Two years ago Tyler the Creator released Wolf and unleashed the Learnaen Hydra of narratives. After listening to the album, I wrote a piece nonchalantly titled “The Conspiracy Theorist’s Guide to Tyler, the Creator’s WOLF Trilogy”, chronicling how Tyler had directed a storytelling masterpiece. Piecing Wolf together with previous releases Bastard and Goblin, it seemed Tyler had used multiple characters - called Wolf, Sam, Ace the Creator, Tron Cat, and others - to narrate a semi-fictional world set in a place called Camp Flog Gnaw, with therapy sessions guiding the narrative. I called it the best multi-faceted story since Slim Shady told me to go and stick nine-inch nails into each one of my eyelids. A few months passed by without official comment from Tyler the Creator – the piece had caught attention and was wetting the internet’s pants; it was posted as an official reference on the album's Rap Genius page, and (still to this day) rammed into my timeline from Odd Future fans - but, despite the odd blase tweet, Tyler never confirmed the storyline. But then, in September 2013, he released the trailer for a film called WOLF. The trailer featured one of Tyler's aliases, Sam, who had previously appeared in the videos for “Jamba”, “Bimmer” Earl Sweatshirt’s “Woah”, and a performance of “Rusty” on Letterman as wearing a green beanie hat. In the WOLF trailer, Sam could be seen beating up Wolf as he rode his bike, through a mountain range. It was the ultimate confirmation, and my conspiracy theory turned out to be reality. The film never received an official release date though, and was instead slated as “coming 201_”.
Roll around to 2015 and things are starting to click into place again. This week Tyler released Cherry Bomb, his fourth record, and people are already questioning how it fits into the narrative. Instead of following the previous trilogy's therapy-session setting, Cherry Bomb focuses on the release of a three-part film. “Blow my Load” closes with a radio presenter announcing “that was new music from the soundtrack of the upcoming film… Three back to back to back movies at the Moon Theatres tonight”. “2Seater” narrates Tyler and a girl arriving at a movie theatre to watch what Jasper calls “[Tyler’s] feature”. “Okaga, CA” has references to a “favourite director” and Tyler telling a girl to “watch this”. There’s even a visual too: the video for “Fucking Young” shows Tyler in a cinema, watching a film starring himself. From these references alone, it’s like Cherry Bomb’s narrative is loosely focused on Tyler going to watch a three-part film, in other words the WOLF trilogy, he wrote about his alter egos. But it’s also about Tyler’s current existence after he killed off all the other characters. If that seems contradictory, it's because it is. But when you're free from something sometimes it's good to reflect on where you've come from. So with that in mind, let’s get into this.
The WOLF trilogy ended with “Sam is Dead” – with the video for the track showing each of Tyler, the Creator’s alter egos meeting their downfall. The video closes with Tyler standing defiantly over them. Cherry Bomb’s opening track is called “Deathcamp” – suggesting the narrative starts immediately after “Sam is Dead”, with Tyler the Creator being the only character - his real life self rather than an alter-ego - left alive. The repetition of “welcome to Deathcamp” echoes the new scenario. It’s a direct opposite to the colorful Camp Flog Gnaw; the fictional world Tyler created for his alter-egos.
The lyrics to the album’s title track, “Cherry Bomb”, seem to confirm the record sits in the aftermath of Tyler’s bloodied alter egos. Here’s the lyrics to the bridge:
“Tie the knot
Kick the chair
Strangled in the air
It's cherry bomb”
This bridge was meant to be the only part on “Cherry Bomb” – and the lyrics have been tweeted in full by Tyler, suggesting their importance – but he ended up adding an entire verse which he’s pleaded fans to “listen to quietly”. The track starts with him whispering “I really made this song just so I could formally… I don't even know how to…” before launching into a verse in which he raps “I’mma goddamn pilot and I decide when we take off”, welcoming the second part of the record’s narrative. Now that Tyler’s killed off his alter egos, he’s going to “find his wings” – becoming the person he wanted to be, no longer hiding behind fictional characters, and being confident in his own talent.
Bastard, Goblin, and Wolf were all necessary precursors to Cherry Bomb in that, as Tyler became celebrated at a young age and for a certain deranged story-telling aesthetic, he lived through those characters, rather than himself, for a long period of time. He wasn’t confident enough to love himself, and, as he says on the intro to Goblin, he was “scared to tell [his] friends how [he] really feels”. The idea that he wasn’t ready to be himself is most prevalent in the song “Fucking Young”. The most obvious take is that the song is about a girl – someone that’s “perfect” yet “too fucking young” – but I’m going to posit another theory. The song is written from the perspective of today’s Tyler, who has found his wings, and is addressed to his younger self, who is too young to understand he’s “perfect” being himself, grounded by feeling he needs to act a certain way.
Tyler’s first album, Bastard, came out in 2009, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest the first songs he wrote for the characters of his first three records were authored six years ago. ”Fucking Young” opens with Tyler stating he “was in nirvana” but “had to pretend that [he] wasn't”, and that’s “where the story and confusion began”. Maybe he’s referencing the fact he was feeling stoked, happy in the real world when he released Bastard, but on record he took on alter egos, pretended he was feeling something else, and things started to get confusing. Now, in retrospect, he’s loaded with self appreciation and realises he loves himself, but back then he wasn’t old enough to take the sentiments on board and “find his wings”. It’s like Tyler is using the track to talk to his six-year younger self.
