced by a softer lounge vibe, a dreamier guitar distortion. It's a new direction for Tyler, and maybe also for hip-hop.
Flower Boy doesn't so much mash genres as spend half a song deep inside one before flitting to the next. For 30 seconds or so in “Boredom,” a classical symphony breaks out -- not just strings layered over a rap beat, but a genuine half-minute stroll through olde Vienna. There are still straightforward hip-hop tracks like “Who Dat Boy,” “November,” and “I Aint Got Time!” but they're surrounded now by every kind of smoothness -- smooth light rock, smooth lounge R&B, and (you can all but hear the DJ murmur) smoououhuooth jazz.
Flower Boy roams widely but its vibe consistently returns to a cellar lounge bar, a single spotlight, a lyricist and an accompaniment of keys and maybe a couple other instruments.The sound is a clear nod to Blond, the most recent work from Odd Future affiliate Frank Ocean (who's featured here, and who kills it). Moments like “Where This Flower Blooms” offer a more substantial version of the jazz-rap dream glimpsed in Ocean's single, “Biking.” On that cut, Jay-Z rhymes over nothing but piano – not looped piano, but actual improvisatory accompaniment that rolls and tumbles around Hov’s bars, skipping ahead and slowing to follow as Jay sets the tempo. The interaction between MC and instrumentalist is devastatingly beautiful. It's stop-what you're-doing-and-look-out-the-window beautiful. And it's the future.
Hip-hop has often always positioned itself as a descendant of jazz and its improvisational style, and rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Busta Rhymes clearly flow from a jazz template, their voices like Dizzy's horn waiting for its moment to jump in with some nasty bars. And golden age New York acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets hovered in a zone of small-band jazz-influenced production. Few since have attempted, much less executed, such a feat, but with hip-hop's recent turn inward, a return to jazz is a logical and overdue next stage.
In lyric and beat, rap's tone has been introspective for a decade now, vulnerable and minimal. Kanye opened the door with 808s and Heartbreak, expressing sorrow for love lost with scathingly honest bars packaged in moody synths and a synthesized mix of rapping and singing. From there, Drake went to I-can-still-smell-it-on-you post-coital pillow talk, and on 4:44 Jay just thought about his marriage aloud and (kinda) apologized in front of all of us like the hound-dog quarterback of the high school team baring his heart in the cafeteria.
Tyler has taken self-exploration a little further, or maybe somewhere else entirely. He looks in the mirror and really doesn't like what he sees -- “But don’t be too cool, you might freeze,” he raps on “Where This Flower Blooms.” With album titles he's dubbed himself a Bastard and a Goblin, even the Wolf he embodied on the release of that name was not a strong, rad creature of the wild, but a contemptible predator among hapless sheep. The new album was originally teased as Scum Fuck Flower Boy.
In the past, Tyler's deployed a narrator character who interjects over and in between his rapping – not his conscience, but his id, acknowledging that he's subconsciously holding back even at his most honest. Tyler hasn't stopped there. He's dug and scratched deeper, revealing ever more crudeness in his bareness. A Tyler record can make you feel like a witness to self-flagellation. But with each meditation on fallibility, as he peels and picks himself apart, the mangled figure staring back in the mirror isn't a botched butt implant, but a cubist portrait, Georges Braque’s guitar player on the mic.
The brazen brand of introspection that Tyler made his name with has run its course for now, but he's still compelled to share and bare. The edges of that cubed figure are smoothed out – more Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror. The moody, minimal synths have been stripped of distortion to reveal acoustic piano keys. For stretches of Flower Boy Tyler disappears, leaving vocals to Ocean or the wonderful Rex Orange County, or letting the band (so to speak) play out its jazzy groove.
There are no lyrics at all on Flower Boy's closing track, “Enjoy Right Now, Today” – it's just a casual, lilting jam, like Tyler's on a small stage, bidding you farewell and goodnight on behalf of his band, interjecting only to count down a melody switch up: 1-2-3-4. Tracks like that suggest we could be on the cusp of a moment of loungey hip-hop albums, acts, and tours, with a hip-hop stage filled by a few more musicians playing a few more instruments. Alongside the rapper-producer partnerships we celebrate now might be similar relationships between lyricists and individual musicians, collabo records in the vein of Ray Charles and Milt Jackson's – a hip-hop vibraphonist would murder the world. You might even say Chance the Rapper and Donnie Trumpet already have that kind of relationship.
Bees dominate the album cover of Flower Boy, but Tyler floats as smooth as a butterfly on its tracks, and there's definitely the makings of a jazz man in its cocoon.