Early in his career, Tyler, The Creator gained fame as an innovative producer whose abrasive lyrics leaned heavily on topics like rape, violence, and homophobic slurs – also known as “shock-rap”. But when Tyler’s new album Igor drops later this week, the project will come from a man whose music is nearly unrecognizable when compared to his early output – a man who is carving his own path towards maturity, introspection, and understanding.
As this statistical analysis shows, Tyler, The Creator’s remarkable personal evolution can be directly measured through the lyrics that have defined his music for the last decade.
Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome” – “Tron Cat” (2011)
In 2015, Tyler, The Creator was banned from Australia as well as the UK, with the latter determining his presence “not conducive to the public good”. Both bans will still be in full effect when Tyler drops 5th studio album Igor on May 19, 2019. The bans centred around his lyrical content – the bar from “Tron Cat” listed above is an example of the ammunition those in power used in their campaigns against him.
Today, it’s curious (to say the least) that these bans are still in effect. To any modern, engaged listener, it’s obvious that the Tyler we see today bears little resemblance to his former self. I saw The Grinch earlier this year here in Australia with a good friend and her ten-year-old son, and there was the boogeyman himself: Tyler, The Creator, singing over the closing credits. I did not fear for the psyche of my ten-year-old friend, and I doubt anyone in that theatre harbored fears of Tyler’s corruptive influences.
Perhaps Tyler’s transformation was dismissed by casual observers partially because of how comparatively quick and drastic it was. So much so, in fact, that Tyler’s admissions on his sexuality in 2017’s Flower Boy were actually floated as a possible “queer-baiting” grab for attention.
For anyone with Google and access to a music streaming service, Tyler’s growth into lyrical maturity was never a question of “if”. The best artists, those that endure, that transcend their own signature sounds to create a legacy, grow and progress as most humans do. The roots of Tyler’s evolution run deep through his discography, and this statistical analysis will show the seeds for Tyler’s journey towards the light on Flower Boy were sown on the very first track of his very first project, and have been growing for 8 years.
Tyler’s Maturation – Analyzing His Growth Through Lyrical Content
For the purpose of this analysis, every bar was counted from every single full-length solo project released by Tyler, The Creator. Each bar was then evaluated for its content and, if applicable, was grouped into one of five categories: Introspection, Inspirational/Uplifting/Positivity, Criticism of Others, Violence/Shock-Rap, and Mental Health. All bars are first analyzed with these five categories in mind, and if two or more are applicable, the most explicit/overt category is chosen.
If a bar didn’t fit into these categories, they were assigned to one of 9 other “catch all” groupings: Generic/Random/Wordplay, Self-Focused, Industry/Society, Relationships/Sex, Social/Political, Bragging, Reminiscing, Drugs, and Family.
Note: Differentiating between “Introspection” and “Mental Health”
Tyler uses the fictional “Dr. TC” as a makeshift therapist to whom he divulges the darker sides of his psyche. Introspection can be an essential part of therapy, so for the purpose of the analysis, any bars that are genuinely introspective, regardless of if they speak on mental health or not, are counted towards introspection. The mental health count on each album comes from Tyler merely delivering his dark thoughts rather than dealing with them and working through them.
The Numbers: Every Bar in Tyler, The Creator’s Discography
The impressive scope of Tyler’s lyrical transformation is documented above. From Wolf (2013) onwards, Tyler retreated from the shock-rap battlement he constructed to propel his career along the trenches Eminem carved out (and still doggedly mans). That approach was winning him fans and detractors in equal measure and fed the existential loneliness enveloping a large portion of lyrical content (seen via the % of lyrics he devotes to mental health). Early Tyler revelled in the awkward isolation impressed upon him due to vocalizing the darkest and most cartoonish thoughts he had (“AssMilk,” “Radicals,” “Tron Cat”). He outgrew this, and the following progression holds a questioning of his own method, an essential part of personal growth, showcased via the narrative structure of Wolf, the loose metaphor of “DEATHCAMP”, and the deep introspection of Flower Boy.
To show Tyler’s growth and movement from the darkness to the light, the categories of Violence/Shock-Rap and Introspection are highlighted, and used as markers of how Tyler is dealing with the existential issues that held Tyler’s personal growth back.
The rise from darkness to light (in this case presented as Shock-Rap and Introspection) is common to many who seek self-actualization or a way through their mental health issues. Last year, I wrote about the struggle Kanye West faced with his own mental health, and compared it to Kid Cudi’s journey on KIDS SEE GHOSTS. On the difference between sunken and risen: “the sunken is still in the forest, unable to see a way out, dwarfed by trees, pursued by predators, untouched by light and sun. The risen are not yet out of the forest, but they’ve ascended high enough to begin to plot a plausible path out, and to feel the warm regenerative rays of the sun.”
Tyler’s sunken bars are his most violent and tortured, removing the darkness from his mind lyrically so as to clear some breathing room for awareness and eventual understanding.
We see Tyler’s paths cross between CHERRY BOMB and Flower Boy – the former is the album he considers his favourite, the latter he considers his best. Note the position of the Introspection line – we will revisit this at the end of the article, but it has a long way to go to reach the height of Tyler’s Shock-Rap on Goblin. Igor will likely continue to grow that line towards the light.
Bastard – The Introduction to Tyler’s Darkness
Gay Slurs: 16
Rape References: 13
I’m not an asshole, I just don’t give a fuck a lot / The only time I do is when a bitch is screaming ‘Tyler, stop!’” – “AssMilk” (2009)
Tyler was just 18 when he dropped mixtape Bastard on Christmas Day in 2009. His age is easily forgotten when the opening title track drops a piano riff worthy of decades of wandering fruitlessly through the dense subconscious forest. Tyler’s production is no less than breath-taking; sampling “Huit Octobre” for “Odd Toddlers” and rapping “I change my outfit more than transsexuals change gender” over it, or juxtaposing delicate piano chords with menacing synths on the lyrical assault “AssMilk.” If the percentages were a little lower and Tyler’s motives a little less clear, one might even see in their mind’s eye Tyler sitting hunched over a piano winking at us, spitting venom over mash-ups of Depeche Mode and Harold Budd.
Bastard is a dark look into a dark soul. Even the categories he’d go on to spin beauty from (Family and Relationships) featured pain and anguish. Unrequited love turns to rape and cannibalism on “Sarah,” pain induced by an absentee father prompts violent vitriol on “Seven,” and Tyler, along with a young Earl Sweatshirt, take glee in delving into the depths of shock-rap on “AssMilk,” a track the features the shuddering Earl bars “Sick, spit a pandemic, crack and cancer mixed with the cannabis / To have a bitch ready to stab a clit with some glass and shit.”
The lyrical canon reads like a first session with a therapist (the set-up from the title track with Dr. TC). Introspection is low, just 6 bars on “Parade” where he is asked to think critically of his hyperactivity and recognises he doesn’t have ADHD, it’s just the way he is. As Tyler progresses, these moments begin to bloom more fully, but he must first vent and provide a history.
Goblin – Tyler Swims in Shock-Rap
Gay Slurs: 16
Rape References: 3
They asked me what it was, I told them fuckers it was ketchup / Nutty like my Chex mix, she bleeding from her rectum” – “Tron Cat”
Goblin’s lead single “Yonkers” remains the artistic height of shock-rap in the last decade. The black and white video is set to a sparse, Neptunes/Clipse era boom-bap beat, with Tyler, The Creator building lyrical and visual tension to a suicidal climax. 41% of his bars were overtly violent, the rest were spattered around Self-Focus, Mental Health and Family, and all categories were touched by Tyler’s menace. It was more weighted and considered than Eminem’s commercial violence a decade earlier, which consisted of emotional and savage rants (“Stan,” “Kill You,” “Kim”). Tyler presented as entirely in control of his lyrical content, and the disclaimer precluding the next track “Radicals” (“Hey, don’t do anything that I say in this song, okay? It’s fucking fiction”) again gave cause for listeners to question if Tyler was sitting at his piano, deviously winking at us. Is he serious?