“Fucking Young” is the most important song on the record because it’s one of the only times we receive what could be a reference to previous characters – the other coming on “Keep Da O’s” which references “Mr Treat Your Nose” from Wolf’s “48” – and follows the theme of the tenth track on Tyler’s previous records being a double (“VCR/Wheels”, “Fish/Boppin’ Bitch”, “Campfire/PartyIsntOver/Bimmer”).
Based on other lyrics on “Fucking Young”, I feel like the girl he's talking about is a composite of Tyler’s fictional characters. The six-year gap is the most obvious clue. But he also states that while the previous alter ego “wants to nest” – and be part of his future career – he didn’t “want to be another statistic”, and thrown from the rap game. Instead of thinking about hanging out, he’s thinking the characters will make him hang “with a tree and a belt”, committing career suicide because he’s carried them on for too long. Because the six year difference between the characters he started on Bastard and current-day Tyler could be a “ten year sentence” in his career, he puts them to bed. He’s done with acting out. He says that “[he]found [his] wings” and tells the alter egos that “by the time you hear this”, “[he’ll] be in the clear”, because he’s finally free. It feels like a message being thrown back in time.
Tyler’s previous records have featured all manner of subject matter – his struggles with an absent father, wanting to eat out Miley Cyrus, hating himself – and some of the elements of the alter egos’ narrative were honest to himself, as a person. His father was absent; he probably wanted to eat out Miley Cyrus; and at one point maybe hated himself. On “Cherry Bomb”, though, he’s ditched the shock’n’scare tactics to tackle specific subject matter of the current day. He’s even tweeted this as confirmation.
I MAKE SONG EXACTLY ABOUT MY LIFE NOW UNFORTUNATLY….AND IM NOT DEPRESSED SO YOU WONT BE HEARING NO SAD SHIT FROM ME AT ALL. SMILE BABY
— Tyler, The Creator (@fucktyler) April 10, 2015
On “Buffalo” he becomes comfortable with his past. He talks about the controversy over his Mountain Dew commercial and getting arrested in Austin, but understands people are watching him. In the bridge Shane Powers tells Tyler not to “fuck up” and to “get those wings flapping motherfucker!”. He becomes a leader. Throughout the rest of the record he echoes statements of a monologue posted on Facebook last December; shooting down people who drink lean (“Buffalo”), those who gangbang (“Run”), and the hypocrisy of people who claim to be your friends (at the end of “2Seater”), anger at the cruxes which stop people finding their wings and realizing their true potential, rather than the teenage angst of previous releases.
Each Tyler record has existed in an alternate universe centered around Dr TC’s therapy room and Camp Flog Gnaw. But on Cherry Bomb, Tyler is in a post “Sam is Dead” world, having killed off the old characters. It’s very much a real life scenario. Discontinuing the theme of the previous records – which followed the trend of each record’s closing track linking with the title: Inglorious Bastard, Golden Goblin, and Lone Wolf – Cherry Bomb ends with “Okaga, CA”. I wondered what this meant so I spent a bit of time on Google Earth looking at the place. On my search, I found there’s a place called Lake Okaga, which looks similar to the fictional world of Camp Flog Gnaw, illustrated on the artwork for Wolf. Take a look:
They’re similar right? I mean, they’ve both got water, a luscious landscape, and lots of greenery. There’s no such place called Lake Okaga in California though. It's in Michigan. The only reference I can find for Okaga, CA, is a steak house which has a one star review on Trip Advisor. If Camp Flog Gnaw was a fictional place, loosely based on the aesthetic of Lake Okaga, then perhaps the addition of “Okaga, CA” on Cherry Bomb is Tyler acknowledging he now lives in a dream state in his home, California, rather than in a fictional place that doesn’t exist. He’s come to terms with himself. Tyler has exorcised his demons and found his wings.
The song certainly seems to suggest that he’s transitioned. “Let's move to California”, he says. The song ends with Tyler talking about “leaving earth” and “flying to the moon”, as though now, in his current state, life’s possibilities seem endless. Then someone whispers “the film’s about to start” – the all important reference to the WOLF film trailer.
Cherry Bomb is Tyler flying through the wind, shooting down negativity, and doing what he wants - getting everyone from Dam Funk to Roy Ayers to Lil Wayne to feature on the record. The album could, easily, just be about that concept. But for those looking to place it into the WOLF trilogy, it’s as much about what happened after Sam and everyone else was killed off and Tyler’s transition into being himself on record rather than living vicariously through fictional characters.
Knowing Tyler, all these theories could be a load of bullshit though. I mean, the video for “Fucking Young” ends with him watching the WOLF film, in which one alter ego sets fire to another alter egos house, concluding with Clockwork Orange style investigators entering the cinema to shine lights in Tyler’s eyes and knock him out like he’s insane. So maybe it’s all part of another grandiose, multi-faceted plan with yet another character added into the mix. Who knows? It’s testament to Tyler, the Creator, as an artist, that he can keep us guessing. He’s crafted his own world, where he can put out his own records, clothing line, television shows, web applications, host music festivals, and now, on Cherry Bomb, he’s finally living in it, rather than letting fragments of his personality take centre stage. The next album is going to go HAM. I can’t wait until he goes Super Saiyan and releases a fifteen minute jazz and funk epic.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil