They’re smart. They think they’re better than us. And they dress the part. They are the preppies of pop.
The prep in Paul Simon’s step allowed him to connect the ’60s counterculture to the old word and the old world. Wearing a polo shirt, backpack, and an air of righteousness that I’m sure some dick at Cambridge simply calls “oxygen,” Kanye West reinvented hip-hop by applying academic rigor to traditional rap styles. And Vampire Weekend’s innate preppiness helped propel them to top-rock-band status.
Tyler, the Creator, who'll be at the Armory on Monday, is yet another of these preppie bros. Both Tyler’s musical approach and the goof-prep style of his clothing line, Golf Wang, are much indebted to Kanye—Tyler’s performance style is a cross between a Ye show inside and an episode of Jackass. He’s always pushed the vanguard of alt-rap, bending and transcending and transgressing every rap sense of decency, delivery, and subject matter. And he did it all while wearing pink golf pants John Daly would approve of.
If we were to trace the popularity of the dad hat to one person, it would have to be Tyler and his obsession with golf lids and apparel back during Obama’s first term, when a flat brim still connoted freshness and not old-headedness. Golf Wang may have been presented as a lark, but, after nearly a decade, it's clear dude just likes a preppie look.
Igor, the persona Tyler has adopted for his new album of the same name, is a nostalgia-dipped incarnation yearning for a way to engage with the present, aping moments of earnest cultural advancement to fight off an increasingly dark feeling for the future. He’s also mad preppie. Igor the ’70s ballad singer embraces melodies the punks are embarrassed to admit they like, a mask Tyler uses in order to freely pursue the perfection of synth-pop-rap that the old heads like Funkmaster Flex are embarrassed to admit tickles their fancy too.
With this album, the punk kid who started out screaming and tearing everything down slipped into a golf pullover and set out to prove he can make more mainstream stuff better than the mainstreamers. He’s pulled a reverse Ye, going weird first and shifting to establishment-conquering mode later.
The transition started with Flower Boy in 2017, a collection of nearly perfect simple soul and loungey jazz-rap on a par with the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Yassin Bey, Talib Kweli, and Kanye. Igor extends the new tradition of synth-pop-rap discovered by Kid Cudi and Kanye. Tyler somehow collapses the space between rapper and crooner even further, way past Drake, while maintaining exciting, guttural synth production with potential to veer off into emotionally tough, harshly barked bars.
As hifalutin' as this all sounds, Tyler’s tracks serve up straightforward bars and synth-bliss. “Running out of Time” starts with a single pumping bass that rattles the inside of your skull, then Tyler sings, his voice raspy even when Auto-Tuned or distorted but still delivering simple, ingenious melodies to immense effect. “New Magic Wand” similarly centers around a single earth-shattering-and-creating synth while Tyler recites, squeals and squeaks—then, on a dime, like Allen Iverson lulling his defender to sleep then suddenly deciding to drive, Tyler spits. “Ayo,” he begins, then, boom, dash, two points.
That flexibility, that range, is what makes Tyler as relatable as he is aspirational. Watching him spit in front of Funk Flex is a joy, witnessing his wildly creative mind and class-clown streak intertwine. Always present, accompanying his talent, is his nagging insecurity; he wants everyone—the jocks, the teacher, the kid picking his nose with two fingers—to like him, and he also wants every good feeling. Tyler wants us to laugh with him, laugh at him, to get wasted with him and to respect him as the generational artist that he is.
Tyler's the kid who leaves the house stuntin’ in country-club clothes but can't resist checking out the swamp under the highway where the knuckleheads get riled up. He’s clasping the mic, holding his own, belting out own his heart with Charlie Fucking Wilson as backup, then digging into the mud with a verse Ol’ Dirty Bastard himself would admire.
So raise a $5 fizzy water to Tyler, among music’s preppy pioneers, and pop two polo collars in his honor.
Tyler, the Creator
With: Jaden Smith, GoldLink
When: 7 p.m. Mon. Sept. 2
Tickets: All ages: $57 and up: more info here