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Music

Tyler, the Creator Has Grown Up Just Enough

At the Target Center, the onetime Odd Future troublemaker was more like an ornery older brother.

Older. Wiser. Tyler.
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“I was a little rebel,” Tyler, the Creator told a hyped crowd of little not-quite-rebels at the not-quite-sold-out Target Center last night. “I matured into an adult now.” He mused for a bit, then added, meaningfully, “Contradictions.”

Contradictions are what Tyler’s been selling from the start. As an enfant terrible with L.A. shock-rap/skate-jerk collective Odd Future a little over a decade ago, his demonically gruff baritone bundled grisly horrorcore, rude name-calling, and suicidal ideations into a package guaranteed to spark the sort of parental outrage, concern, and confusion kids couldn’t resist. Nor could many critics, just entering their thirties, questioning their with-it-tude in the face of a slightly alien youth culture, and lured into the morass of discourse by the appeal of Tyler’s “Is he joking?”/“Can he joke about that?” shtick.

A dozen-or-so years, six or seven solo albums, and more alter egos than the entire Wu-Tang Clan later, the 30-year-old Tyler Okonma is a cranky, globe-trotting aesthete on his latest album, Call Me If You Get Lost, his lyrics a dense web of high-end inventory, cryptic industry gripes, and cantankerous bad vibes. Now a bona fide rap star, with a Grammy and two number one albums to his name (if no radio hits), he projected an image of adulthood as emotionally incoherent as adolescence, if a little less jerky and a little less spooky, to a basketball arena full of teens who were still kidzbopping back when New Zealand considered him a threat to its populace. Also, he had a really cool red speedboat.

Though his albums can be murkier and messier (in good ways and bad) than his reviews let on, everything about the skinny, dynamic charmer crystalizes onstage. He was irascibly personable, shouting out “Minnesota! Also known as… ‘Twin City’ or some shit? I don’t know what they mean but we here bitch,” then grumbling about the weather: “I brought all shorts and one hoodie. It’s gross.” During a pause later in the set he admitted, “I don’t have anything deep to say. Just catching my breath.” He lashed out comically at a kid shouting requests, “I know what song’s next!” then quickly added, “Nah, don’t boo him, he cool.”

A simple, elegant caricature of wealth, the set was an eight-year-old’s vision of how a billionaire lives, more Richie Rich than Jay & Bey. A stylized turquoise mansion dominated the stage from the depths of which a matching Rolls Royce replica arose, the star popping through its sunroof, a dapper chauffeur to assist him. Tyler dressed in a sporty update of his prep-rap style: floral short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned over a white T, shorts, a fluffy white ushanka. (Google it. I had to.) Something always blew up at just the right time; at one point, a storm of golden sparks formed a dazzling wall behind him.

Beginning with “Sir Baudelaire” (sorry, just because he ALL CAPSes his titles doesn’t mean I have to) Tyler ran through the first seven songs from Call Me If You Get Lost, not in precise order but pretty damn close. As on the album, the voice of ’00s mixtape impresario DJ Drama boomed out between songs. A meta-textual reference to the rap era just before he ascended, or just a guy who knows brand names hiring a hype man with a pedigree? You never can tell with Tyler.

Yes, so I was saying something about a boat? While rapping “WusYaName,” with its exuberant promises to some naive hottie of syrup-drowned French toast, obscure Cannes screenings, and proper skincare techniques, Tyler propped his feet up and sailed through the crowd to the back stage. This area was covered in tropical grasses like an island retreat, the setting for a dreamy three-track selection from Tyler’s jazz-rap excursion Flower Boy, beginning with “Boredom” and ending with “See You Again,” which featured the disembodied vocals of Kali Uchis, who, though she’d preceded Tyler with a languorous opening set, wasn’t invited to join him on the island.

What makes Tyler an arena-ready performer isn’t just his gift for amping a room; his animated facial expressions, lost past the first few rows of a club, are perfect for the Jumbotron. In fact, during his stint on the b-stage, his performance among fluorescent pinks and greens showed up better on the screen than anywhere. “IFHY,” which stands for “I fuckin’ hate you” but adds “I love you” (contradictions!) made for an intense shoutalong, then Tyler ran quickly through some more older tracks, essentially spitting a medley that ran “She”-“Yonkers”-”Bimmer”-”Tamale” that was a bit of a tease. I sensed that the kids wanted more of an excuse to get real stupid with Tyler.

Those kids, boys and girls (and a few men and women), overall struck me as hyped but non-knuckleheaded. Though I’m sure things got a little sweatier and dumber on the floor, the crew of teens who’d infiltrated the press loft bounced and pounded with non-threatening abandon. The crowd seemed mostly young enough to have always known the b-slur as primarily a friendly, non-gendered putdown, decent enough to avoid the f-slur that Tyler gained so much notoriety for by tossing around as a youth, plenty comfortable with the regular old f-word Tyler’s still fond of, and non-Black enough that rapping along to the n-slur was off limits. (I didn’t pay attention to see how well this boundary was respected.)

On the boat trip back to the main stage, Tyler performed “I Thought You Wanted to Dance,” then disembarked for a final act that was (aside from the manic “Who Dat Boy,” with its stabby Bernard Herrmann-style string stabs) largely Igor-dominated. During “Earfquake” he led the audience in choruses of “It’s all my fault,” danced some during “I Think,” and wilded through “New Magic Wand.”

Before its warped synth-horns announced his finale, “Runitup,” Tyler closed with a message of self-esteem his younger self might have found corny, and the advice that “It’s OK to change your motherfuckin’ opinion,” which, word. When you think about it, it’s not really that odd a future Tyler’s made for himself after all.

Setlist

Sir Baudelaire
Corso
Lemonhead
Hot Wind Blows
Lumberjack
Massa
WusYaName
Boredom
911
See You Again
IFHY
She
Yonkers
Bimmer
Tamale
I Thought You Wanted to Dance
Who Dat Boy
I Think
Earfquake
New Magic Wand
RunItUp