Another day, another “out of nowhere” album release. This time, it’s Cherry Bomb, the fourth LP from Odd Future band leader Tyler, The Creator, but its thirteen tracks offer a lot more surprise than the proximity of the release date to the initial album announcement.
Tyler’s always been a “walking fucking paradox” even before giving himself that moniker on Goblin‘s lead single “Yonkers.” Just look back to his debut, Bastard and its stand-out cut “VCR/Wheels,” Tyler’s shockingly adroit interpretation of early nineties R&B tropes that’s classic status will forever be tarnished by his teenage obsession with rape imagery and shock culture. The schism between lovable music nerd and misanthropic button pusher has become more pronounced with each release, as The Tale of Two Tylers became a literal narrative throughout his trilogy of concept albums, and the styles inherent in each approach began to segregate between songs. For every track that propagated violence, sexual or otherwise, there was a sweet, chilled out ballad clearly meant to balance it out. One doesn’t excuse the other, though, and Tyler summed up the ongoing struggle well on “Rusty,” arguably the best song on his last album, Wolf:
“Analog” fans are getting sick of the rape
All the “Tron Cat” fans are getting sick of the lakes
But what about me, bitch? I’m getting sick of complaints
But I don’t hate it when I’m taking daily trips to the bank
Wolf felt like a big turning point for Tyler, not only musically, as his gifts as a producer have increased with every project, but lyrically, where at least the prologue for some much needed maturation felt present. Sonically, Cherry Bomb continues that expansion of Tyler’s production repertoire. He’s been threatening to release a rap-less album full of instrumentals for years now, and honestly, if this had been it, it’d be a stiff competitor for album of the year. This may sound blasphemous to some, but in terms of raw, compositional power, its heady mixture of jazz, funk, and R&B rivals the soulful production of To Pimp A Butterfly in terms of experimentation and verve. As it stands, this new album is an impressive one, but it feels more like a step in the right direction than an arrival. There are two big departures that set Cherry Bomb off in its own direction from the trilogy that preceded it.
The first is ditching the meta-narrative of Tyler communicating with his therapist and weaving in fictional stories blatantly inspired by his real issues. All of the missing father emotions and complex storytelling were interesting in their own Slim Shady kind of way, but they would clash pretty heavily with the evolution of his beats here. The second departure is a more divisive one, as Tyler seems to have purposely mixed this album with frightening amounts of compression and distortion. This is clearly his personal vision and not amateurish engineering, but it’s still off-putting at times, like on the otherwise raucous title track which comes off like a really arresting pop single being played entirely too loudly through a crumbling rift in time and space. If Phil Spector had the Wall of Sound, this is a gator-filled moat, guarding a castle of muddled lyrics that certainly seem more interesting than the raps from his last three LPs, but it’ll take several listens before their meaning or resonance even begin to present themselves.
Questionable audio quality aside, there’s a lot to love on Cherry Bomb. Tyler is a noted devotee of The Neptunes and their side project N.E.R.D., so it’s no surprise that the album’s opening track “Deathcamp” feels like the latter’s “She Wants To Move” reimagined as a post-apocalyptic riot starter. When he says “In Search of… did more for me than Illmatic” it’s an obvious piece of self mythology, but it’s also a fair warning that he’s still not trying to compete with Kendrick, Drake, or any other crown takers. He raps throughout the album, weaving interesting stories on myriad topics, like forbidden courtship (“Fucking Young”), but his vocals, constantly getting lost in the mix, seem like an afterthought. Tyler would rather try to compete with Stevie Wonder, Leon Ware, and Roy Ayers, the latter two among an insane cast of secret guests T managed to wrangle.
Some of Tyler’s best moments leading up to this release (“She,” “Blow”) all pay such blatant homage to his idol that they feel like a hip-hop version of Super 8, with T as JJ Abrams and Pharrell as Spielberg. On Cherry Bomb he diversifies his influences to much greater effect, whether it be reaching into the past and grabbing Wanya from Boyz II Men for a hilariously graphic sex ballad (“Blow My Load”) or collaborating with his contemporaries, like Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Budnick popping up on “Run.” By the end, he feels like Quentin Tarantino, cutting and pasting his heroes and inspirations into a moebius strip filtered through his very singular style.
“2Seater” calls to mind the tryptych (“Partyisntover”/”Campfire”/”Bimmer”) on Wolf, but the transitions necessary to shift from style to style feel so much more natural. There’s a moment when a casual line of dialogue in an interstitial skit seamlessly cuts into a new song that absolutely blew me away. I never anticipated feeling the need to reference Eric Rohmer when writing about Tyler, The Creator, but I also didn’t think he’d get Charlie Wilson to help him sing about statutory rape, so, yeah.
There’s a genuinely beautiful thread of boundless aspiration weaved through the entire album, from “Find Your Wings” to the soaring outro of “Keep The O’s,” that is hard to deny. Underneath all of the controversy and tumult surrounding his public persona, Tyler is a self made man, a kid who made a literal empire out of fascinating synth chords and drawings of donuts. The pervading optimism at the heart of Cherry Bomb, this incendiary sense of self, is a pleasant change from the stormy identity crisis of his earlier work, and proof that you don’t have to be miserable to make great music. Like Drake, Tyler creates a call to arms for the next generation to get off of Tumblr and Snapchat and live their fucking lives and maybe buy some cool vinyl in their free time, but old habits die hard and ultimately ruin the fun.
The music crit world is probably all think-piece’d out from years of trying to reconcile Tyler’s musical gifts with his propensity for pissing people off, but there will still be some backlash on this album, and rightfully so. Tyler may feel there’s no ill will behind his continued use of the word “f*ggot,” but it obviously carries a lot of negative power, regardless of his intentions. Every time the word pops up, it brings otherwise dulcet melodies to a screeching fucking halt, and in an album otherwise sequenced so well, it really sticks out.
Ultimately, “Smuckers” is the song you’re most likely to see shared on blogs this week. The story will be about how crazy it is that Kanye West and Lil Wayne are on another song together, but the real tale here is how well Tyler produces for both men. The cavernous drums, the furtive piano twinkle, and the delicious strings curated to bring out the best in each of them. It’s no surprise that it’s the most clearly mixed track on the album, because it’s more of a calling card than a deep cut. There was once a point when Tyler tried to produce a Justin Bieber album, but couldn’t because of his prickly Q rating. Maybe we’ll get to see him fully grow into that Pharrell Williams role in a post-Cherry Bomb world. If the album fails to change anyone’s mind about Tyler as an emcee, hopefully it will lead to him getting more work behind the boards. That’s where his greatest strengths lie, and this album, if not the great tide change diehard fans may have prayed for, is surely a testament to that fact.
Cherry Bomb is out now digitally. Physical copies will be on sale April 28th.