How Tyler, The Creator Crafted His Own Cinematic Universe

On ‘CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST,’ his auteur vision and appreciation for film have crystalized into an aesthetic unlike any other in rap.
June 28, 2021, 7:37pm
tyler the creator at the BET awards
Image via Getty

Since the beginning of his career in the 2010s, rapper Tyler, The Creator has directed his own music videos under the name Wolf Haley. Much like the music itself, videos for early singles “French” and “VCR” from his debut mixtape Bastard were crude and unpolished. The former is a brashly edited collage of skateboarding clips and shots of Tyler and his fellow Odd Future members reciting lyrics to the camera; the latter creates a loose narrative of Tyler attempting to seduce a sex doll in a dingy basement. Both videos lacked production value and technical finesse but his vision was there; Tyler knew exactly what he wanted to put on screen and figured out early that the best way to hold an audience’s attention is to force their eyes open himself.

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Three years later, during an interview with Billboard, Tyler revealed that his favorite filmmaker is Wes Anderson, and at that point in his career, it might’ve been shocking to hear that the rapper who once filmed himself eating a cockroach before threatening to stab Bruno Mars was a fan of the director of the 1996 coming-of-age film Bottle Rocket. But in hindsight, Tyler’s fascination with film has always made perfect sense. Tyler, like Anderson, is an auteur—an artist whose aesthetic, voice, and varied influences shine through every aspect of his art. Each of Tyler’s projects—from Bastard to his latest album Call Me If You Get Lost—are fueled by a sharp directorial eye and play out like films in their own right.    

Both 2009’s Bastard and 2011’s Goblin open with a framing device in the form of Dr. TC, a fictional therapist giving Tyler space to vent his problems. Bastard, in particular, is too concerned with shock tactics and repressing feelings to hone in on an actual story, but TC exists to bridge the gap between listener and artist. His questions and comments keep what little story there is on the rails, ensuring Tyler isn’t spewing poison into a vacuum. The conceit is similar to the one that drives the 2005 action film Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which uses a marriage therapist to ground the story of a couple who learn that they’re both professional assassins.

Bastard was an attention grab that marked Tyler as a talented rapper-producer willing to lean into a problematic persona with irony. Goblin amplified this contrast, once again opening with Dr. TC checking in with Tyler a year after his first taste of solo success. He has a conversation with TC about audiences and critics taking his gruesome raps at face value before descending even further into the cathartic rage of “Radicals” and serial killer fantasies of “She.” The story on Goblin is slightly more developed, which means Tyler’s directorial voice—in both his songs and his videos—had become noticeably more refined. His talent was undeniable.

Watching the video for “She,” where Tyler plays a ski-mask-wearing stalker fantasizing about assaulting a new neighbor, and hearing him unpack the stresses of his newfound celebrity with his shock-rap tendencies on a song like “Nightmare” brings to mind the work of filmmaker Harmony Korine. Korine made a name for himself as the screenwriter of the 1995 film Kids, an unflinching look at how teenagers in then-modern New York navigated sex, drugs, and the AIDS epidemic. Much of Korine’s directorial work, films like Gummo and Spring Breakers, leans into realistic and potentially problematic depictions of the sex lives of teenagers. Tyler, similarly, luxuriates in fantasies of assault and violence as unchecked catharsis, and Tyler and Korine’s profiles flourished because they have consistently courted controversy. 

By the time Tyler’s 2013 sophomore album Wolf came around, he would unironically embrace the twee visual aesthetic that Wes Anderson had already spent 17 years perfecting in films like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom.  Pastel colors, symmetrical shots, and suburban teenage angst became hallmarks of both his music and his videos. 

The self-directed double video for Wolf singles “IFHY” and “Jamba” begins in a dollhouse, complete with Tyler and model Brandi Bondoc in horrifying doll makeup. Tyler’s juvenile lyrics about what he’d do if his partner left him for someone else (“Make sure you never meet again like goddamn vegans”) dovetail with shots of toy Tyler antagonizing her and breaking down the bathroom door to get her attention. In the much shorter “Jamba” portion of the video, Tyler and rapper Hodgy are driving around a suburban neighborhood with the camera fixed on the hood of their car for a perfectly symmetrical shot of the duo in the front seats.