But Goblin sets about destroying that disclaimer on almost every track. Only “Analog” features no outright violence and shock-rap, yet the song is filled with a sense of impending doom that Tyler expertly crafts and then drives right by, delivering a warm love song. The violence elsewhere is so brutal, some of the lyrics (those referencing rape on “Tron Cat” specifically) follow his career to this day. There wasn’t room for much else on Goblin, although Tyler’s mental health is the focus on “Nightmare,” a track in which he almost predicts the storm to rain down upon him in the wake of “Tron Cat” and the “Yonkers” video by equating fame to psychological torment.
Introspection is loosely scattered throughout the album. 9 bars on opener “Goblin” is another dialogue with therapist Dr. TC. It’s an example of growth when compared to the opening track on Bastard, which was merely an invitation into Tyler’s mind via Dr. TC without critical thought. The disclaimer to “Radicals” shows Tyler taking a step back from his aggression and admitting it’s not really real, but ultimately Goblin is still a young man coming to grips with the scope of the depths the human mind can plunge. This is the darkest project in Tyler’s catalogue, and the light is still 4 years away.
Wolf – Tyler Reaches for Mental Clarity
Gay Slurs: 15
Rape References: 2
Music had nothing to do with my final decision / I just really wanted somebody to come pay me attention / But nobody would listen” – “Pigs”
Wolf is a wonderful transition project, the first example of Tyler beginning to rise from the sunken forest. The graph at the beginning of this article that showed Tyler moved from Violence into Introspection between CHERRY BOMB and Flower Boy may never have happened if not for Wolf. It’s a concept album centred around 3 characters – Wolf, Sam and Salem (Sam’s girlfriend and Wolf’s desire). The narratives of Wolf and Sam loosely follow the structure of Tyler’s previous two projects: Family, Love and Violence feature on every single track.
Talking about rape and cutting bodies up, it just doesn’t interest me anymore… what interests me is making weird hippie music for people to get high to. With Wolf, I’ll brag a little more, talk about money and buying shit.” – Tyler with Hypebeast (2011)
The rape references come on “Rusty,” and are observations of his previous lyrical content rather than new statements. The violence is concept-based, and allows Tyler to step back and play the role of narrator, removing himself from the front line and gaining perspective on some of the atrocities committed by these characters. Imagine a TV drama acting out your darkest thoughts and fears, giving you the ability to see the entire playing field, an impossible task when these thoughts are entirely insular. On “Pigs,” for example, Sam takes the resentment he holds from years of being bullied and uses it to fuel a rampage at his school. The third verse is one of the first instances of Tyler deconstructing and internalizing remorse, and understanding the consequences of aimless violence–a valuable moment he drags into CHERRY BOMB.
As for the bragging, Wolf sits in the middle of his discography. 4% of his bars are braggadocious, compared with 9.1% on CHERRY BOMB and a career high of 12% on Flower Boy.
CHERRY BOMB – Tyler Experiments With New Directions
Gay Slurs: 7
Rape References: 0
Let me tell you what I want you to do / What I want you to do / You’ll find your wings / You’ll find your wings / Learn how to fly / Learn” – “KEEP DA O’S”
CHERRY BOMB has the most diverse set of lyrical topics in Tyler, The Creator’s discography: the mean (average lyrical % of each category across his discography) and the median (the exact midpoint that separates the highest and lowest categories) are very close, signalling a relatively uniform distribution. The graph above shows this – whilst Relationships / Sex is standing proud in the middle, Tyler touches on every single category. The metaphor of Sunken Vs. Risen plays out in Tyler’s lyrical dissonance and production disparities. They’re key elements to the eventual glow on Flower Boy, as Tyler bounces around concepts and ideas, and the issues that plagued his psyche for years try to latch on to his ascent out of the forest. Wolf cleared a path through the forest for Tyler, and CHERRY BOMB is Tyler learning to pave it towards the bloom of Flower Boy.
