Call It What You Wanna Call It: Tyler Makes A Masterpiece

Patrick Johnson wonders if Tyler, The Creator and DJ Drama watched 'Life Aquatic' together, dives into the skill of flexing with vulnerability, ranks the best Drama vocal contributions and more.
By    July 13, 2021
Photo via Patrick Johnson

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The closest Patrick Johnson is getting to Geneva this summer is somewhere on a patio in beat-up Weejuns, drinking an Aperol spritz and complaining about Chris Paul.

Tyler, The Creator has come a long way from black-and-white racked focus shots of eating cockroaches, chopped-and-screwed therapy sessions, and channeling Larry Clark in the aesthetic of Kids on a bad acid trip. As DJ Drama, the project host of Tyler’s sixth studio album Call Me If You Get Lost, loudly boasts in the background, Tyler has indeed checked his resources, and they have finally caught up to match his ambition. Bunnyhop, Wolf Haley, The Creator, and all of his pseudonyms have since traded in that indie-film mindset for full-blown mise-en-scène set pieces.

There wasn’t really a need for his BET Awards performance to be as showstopping as it was, complete with we’re not in Kansas anymore wind, tripping over hidden treadmills, Whoville architecture and a pastel Rolls-Royce in tow — but Tyler has never been one for half measures. He’s earned the reputation of a Renaissance polymath and the budget of an entire production house, even if his visuals are more in-line with Harold and Maude and his vibe often reverts to the final melancholic moments of The Graduate (35mm film grain included).

He’s a student — and there isn’t another artist in music today more determined in their autodidactic fascination of everything from genre-less soundscapes to pretentious international cinema, architecture, color palettes — even furniture. Tyler is Chuck Russell’s The Blob, slowly absorbing any new inspiration in his way, breaking down the bones of entire musical movements to fuel his own transformative growth.

On Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler caps off one of the more impressive three-peats of album releases in modern hip-hop history, finding a resonant if not fleeting peace after enduring heartbreak, surviving a late-20s identity crisis and ultimately coming out cleaner, clearer and more introspective. His new project is his most celebratory to date; he’s earned it. And Tyler wants you along for the ride to take in some of the spoils of his success. To some degree it’s your reward for being his willing audience and to a certain extent it’s for some much-needed company. It can be lonely at the top.

Call Me If You Get Lost is at its most successful when Tyler subtly drops check-ups on how he’s doing in between all of the clever and original boasts. Sure, his earlobe looks like headlights on a minivan but the memory of his former girl or guy leaving him still creeps up even on the sunniest of days. His humor is freshly refined — it’s still absurdist but more self-deprecating instead of at the expense of someone else, and that’s a good thing. His lead single thanks his absentee dad for not pulling out.

Early on in his career, Tyler was never afraid to take risks, but it was often an aesthetic decision sacrificing the actual music. His debut Bastard introduced the world to a teenage wunderkind with an insane amount of raw potential. Ragged around the edges, whites of eyes exposed and a bit too much blood on the burgundy carpet led to early horrorcore denouncements, but Tyler was still able to establish a strong personal narrative of a troubled misfit searching for a connection and some understanding.

His official debut album Goblin had a few moments but faltered as a mainstream introduction to the early-20s angst that he was going through at the time. Outside of “Yonkers” and the memorable Frank Ocean collaboration “She,” his full-fledged debut was scatterbrained — all over the place both thematically and emotionally. Wolf managed to steer the ship back on course, but it still couldn’t hide cringeworthy moments like the all-too-minimalist “Cowboy” and Odd Future-stan favorites like “Colossus.” Where the album did show serious growth was with emotive efforts like “Awkward” and some too-on-the-nose homages to N.E.R.D. like “Answer” (those organs, electric guitar, and some solid songwriting) and “IFHY” (storytelling, structure and menacing synths). Still, much of the music came from a place of “me against the world,” and the initial lack of acceptance Tyler faced in both his personal and professional lives. Three projects into his career, that template was a bit stale especially given the emotional signs of life Tyler could show when rapping honestly about juggling friendships, love and his aspirations.

Cherry Bomb felt like a step backward. Often directionless, the album sounded undercooked and at best chaotic. “DEATHCAMP” was a song that could have easily been left on a flash drive that Pharrell didn’t end up using for In Search of… But Tyler did move out of his comfort zone when working with an entirely new crop of collaborators. While Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi fame and ScHoolboy Q sounds like a great idea on paper, “RUN” was not one of the tracks that worked. The smooth, nostalgic jazz-lounge cut “FIND YOUR WINGS” with Roy Ayers and Kali Uchis was a major highlight — Tyler’s falsetto singing experiment was an unexpected and noteworthy development. Throughout, Tyler was still figuring out sequencing but when he, was on, he was on. “FUCKING YOUNG/ PERFECT” with Charlie Wilson and Kali Uchis was a dreamlike summer love anthem with a storyline akin to Manhattan. Cherry Bomb had enough bright moments thanks to whatever dissident synapses were sparking in Tyler’s imagination, but he still was yet to make a front-to-back stellar project.

