Tyler leans even further into psychedelic R&B and delivers an album whose execution can’t match its ambition.
“I hate wasted potential,” states comedian Jerrod Carmichael in a mid-song interlude between “Gone Gone” and “Thank You” on Tyler, The Creator’s fifth solo album. He’s talking about failed relationships, like the one that hovers over most of the album. Uttered 75% of the way through IGOR though, Carmichael’s words hit closer to home for me as a criticism of the album itself.
Tyler’s potential has been immense ever since he emerged as blog rap’s abandoned son with a voice that sounded like gargling thumbtacks, his natural charisma once mistaken as merely an ability to provoke, his vision often improbably able to outstrip his abilities. In recent years, that’s only intensified. Whereas consensus on the three albums that followed his debut, Bastard, remains divided (to put it lightly), 2017’s Flower Boy was both his most daring and best-received to date. When Tyler starting playing around with jazzy chords on 2013’s Wolf, the results were rarely transcendent, but you could squint and imagine the psychedelic gems that few years of development could potentially yield. Though it was four years later, Flower Boy delivered on that vision. Tyler’s careful study and execution finally matched the Roy Ayers obsession he’d been chasing for three albums, namely on standouts “See You Again” and “Boredom.” Once Tyler masters a vibe, he never loses it— “Who Dat Boy” and “I Ain’t Got Time” proved he could still start a mosh pit at the drop of a hat years after he made his name on doing so— but at this point, it seems inevitable that once a particular vibe is finally mastered, Tyler’s already looking to the next one.
IGOR sets its sights on a strange hybrid that’s never quite been achieved (or maybe even attempted) by one particular artist at one particular time. From a sample of the “Bound 2” source material, to some very Yeezus-y beats, to dominant “Stronger” overtones on “I Think,” to an actual Kanye guest verse, there’s a whole lot of Kanye influence, but the whole thing plays more like an album-length mashup of Ye’s 2007-2013 discography than a reverent reproduction of any one of his individual albums. It’s a weird imagining of lush, retro R&B with jagged edges, pitch-fucked voices, and an overall dedication to maximalism. If anyone can pull it off, it’s Tyler, and I very much think he will, eventually. It might just take him another two albums to get there.
Moments of blinding brilliance aren’t few and far between on IGOR. On the contrary, they’re everywhere, which makes the listening experience all the more frustrating. As soon as Tyler arrives at something arresting and original, he piles on (more often than not) unnecessary layers, seemingly incapable of letting things breathe. It’d work if he was a virtuosic musician capable of complementary intricacies, but with Tyler’s main musical strength being his ear for the unlikely-but-satisfying combo, he goes all-in too often. It’s usually immensely satisfying to hear a song with segments that, when separated, could make perfectly good songs on their own (see: “Sicko Mode”), but with IGOR, it’s more of a criticism: most of these songs contain minimal moments that, if subtly tweaked for two or three minutes on end, could be much better songs than the ones they’re part of. Whether it’s one too many melodies being introduced on “Running Out of Time,” the key changes in “Puppet” and “Gone, Gone,” the grating and pointless Kanye verse on “Puppet,” the charming but also-mostly-pointless Playboi Carti verse on “Earfquake,” or most egregiously, the oppressive Mike Dean synths stacked on top of one and other at the end of the otherwise brilliant “New Magic Wand,” IGOR is an instance of Tyler doing too much.
Again, this all might work if Tyler was a different artist whose strengths lay in technical ability rather than singular vision. The crate-digging samples are fantastic, the vocal harmonies and layering are usually stunning, the bare melodies might be Tyler’s best ever, but he’s stretching himself too thin. His rapping, which is less prevalent than it’s ever been, suffers (the clunky verse midway through “Gone Gone/Thank You” being one of his worst ever). His singing, which has always been charmingly rough at best and noticeably pitchy at worst, buckles when asked to carry the majority of an album, and the fact that 75% of his vocals are pitch-shifted reeks of an attempt to mask his shortcomings. Tyler’s at his best when he either improbably finds a comfort zone within a seemingly inhospitable sound or calls upon the collaborator with the right resumé to do so, and despite IGOR‘s stunning guest list, he inadvisably leaves much of the heavy lifting for himself.
IGOR contains the most alchemical genre blends of Tyler’s career, and like Wolf and Cherry Bomb before it, suggests a bright, ceiling-less future once he masters whatever new thing he’s going for. But once again, Tyler’s boundless ambition has outstripped his execution.