Mention Cherry Bomb and Tyler, The Creator lights up.
“Dude, right?” he enthuses of his fourth album, which received a surprise release earlier this year. “I’m f—ing listening to it right now, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is f—ing great!’ Like, I’m a fan of this s—. If someone else made this, I would probably kill myself.”
It’s a full-force display of the personality that has made the 24-year-old one of the most distinctive voices in this decade’s pop culture landscape. Hyperbolic, profane and decidedly unselfconscious, Tyler has spent the past seven years building a multimedia empire on the foundation of his creative id.
And he’s gotten results. He has four studio albums under his belt — 2009’s Bastard, 2011’s Goblin, 2013’s Wolf and now Cherry Bomb — as well as his own clothing line and a substantial filmography of music videos and commercials he has directed. He has starred in his own television show on Adult Swim. He’s been instrumental in launching the careers of musicians such as Toronto jazz trio BadBadNotGood, rapper Earl Sweatshirt and singer-songwriter Frank Ocean, among others.
You could quantify his success by looking at his formidable social media fan base — 2.44 million followers on Twitter and 1.6 million on Instagram — or by looking at his more famous co-signers: Kanye West and Lil Wayne, for instance, both contributed verses to Cherry Bomb, as did Pharrell Williams; West has described Tyler as a “mentor.” Tyler has referred to both West and Williams as his “dads.”
But even for a career as multifaceted as Tyler’s, 2015 is proving to be a year of dramatic change. In May, he announced the dissolution of Odd Future, the hip-hop collective he founded that has been an integral part of his career to date. Cherry Bomb, meanwhile, showcases his evolving musical interests, which continue to drift further away from the sound that initially made him famous. Tyler, for his part, maintains his characteristic restlessness, eying new territories even as his own undergoes a seismic shift.
“Why can’t I just be Tyler?”
“I feel like everyone’s breathing on their own, like we’ve always been,” says Tyler. He’s speaking over the phone during one of the few substantial breaks in his summer-long tour, which began with the release of Cherry Bomb in April and stretches through mid-September.
It’s an exhausting tour schedule, spanning 17 countries and 28 states — made all the more exhausting by the fan outcry that occurred when, in May, Tyler tweeted that Odd Future, the hip-hop group he had founded in 2007, was “no more.”
The tweet marked the unceremonious end of one of hip-hop’s strangest phenomena. Though the genre has seen its share of Horatio Alger-esque success stories, the ascent of Odd Future — known in full as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All but commonly abbreviated to OFWGKTA or just Odd Future — was strange in both the quantity of talent that emerged from the collective (at its height, the group boasted a roster of 14 members) and for the youth of its members. Odd Future’s youngest member, Earl Sweatshirt, was just 16 when he released his lauded debut mixtape in 2010. Its oldest, Frank Ocean, joined the group in 2010 at the age of 22.
The group was also buoyed by its status as a lightning rod for controversy. Early releases by Tyler and Earl saw the teenaged rappers expressing angst through lurid, violent lyrics that were often decried as misogynistic and homophobic — descriptors that Tyler and the rest of the group have vehemently denied. But it was that controversy — described by Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef as “a transgressive, creative burst of anxiety and absurdity” — that led to their group’s emergence into the popular consciousness; many saw the group’s extremity as the spiritual successor to hip-hop giant Eminem.
As the group emerged into indie culture, though, they had already begun to divide creatively. Following the release of The O.F. Tape Volume 2 in 2012 — the group’s final release as a collective — the group slowly began to splinter. The wide success of Ocean’s 2012 debut album Channel Orange saw him veer off into a solo career, while Earl Sweatshirt, whose mother sent him to a Samoan school for at-risk boys just as Odd Future was reaching a wider audience, returned to the group in 2012 only to begin constructing critically acclaimed albums of stubborn insularity (the title of his latest release, I Don’t Like S—, I Don’t Go Outside, should give you some idea).
Tyler’s announcement of Odd Future’s dissolution, then, was an unsurprising one — but the vagueness of its wording was read by some as an indication of a less-than amicable break-up. That’s far from the case, Tyler says.
“Everyone’s still cool, it’s just that we’re focusing on our own things,” he says. “They’re still my [friends], but everyone’s just focusing on themselves like they’ve always done from day one. We just happen to be from the same clique, and you know, I just wanted to clarify that. Some people took it as me saying that everybody hates each other or some s—. Which makes sense, you know. As fans, your brain goes weird places when you don’t get the answer you want.”
For Tyler, removing the Odd Future banner means that individual artists and groups from the collective — such as neo-soul duo the Internet, whose album Ego Death was released earlier this month — will be able to stand on their own. “People are like, ‘The Internet is Odd Future,’ and I get it,” Tyler says. “But, you know, let them be them. Why can’t they just be the Internet? Why can’t I just be Tyler?”
Also at an end, Tyler says, is Loiter Squad, the group’s sketch-comedy prank show which aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim from 2012 to 2014. Though the network has not officially announced the show’s end, Tyler confirms that Loiter Squad “is no more.”
“But that s— was sick!” he laughs. Like the ending of Odd Future itself, Tyler sees the show’s conclusion less as a reason for mourning and more as a springboard to bigger and better things.
“It opened the doors up for other things that my boys want to do,” he says. “That was a great thing, but we’re off that.”
“I don’t set out just to make rap songs.”
Something else you can add to the list of things Tyler, The Creator is no longer interested in: rapping.
“Producing is all I really want to do,” he says. “As a musician, I make music. I’m not just a rapper. I don’t set out just to make rap songs.”
That’s never been more apparent than on Cherry Bomb. It’s an album that Tyler says “really wrapped up” his preceding trilogy of albums. That statement rings true both thematically and musically.
