“Yonkers”, Youtube, and Tyler, the Creator’s “Wolf”

Colin Small is the Google Boss. The weirdest thing about internet shitstorms is that we all know they’re shitstorms and yet we actively involve ourselves, either as righteous participants or...
By    March 6, 2013

Colin Small is the Google Boss.

The weirdest thing about internet shitstorms is that we all know they’re shitstorms and yet we actively involve ourselves, either as righteous participants or entranced observers. No matter how much we want to forget about the “Harlem Shake” meme or the whiney backlash of two weeks ago, we don’t have the luxury of that memory erasing pen from Men in Black. We cannot unwatch those videos or unread those outraged think pieces. As music listeners and internet users, that song and those images are now part of our cultural hive-memory, more so than a lot of things that might be much more worth our time. That’s how culture works and we can’t change what the people want in their entertainment. Musicians, on the other hand, have fresh territory to explore with their newfound internet hegemony. Just ask Baauer, a man with a big fat new audience and probably no idea what to do with it.

In late 2009, Tyler, the Creator released Bastard to the enthusiasm of sneaker forum users and early-adopter rap critics everywhere. It was a fantastic debut, even in the world of rap music, where debuts are everything. It would be a full year before he released “Yonkers”, a single that propelled the internet into an acidic fervor of thoughts and hype that grew to career-threatening levels. Sometime in between, whilst he and Odd Future were still an up-and-coming indie rap act rather than a hyperbole factory (legendary rap svengali Sean Combs would eventually call them “the future of rap” at South By Southwest), Matthew Trammell interviewed him for The Madbury Club about an upcoming album called Wolf:

“It’s one of the greatest albums of all time,” he comments, without blinking. “I didn’t know, but I’ve been working on Wolf since the beginning. I have beats that I made when I was fuckin’ 16 years old that I’ve been saving, that’s my shit, that I wouldn’t even give to Jay-Z if he offered me a million dollars, that are going on this album.” His partner nods in agreement as he continues: “When people mention Michael Jackson, they mention Thriller. When people mention Kanye, they mention Late Registration, Eminem, Marshall Mathers. When people mention me, they’re gonna mention Wolf, ’cause it’s so fucking good.”

Tyler had already envisioned a career trajectory for himself sitting alongside Michael Jackson, Kanye West, and Eminem, a strange triptych of popular appeal and controversial eccentricities. When I read this interview three years ago, the controversial side was clear in Tyler, but it was also apparent that he saw a universal appeal in himself that had not yet taken a real shape in his music. The 55 million Youtube views that “Yonkers” subsequently attracted may point to that appeal, but in what form? It never even tried to be a pop song: attempt to play that song at a party and its quiet, theatrical crawl and complete lack of chorus or hook will leave you with a room full of stone-faced drunks who are fucking pissed that you turned Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” off in the middle for some hipster bullshit. Trust me.

If you wanted to be a little grand about it, you might want to call “Yonkers” the first hit rap single of the Youtube era, not because other songs that did well on Youtube hadn’t become a hit long before it (“Crank Dat” comes to mind), but because it fully depended on Youtube for its distribution and subsequent popularity. “Yonkers” is a great song, but without that crazy video, the same kids and critics would continue to be the only people who knew who Tyler was today.

Two weeks ago, almost two years after “Yonkers” went big, Billboard added Youtube views to its chart calculations after “Gangnam Style” raked in an insane 1 billion views. The change propelled “Harlem Shake” to the #1 spot on the Hot 100, a song that, like “Yonkers”, would still be a niche gem if it weren’t for the fact that its accompanying Youtube video(s) went viral. This is the only zone in which Tyler, the Creator can compare his own success to anything near that of Michael, Kanye, or even Eminem.

It doesn’t seem like any of us really understand the elemental quality that makes a viral trend and that includes musicians. When Tyler envisioned a monumental popularity for himself in the near future, I’m going to guess he didn’t consider the heavy implications of the intricate and rapidly shifting new distribution routes of the internet. I mean, neither did I. I suspect, however, that like all media before it, as Youtube’s ubiquity increases and people find new ways to utilize it’s strengths, richer culture will emerge than funny dancing on camera. Great art in any medium often begins with novelty: people did lots of funny dancing in early silent films too.

This album Wolf that Tyler so confidently mentioned in his interview with Trammell, while initially intended to be released as his sophomore LP, became his third album, due next month. Listening now to its first single, one has to wonder whether “Domo 23” is based on one of those beats that Tyler has been saving for his Thriller or whether that dream was abandoned once the reality of today’s music industry life set in. In all honesty “Domo 23” sounds like many other tracks from Odd Future’s headlining post-Goblin acts, a perfectly serviceable rendition of their signature sound that is at the same time pretty unmemorable. While Tyler should be commended for hastening his own maturation and making a real attempt to move past the very personal but entirely childish subject matter of his debut, he has only managed to do so by making music that is inversely personal in a very defensive sense. During a heated moment in the new song he uses the line “bitch, I ate one roach and I made a lot of money” like a shield against a very apparent and invasive sense of self-doubt.

Who can blame him for losing confidence when both pop music and the internet have such a poor track record for the replication of success? Tyler now stands at a very important nexus in his early career. If he still wishes to produce the groundbreaking, popular and distinctive album that he had hoped to three years ago, he’ll have to combine a reintroduction of the emotionally available Tyler (possibly a grown version this time) with the you-gotta-watch-this-shit intensity of his Youtube sensation.

It’s quite possible that Tyler is simply no longer the man for this job. He’s definitely cultivated a loyal audience that would support him through a long career of comfortable fan service. He is, however, the first of many young rappers who will have to deal with this same situation: the tough nuance of making replayable music that attracts a loyal audience has rarely intersected with instant and relatively universal clickability. Merging these spheres consistently is a pretty tall order to fill. If “Yonkers” showed us anything, however, it’s that great art can be just as viral as silly bullshit. If Youtube remains a dominant medium, it’s only a matter of time before somebody tops it.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!