Shit doesn’t need taking out. It’s cohesive. The album art is fucking flawless. I get all my points across. The features are done well. I found my version of writing a pop song but still a rap song.” – Tyler with Fantastic Man (2018)
The record isn’t devoid of violence – “Pilot,” “CHERRY BOMB” and “THE BROWN STAINS OF DARKEESE LATIFAH PART 6-12 (REMIX)” all have plentiful violent bars. But it’s tempered by touching moments of warmth, like the sepia-tinged love of “OKAGA, CA.” So much of Tyler’s previous lyrical content was wracked with guilt and isolation, so when he raps “I said I loved you, said it back / Like it was scripted, but you meant it” the listener feels the redemptive power washing over Tyler.
That energy was built on previous track “KEEP DA O’s,” where a 24 year old Tyler grabs Pharrell for a throwback Clipse moment before delivering sobering truths in the form of advice to anyone placing their trust in others. Rather than “fuck everything,” Tyler’s conscience floats on understanding and a desire to impart it. It’s here that previous project Wolf pays dividend – the perspective Tyler gained by creating characters to act out the violence in his mind gave his conscience the breathing space to see the bigger picture. 6 tracks on CHERRY BOMB feature positive and uplifting bars, the most of his entire career (Bastard: 1, Goblin: 2, Wolf: 2, Flower Boy: 2).
The seeds were sown, and Flower Boy grew.
Flower Boy – Tyler’s New Chapter Blooms
Gay Slurs: 0
Rape References: 0
Flower boy T, n*** that’s me / Rooted from the bottom, bloomed into a tree / Took a lil’ while, n*** makin’ leaves / Keep ‘em in the branches so my family can eat” – “Where This Flower Blooms” (2017)
Flower Boy features just one truly violent bar – “With his fuckin’ face blown off, that’s how they found him” on “Who Dat Boy,” and even that could simply be a reference to the video, in which ASAP Rocky stitches a new face on Tyler after he suffered a facial laceration. The rest of the record is Tyler observing the existential issues that run deep through his entire discography, and searching for answers for their persistence. “November,” “911 / Mr. Lonely” and “Boredom” feature 145 bars about mental health between them, all of them struck with a sense of underlying confusion and frustration. Bastard similarly opens with Tyler divulging his darkness, and across his discography we see plenty of different methods he’s tried to purge that. “Radicals” on Goblin saw Tyler giving his demons room to play and breathe. “Pigs” on Wolf finds Tyler exposing his conscience to the possible consequences of living the violence of his previous two records. CHERRY BOMB was largely spent pretending the issues had no weight or purpose, until they’d boil over on tracks like “PILOT” (“Cause I’m in first class but I feel like coach”).
And it’s here that Flower Boy blossoms, but also laid out the difficult path Tyler now faces. The new wave of introspection he delivers on Flower Boy (11.3%, when no prior project had more than 3%) feels almost inevitable for a motivated person dealing with deep unresolved issues. As Tyler came to terms with his sexuality on “Garden Shed” and the reasons he kept it hidden, he raps “This is a crucial subject matter / Sensitive like cookin’ batter / Til’ the temperature that’s risin’ / Steppin’ on that ladder, tryna / Grab the rings of Saturn, I’ma / Planet by the time you hear this.” That “planet” is likely Igor, and we can speculate that album may be one of his most confused and conflicting pieces of art yet, as he works tirelessly to reconcile his newfound perspective with the isolation and loneliness he still holds.
Igor – Where Does Tyler’s Growth Take Him Next?
For most of Tyler, The Creator’s career, introspection has been all but impossible without scope, clarity, guidance. He found the beginnings of that on Wolf, and carried it through CHERRY BOMB, until it shot through the soil on Flower Boy. The journey is by no means over, or even halfway complete. Tyler’s future lyrical content, judging from his past, will likely track this new path towards the light, a road few rappers ever tread down. It took Jay-Z 23 years to reach his true moment of clarity (2017’s 4:44); Eminem is 20 years deep, still aimlessly frolicking through the forest.
Some fans have speculated Igor will be a “more mature exploration of dark themes than we see on Bastard or Goblin,” But with the way Tyler has moved since 2009, the only concrete conclusion we can draw prior to the album is growth and progression will feature heavily. Tyler grew through the soil and bloomed on Flower Boy – it’s time for him to flourish.