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Arts & Culture

Review: IGOR by Tyler, The Creator

At 7:49 p.m. on May 16, mere hours before releasing IGOR, Tyler, The Creator posted a captionless picture on his Twitter page. It was a simple photo, featuring a wall of text with a rosy pink background, the same color as the IGOR album cover announced prior. A few sentences in the first paragraph read: “This is IGOR. Pronounced EEE-GORE.  Don’t go into this expecting a rap album. Don’t go into this expecting any album. Just go, jump into it.

I’ve been a fan of Tyler’s music since 2014, around the time I first discovered Tyler, Frank Ocean, and the rest of the Odd Future collective, and right before Tyler released his 2015 album, Cherry Bomb. This album was many things, but run-of-the-mill was not one of them; the album’s 13 tracks were stuffed to the brim with musical ideas, blending Stevie Wonder-esque 70’s soul and jazz chords with heavily distorted beats and samples. I was definitely caught off guard when I first heard the album, but it would be a massive understatement to say I fell in love with Cherry Bomb and the rest of Tyler’s music thereafter.

Tyler updated this unique sound with his smooth, reflective, and revealing 2017 album, Flower Boy. This album was even more creative than Cherry Bomb, in that Tyler toned down the rough, industrial sounds of his past work and incorporated sunny soul, groove-heavy jazz, and a host of guest vocalists into the music, while in the lyrics he unveiled more about his own life. The album revolved around his sexuality, mental health, and past relationships among other deeply personal themes. This was a brand new Tyler; one who abandoned the more abrasive persona he embodied back in the early days of his career (see: Goblin, from 2011; fantastic album) and more directly embraced his emotions and inner turmoils. Flower Boy ended up being my favorite album of 2017.

Fast forward to this May: Tyler’s ominous tweet from May 16 stated that “[IGOR] is not Goblin. This is not [2013’s] Wolf. This is not Cherry Bomb. This is not Flower Boy. This is IGOR.” Tyler wanted his fans to know that this album was a new step in Tyler’s musical evolution, going in a brand new direction. With this in mind, I did exactly as Tyler asked: I jumped into IGOR and all it had to offer.

And what did I find?

Even if I had ignored Tyler’s direction and had any expectations, IGOR would have surely defied them. IGOR is Tyler’s strongest work to date. The album follows the recent trend of keeping the runtime short and sweet, with IGOR clocking in at a succinct 39 minutes (for an example of an album that takes this trend to a beautiful extreme, give Tierra Whack’s 15-minute long Whack World a listen). The songs on this project teem with wildly inventive production and songwriting techniques, so much so that the songs seem to morph and shift constantly, undergoing series of magical turns in sound and structure.

Here, Tyler fully embraces his talents as a producer, composer, and arranger, even more so than in his previous projects. The album’s intro track, “IGOR’S THEME,” is a swarm of distorted synth bass, airy Lil Uzi Vert vocals, and thumping boom-bap beats. Soulful piano progressions and jazzy scatting vocals come in and out of the mix, creating a swirling composition that sets the tone for the rest of the project. Tyler’s presence as a rapper is largely understated on this track, but his presence as a producer guides this song—and the rest of the album—down a journey of musical and personal exploration. Uzi repeats “Riding ‘round town / They gon’ feel this one” for most of the song, and the sentiment is true; this album is one for listeners of Tyler, old and new, to truly connect with and feel, because, as he shouts in the background of the song, he “[has] his eyes open.”

The opening lines of the album’s second track, “EARFQUAKE,” reveal what Tyler can now see with his open eyes: he’s in love, “for real this time.” This track, easily the most popular to emerge from IGOR, is bombastic and summery in sound, melding hard drum and snare with sweeping synth chords. This song’s chorus is simple but effective, declaring his love for his partner with his signature pitched-up vocals. Then, R&B legend Charlie Wilson’s vocals boom into the mix, melding with Tyler’s to desperately plead for Tyler’s lover to stay. This idea of desperation permeates this track’s lyrics, along with the rest of the album. Behind the song’s sunny sound is Tyler admitting his faults in the relationship, begging for his lover to stay with him and make things work.