Flower Boy was Tyler’s much-needed change of direction. The album found him at his most vulnerable and it could very well go down as his magnum opus. He had finally figured out how to capture the sound of figuring out who he was. Recurring themes of isolation were handled with a newfound nuance in the form of fantasies and daydreams as he chased a lost love in the form of a mid-90s Leonardo DiCaprio. Tyler opened up about his sexuality, coming full circle from his gratuitous use of homophobic slurs to reveal that he was at the very least bisexual. For the first time, he was the sympathetic protagonist weaving his way through lush layers of electric guitar, ethereal orchestral arrangements and found synergy with backing vocalists like Rex Orange County, Anna North, Kali Uchis and Steve Lacy. Those sounds best captured Tyler’s nostalgia for a summer that ended too soon. Tyler may have been flirting with melodies and singing in the past, but now he was confidently holding court with Kali Uchis on “See You Again” and downright crooning on “Garden Shed” with Estelle. By opening up about his loneliness and deep-rooted private and at times painful love life, Tyler, The Creator had made Flower Boy a meaningful album beyond the scope of his ambition and his ability to experiment.

2019’s IGOR was one big celebration of auteur theory. Tyler branched out with complete control into some method acting accompanied by pastel pink color-blocked suits, a bleached blonde bowl-cut and sounds that fit more inline with atmospheric pop than a traditional rap album. (Of course the Grammys would miss the point, awarding Tyler with the Best Rap Album for his effort.) For someone who hated the sound of his own voice, Tyler was comfortable enough to be at his most melodic and experimental. IGOR was vibrant and a modernist, heartfelt breakup album about his “favorite garçon” and being stuck in a love triangle captured by a rollout full of Wes Anderson meets Eric Andre public access television visuals. Red carpet appearances even made Tyler look like the bellboy in The Grand Budapest Hotel. At times pleading to be taken back, at others an anxious ticking-clock of desperate reconciliation, IGOR packed the gradation of heartbreak to acceptance in under 40 minutes.

So after this extended departure from rapping, where would Tyler, The Creator turn for inspiration on his next project? He credited Westside Gunn, curator extraordinaire, for making him want to rap again. On the eve of the release of Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler took to Instagram Live to say, “Shoutout rap music, I love it. DJ Drama, I love you…” DJ Drama even grimaces in the background when Tyler tells him he’s going to give him a hug. (Come on man, embrace your collaborator — it’s not like you can’t adjust your fitted that’s defied gravity for the past two decades afterwards.)

“What you did for rap… phenomenal,” Tyler continues. “From all the Waynes, all the Dedications, from P the In My Mind Prequel mixtape, to Clipse for the We Got It For Cheaps, from Lupe mixtape run all the Farenheits, the Revenge of the Nerds, to JAY-Z, to Andre [3000]… to Westside Gunn for making me wanna just rap again. I love it. I love rap. It changed n**s’ lives.”

Westside Gunn mirrored the sentiment, talking about Tyler during their time spent in the studio crafting “327” and “Party wit Pop Smoke.” He said, “With Tyler, he’s himself at all times. He don’t care who in the room. It could be the toughest dudes in the room and he might rap some off the wall shit and tell another dude that he’ll kiss him. If you know him, you respect it because that’s him.”

Tyler channelled all of that energy and went back to the basics, to the genesis of an era of his music discovery that he hadn’t yet tapped into. While much had been made about his fan-boying Pharrell Williams early on in his career, Tyler brought back a 2010 tweet about wanting to make his very own Gangsta Grillz mixtape. On Call Me If You Get Lost, he spends the majority of his time returning to rapping-rapping as an homage to the 150+ DJ Drama-hosted DatPiff classics that an entire generation of hip-hop fans soaked in from the comfort of their virus-ridden desktops. Of course, Tyler does the hosted mixtape format his way from the jump, placing Drama’s hype echoes over an oboe on the intro “SIR BAUDELAIRE.” The contrast is almost comical. There’s also a certain amount of pleasure gleaned from the fact that Tyler had a legendary yeller-on-mixtapes outshine DJ Khaled yet again for his second straight No.1 Billboard debut in a row.

There are a few features leading up to this album that share some insight to the direction Tyler was headed towards for Call Me If You Get Lost. On Freddie Gibbs’ “Something to Rap About,” he focuses on looking like a Polo ad and living lavishly in Mykonos. “I sound like a boat I haven’t bought yet…” he begins. Then on Westside Gunn’s “327” Tyler is back on the cover of GQ with emeralds shining. “This car came with a driver, I’m in the back playin’ ‘Frontin.’” He even drops a Josh Safdie Good Times reference for good measure. At his core, Tyler has been living the good life soaking in the sun while overcoming lost loves for a sense of independence. At times the flexes are genuine, at others they are a form of escapism.

