Tyler, the Creator has often struggled to control his sound. At times, especially early in his career, it seemed that his sound got the best of him. It was deathcore turned hip-hop, gothic to a tee; dark and oppressive, Bastard and Goblin are records hellbent on depression. That possessed sound made him famous. Tyler’s “Yonkers,” a song he considered “a joke,” launched him from internet obscurity to internet rap fame. But, as it turns out, he was right. That song and its beat betray the artist. Tyler Okonma is just not that kind of guy. He’s not all rape and murder and defilement. He has tangible value, an important sound to contribute to hip-hop. “Who Dat Boy” and “911 / Mr Lonely” are two of Tyler’s best songs in years, and he wears his sound better than anything he’s released before.
Tyler’s beats can be dark as night. Sonically, what makes his music stand apart is his use of contradictory sounds; beneath that cavalcade of bass exists a complex tapestry of instruments. Bubblegum pops, dirty synth, heavily-reverberated chimes, swaying strings. Tyler, the Creator’s most integral presence in music is not as a rapper, but a producer. “Who Dat Boy” builds from screeching tendrils of off-key strings to a bass-laden beat that slaps. “Who dat boy, who him is?” Tyler asks, and it’s hard to tell if he’s fucking with us or not. In the music video, Tyler blows up his own face and, with help from A$AP Rocky, stitches on a noticeably paler replacement. It’s an episode of The X-Files on acid.
“911 / Mr. Lonely,” a clear-sailing two-parter, finds Tyler back in his lonely place. The chorus, “911, call me sometime,” is a backhand to those friends that come around only in an emergency. Often, they just need help, and what kind of person wouldn’t help a friend in need? Tyler raps “I’m the loneliest man alive.” Frank Ocean, fresh off his own reflections on loneliness, echoes the sentiment: “I can’t even lie, I’ve been lonely as fuck.” The second act, “Mr. Lonely,” is a soaring R&B tune to rival Tyler’s best. He spends his money on cars and clothes, trying to fill some phantom void: “But what the fuck else do you want from me? / That is the only thing keepin’ me company.”
Regardless of whatever Tyler has in store for these songs—as of yet, there’s no official album confirmation—he continues to grow as an artist. He’s publicly stated that he doesn’t really like being a rapper, but there has to be a different explanation. Tyler Okonma doesn’t like being just a rapper. As he’s grown into his sound, he’s started singing more. Instead of filling sonic space with his voice, he lets his singular ear for production take center stage. Tyler, the Creator has hardly finished fine-tuning his mode of expression, but “Who Dat Boy” and “911 / Mr. Lonely” showcase a newfound musical and emotional maturity—and when it comes to Tyler, that fact is positively refreshing.