Wolf is also the last Tyler album that enlists Dr. TC and it has a more accessible story told with a more cogent narrative: It’s the story of a love triangle between teenagers at the fictional Camp Flog Gnaw, combining his own twist on the Anderson aesthetic with Superbad-style teen awkwardness.

Tyler’s always had a penchant for playing characters on record and on camera, a performance within a performance, but they began manifesting in interesting ways on post-Wolf projects. Look at his surreal Mountain Dew commercials from 2013 featuring a talking goat, the doomed adolescent love story of “FUCKING YOUNG” from his 2015 album Cherry Bomb, or the suburban face-switching horror of “Who Dat Boy” from his 2017 album Flower Boy.

Pre-Flower Boy, Tyler’s albums were a mix of the aggro DIY energy he displayed in his earlier work with the more thoughtful aspects popping through as he continued to mature. This contrast plays out when the videos for two other Cherry Bomb singles, the serrated “BUFFALO” and the lounge jazz chill of “FIND YOUR WINGS,” rub up against each other. Flower Boy’s tonal shift brought the pendulum to the other side, with warmer sounds and visuals dominating a Tyler project for the first time. It’s surreal to see an artist go from the stark minimalism of “Yonkers” to the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway musical-style visuals of the video for Flower Boy single “SEE YOU AGAIN,” but by the late 2010s, Tyler had found his cinematic voice, one as zany as it is sentimental. 

The release of his album IGOR in 2019 proved that Tyler’s palette would only become more sophisticated. For starters, IGOR is his tightest album conceptually, fully self-produced and telling a focused and unabashedly queer love story from beginning to end. Its videos follow suit, featuring Tyler wearing a platinum-blonde wig and dealing with the fallout of a strained love on a TV studio (“EARFQUAKE”) and while lounging around a lavish mansion (“A BOY IS A GUN*”). The pastel colors are still here, but there are more stately flourishes driving the visuals. All of IGOR’s videos were shot on film by cinematographer Luis Panch Perez, aiding the vintage flair. “A BOY IS A GUN*.” in particular, calls to mind the queer melodrama of Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar and the cinema verite style of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard

Tyler’s latest album Call Me If You Get Lost maintains his passion for cinematic language. Self-directed promotional video “BROWN SUGAR SALMON” opens on yet another meticulously crafted symmetrical shot and draws out a cringe-humor exchange with two waitresses over a missing dinner special. Once again, Tyler directs all of the album’s videos with Perez as cinematographer. Both here and on the album, Tyler is referred to as Tyler Baudelaire, another persona that isn’t exactly a persona. With frequent appearances by legendary mixtape host DJ Drama, Call Me mixes the hunger and flash of Pharrell Williams’s 2006 Gangsta Grillz mixtape In My Mind: The Prequel with Tyler’s well-established romantic twee angst to surprising effect. 

Call Me isn’t as singular a project as IGOR—there’s a tug-of-war between gaudy travelogue flex raps, thoughts on his controversial beginnings, and a handful of love stories—but its grasp of theme could’ve only come from an artist who’s been working at their craft for over a decade. Tyler’s work has never lacked in confidence, but the layered beat switches of a song like “MANIFESTO” and the sweeping off-center camera shots in the video for “WUSYANAME” show that his skill and vision have come a long way. Drama’s presence and humor, which Tyler has admired since at least 2010, adds extra flair to Call Me, the equivalent of dropping Fast & Furious-era Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the middle of Wes Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel.   

 Tyler has always been master of his domain, but on CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, his auteur vision and appreciation for film have crystalized into an aesthetic unlike any other in rap. He’s spent the last decade giving shape to his own universe, one where DJ Drama and Pharrell Williams can stand next to Napoleon Dynamite and McLovin.