While one of the most distinctive elements of Tyler’s music has always been his production — the lurching horror-soundtrack loop of his breakout single “Yonkers,” or the jazz piano backdrop of “Cowboy” — Cherry Bomb brings the diversity of Tyler’s musical influences to the forefront. The album pivots between sunny R&B synths (the Stevie Wonder-esque lead single “F—ing Young/Perfect”), orchestral acid jazz (“Find Your Wings,” which features influential jazz musician Roy Ayers) and even fuzzy punk guitars (on opener “Deathcamp” and the title track).
The album’s influences, he says range from his mother’s collection of jazz and R&B to ‘80s punk bands such as Void and Bad Brains. “The Hives have this song, ‘Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones,’ and I f—ing love that record, man,” he says. “I’ve always liked stuff like that.”
Then, as though to hammer home the breadth of music that influenced Cherry Bomb, he name-drops Swedish indie pop group Peter Bjorn and John: “They have this song called ‘The Chills’ that’s so sick. I just love that kind of stuff. It had a feeling that I just f—ing love.”
“I just really love music,” he adds, “and I think that this album is just me. Like, you can hear my brain on this album. It literally just sounds like my iPod.”
“I think that’s what this album showcases,” he adds. “I think a lot of people missed that. They go in trying to hear a rap album, trying to hear it mixed like a rap album, trying to hear real rap lyrics and rap-ass beats. That’s not what it is. It’s all over the board; it’s someone who’s a music geek making music.”
It makes sense then, that Tyler’s next musical direction remains unclear. He’s expressed desires to score films and work on a jazz album. In an April interview with PBS’s Tavis Smiley, he declared that he was starting a band next year. When asked what kind of band he wants to start, he laughs. “I have no idea,” he says. “Sometimes I just be talking.”
“But I have always wanted to be in a band,” he adds. “Just to be the lead singer of a band, just f—ing yelling. I feel like a lot of songs on this album kind of let me live out my fantasy of being in a band. Even “F—ing Young” is like some Temptations stuff, like old ‘70s Temptations. Just me singing the lead onstage, while we’re in matching outfits on Soul Train, that’s all that is.”
“It’s just my world at once.”
Outside of music, though, Tyler appears to have a clear plan. “I’m excited for the stuff I have coming up video-wise,” he says. “It’s going to be cool.”
As a director, Tyler has helmed the music videos for all of his singles. His striking, eerie video for “Yonkers,” released in 2011, led to the then-unknown Tyler winning the award for Best New Artist at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards (as well as a nomination for Video of the Year). On YouTube, it’s been viewed over 76 million times.
For his latest music video, which medleys Cherry Bomb tracks “F—ing Young” and “Deathcamp,” Tyler says drew from two disparate influences: romance and Mad Max.
“That’s something that influences me a lot, the idea of romance,” he says. “Romance to me is like laying in a field of big flowers, or talking to a girl in the middle of a f—ing lake, or riding a girl on my handlebars. I think s— like that is cool.”
On the other hand, he says, “sometimes gnarly s— is really cool if it’s done right.”
As Tyler branches out onto other film projects, he has developed a method of distribution that allows him direct access to his fans: the mobile application Golf Media, a subscription-based service featuring original content by Tyler and his friends.
“I always thought it would be cool to have a TV network and show a bunch of shows that I like and have original content,” he says. “And then, I just thought it’d be a cool place to just come into my world, too. We have a lot of original shows coming, and I like hosting random events on there that [are] only for people [who have the app]. That’s basically the idea, it’s just my world at once. It’s only going to get better.”
He has the audience. Earlier this month, his Instagram account — named “feliciathegoat,” after a character he created for a series of controversial Mountain Dew commercials featuring a goat who violently responds to the soda — featured four close-up photographs of Tyler’s developing pinkeye. The photo in which his eyes are the most inflamed was liked 72,000 times.
But even in markets in which he might not have that audience, Tyler is enthusiastic to make his mark. His next project, he says, is a furniture line — though the specifics are still under wraps.
“I can’t really tell you [what the furniture will look like] because it’ll give it away,” he says. “There are some really cool pieces. I have this one chair that’s really f—ing tight. I’m excited. It’ll probably be expensive because it’s all custom-type things, and it’s not going to be cheap and easy to make.”
Tyler doesn’t seem to mind the risk inherent in such a step outside his comfort zone. “It’ll be cool if people like it, but you know, I just like making s—,” he says. “I guess making something to sit on is one of them.”
“It worked out for me.”
As the conversation winds down, I ask Tyler what things, in general, he’s excited for. For a moment, he seems at a loss. He’s excited about Ego Death, the new album from Odd Future alums the Internet. “They’re killing it,” he says. “I’m really hyped on the Internet.”
He mentions a few films he’s looking forward to — the upcoming Whitey Bulger biopic Black Mass and the animated family comedy Minions, specifically — and that he’s excited for a concert by the elusive experimental rap trio Death Grips.
He trails off for a moment, then asks, almost shyly: “Hey, what’s your — I don’t know if you’ve listened to it as much, or a lot, to have an answer, but — what’s your favorite song from Cherry Bomb, if you have one?”
I tell him it’s the title track, a cacophonous song designed to sound like it’s being played through blown-out speakers at a live show.
“You like ‘Cherry Bomb?’” he asks, suddenly animated again. “That is so tight. I found that random little drum sample, and once I added the [bass], it just sounds, like, I was just free. I drive fast to that. Like, I drive really fast to that. It just sounds like a live show and I thought putting the kids singing in the choir at the end just sounds really f—ing beautiful but still darkly weird. It worked out for me. A lot of people hate it, but I don’t think they get it. It’s supposed to be f—ed up. It’s a punk song.”
“Keep listening,” he adds. “My favorite changes every week, even though I made it. I f—ing love this album.”