Playboi Carti then comes into “EARFQUAKE” with a type of verse that we’ve seen in many of his features; rhythmically interesting and engaging, but lyrically lacking any distinct relation to the song’s theme. His voice and cadence does work well with the instrumental vibe of the track, but I can only imagine how much greater this already fantastic song would be if Carti really nailed the themes of desperation presented by Tyler. Nonetheless, “EARFQUAKE” is to IGOR as “See You Again” is to Flower Boy: the anthemic, catchy single that fans of Tyler will cherish and revisit time and time again. Truly a great track.

The next track, “I THINK,” is easily my favorite song on the album. The song starts off with a dusty, rustic sampled drum beat that melds beautifully with Tyler’s subtle neo-soul chord progressions. The chorus, aided by Solange Knowles (check out her newest album When I Get Home, my favorite project of the year so far), continues the themes presented in “EARFQUAKE,” with Tyler stating “I think I’m falling in love / This time I think it’s for real.” Here, Tyler is acknowledging his love for his partner while questioning their intentions. His first verse has bars such as “What the fuck is your motive?” and “Mess with T on-off / Fuckin’ up my ambience, pause,” communicating his confusion and disdain for how his partner treats him.

After the second chorus, Tyler quotes Timbaland from Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back” and says “take ‘em to the bridge.” A few seconds of silence, and then the song erupts into a whirlwind of jazzy chords, high-pitched synth leads climbing up and down scales, and a synth bassline whose rhythm contorts and morphs constantly. The result is a sublime piece of music that makes for one of the best moments on the album.

I was really astounded by how Tyler pushes himself as a producer and a composer on this album. Typically, when listening to music, I always notice the beat, chords, and melodies first, as I feel that’s the gateway to understanding the artist’s vision. And on IGOR, there’s so much to dissect in terms of production. One of my favorite production moments happens on “NEW MAGIC WAND.” The song’s bassline and rattling drum beat sound like they’re straight from Kanye’s Yeezus, but then Tyler combines that industrial sound with a poppy vocal melody, when he sings the Erykah Badu-referencing lines, “I saw a photo, you looked joyous / My eyes are green, I eat my veggies.” It’s such a surprising combination of sounds and further highlights Tyler’s one-of-a-kind artistic vision.

“GONE, GONE,” the first part of the album’s longest track, showcases Tyler’s ability to almost completely reinvent his sound. Here, Tyler crafts a pop-R&B track with soaring melodies courtesy of CeeLo Green and La Roux that sound like they’re belted out by a massive choir. This song feels like summer. It sounds gleeful and free, no doubt influenced by the song’s lyrical content, featuring lines such as “whether it’s rain or shine / I know I’m fine for now” and “I finally found peace / so peace.” Tyler is reflecting on this failed relationship and embracing peace of mind and self-assurance for the future. But there’s still a hint of trepidation, as he repeats, “But I don’t ever want to fall in love again.” This tension is key to understanding the album, because the core of IGOR is Tyler wrestling with the complex emotions he has formed for his past partner, and how he wants to embrace love while knowing the pain it causes for him.

Barring a disappointing verse from Kanye on “PUPPET” and a fairly uninteresting beat that lasts for a bit too long on “THANK YOU,” this album is full of joyous, reflective, and authentic expression from an artist who continues to establish his singular place in rap history with each new album.

And on May 27, Billboard announced that IGOR debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. Tyler celebrated by posting another tweet: “IGOR, NUMBER UNO, STANK YOU.” This is Tyler’s first album to top the chart, and judging from the impact of his kaleidoscopic musical vision, it won’t be his last.

Hats off to you, Tyler. I jumped into IGOR, and all I can do is quote your lyrics on “GONE, GONE:” “Thank you for the joy.”