Call Me If You Get Lost doesn’t focus on the potential journey to the pinnacle, but everything Tyler can actually do in the current moment now that he’s reached it some six albums into his musical career. He spends an entire minute interlude on “BLESSED” reflecting on his collaborative success with major brands, his glowing skincare regimen and tops it off with a JAY-Z-esque, “It’s opulence baby” at the end. He can venture off to Cannes to watch a few obscure indie movies, sip Geneva water straight from the source, sit courtside at the French Open and use Ai WeiWei centerpieces as fruit bowls. Drama’s best ad-libs stem from his aquatic adventures alongside Tyler. One has to wonder if these two were ever in the studio watching Steve Zissou (and if they did, why Drama’s favorite character was Jeff Goldblum’s Alistair Hennessey.) And while Drama brings on full nostalgia with his guest appearances, the best hype man on the project is Tyler’s own mom. “I beat up kids over my kid, okay?” she proclaims on “MOMMA.”

DJ Drama’s Best Ad-libs
“We on a yacht, a young lady just fed me French vanilla ice cream, we got our toes out too!” – “HOT WIND BLOWS”
“Still on the boat!” – “SWEET”
“This shit is for the sunseekers!” – (found throughout)
“Check your resources, n**a!” – “MASSA”
“Shit like this makes me wanna turn my baseball cap to the side, You know, with the T.I. lean.” – “MANIFESTO”
“Go get a fuckin’ hobby!” – “MANIFESTO”
“Dedicated to the haters, the non-believers, and the disgruntled.” – “RISE!”

There are a few rare misfires on Call Me If You Get Lost. “MANIFESTO” is an ode to standing in the face of cancel culture with a workmanlike Domo Genesis verse. And while the ongoing threat of cancellation has been very real for Tyler — stemming from his past tweets aimed at Selena Gomez over a decade ago, his use of gay slurs and other immature indiscretions — he retreads his whole history as persona non grata in a way that fits more into a tracklist three albums ago. “JUGGERNAUT” is a departure from the album’s overall sound and is dominated by both Pharrell production and a feature that feels as long as his “Move That Dope” Remix verse but not nearly half as fun. Even “RISE” is based on the petty premise of dissing A$AP Nast over a leopard-print Comme des Garçons sweater vest and whose sartorial choices were stolen from who. Still, Daisy World’s vocals are a bright spot and Tyler’s able to make an overall connection to his ambition being a magnet for others’ insecurities.

Tyler’s best lyricism to date is matched by features that work in perfect harmony. Youngboy Never Broke Again’s “WUSYANAME” had the internet acting like this was the first time the rapper was ever insightful or emotive even though he’s been doing it for the entirety of his career. Tyler flips H-Town’s 1994 “Back Seat (With No Sheets)” and Youngboy brings some magic with a verse centered around being lost yet present enough to value his relationships. Ty Dolla $ign shines simply for doing Ty Dolla $ign things.

Drama’s former Gangsta Grillz collaborators and artists he was quick to give early co-signs are all over the project as well, from Lil Uzi Vert, Pharrell and Lil Wayne (who continues to body close to every guest verse he appears on in a renaissance sparked by Tha Carter V). The features never crowd the space — they are all there to enhance the album’s experience. Each song embodies the screenwriting, scene-setting mantra of “arrive late, leave early.” Songs are quick-hitting, under 3-minute gems that are more vignettes than full narratives. Even with the constant flexes and frequent travel, as the album evolves, Tyler dips back into his relationships — often finding love behind closed doors before coming out — and the pain that follows. That love triangle from IGOR resurfaces on “CORSO” — “In the end she picked him, I hope when they fuckin’/ She still thinkin’ of me ‘cause I’m that perfect,” Tyler raps before admitting his ego still hurts from the whole situation. And again on “MASSA” — “everyone I ever loved had to be loved in the shadows.” Even though Tyler’s reached fuck-you-money and the spoils of overall creative freedom, he can’t buy new emotions regardless of saying the opposite.

Tyler, The Creator has always channeled a singular honesty in his music, but it wasn’t until Flower Boy that he found the perfect voice to connect to his personal narrative. As “MASSA” rounds out, Tyler admits, “You can’t relate to these things I say to these instrumentals/ Whether it’s wealth talk or shit that’s painful/ I paint full pictures of my perspective on these drum breaks/ Just for you to tell me, “It’s not good,” from your lunch break.” The innumerable flexes on Call Me If You Get Lost are meant to be unapproachable. The man brought back the Gangsta Grillz mixtape format and made it a number one record — if that’s not the biggest flex, then what is? But even at a distance (most likely from somewhere in Geneva) Tyler has created a world where he’s vulnerable enough for his listeners to connect with actively working through pain. He’s no longer begging for a lost love to return like on IGOR, or coming to terms with who he loves like on Flower Boy. On his latest record, Tyler is celebrating who he is, in this very moment, out in the open — soaking up the sun by himself and letting his emerald earrings reflect the light.

Photo via Luis Panch Perez
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