Tyler, The Creator Is the Artist of the Decade

After starting the decade testing the limits of shock with Odd Future, the rapper’s journey to mellow and sincere has been even more radical.
tyler the creator artist of the decade
Illustration by Alex Jenkins; Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images

The 2010s were the decade where it felt like time sped up. As we reach a major mile marker during one of the most confounding periods in cultural and political history, we’re looking back at the artists, albums, and trends that best marked the changes over the past 10 years. Picking one singular artist of the decade proved difficult, because so many genres shifted, careers launched, and sounds grew—and frankly, there were a whole handful of musicians you could make the case for. So we decided to talk about all of them. Click here to see all of Noisey's Artists of the Decade, and here to read up on all of our end-of-decade ruminations.


Only a few minutes into Tyler, the Creator's third album, Wolf, released in 2014 when he was 22 years old, he asks for bets about "how quick [he] can reach maturity" before he offers to tip a restaurant server with his penis. (To maintain the rhyme scheme, he bounces maturity off a bastardized version of gratuity: gratiturity.)

If you had to bet then, would you have guessed Tyler would close the decade with an unabashedly pretty and tender No. 1 album about same-sex love and heartache? When a teenage Tyler and his young, disaffected crew, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, first emerged, it was difficult to see this turn away from shock coming, but in hindsight not impossible—especially when you consider the music, not the lyrics. In some ways, the challenge of writing about Tyler's journey is to refrain from making it unnecessarily shocking; nothing about IGOR, his sixth solo release, is without precedent. His interest in delicate, dreamy sounds is present on his first release, 2009's Bastard. He's made bashful love songs for years, across practically all of his albums (though he often undercut them with florid ugliness, like on "She," from Goblin); he's cared about beautiful chords and '90s neo-soul and the possibilities of orchestrating other voices from the jump.

But in 2010, and 2011 especially, when the mainstream media began writing regularly about Odd Future, all conversations returned to questions of morality. Was this music too toxic to consume, let alone support? Was it playfully transgressive ("Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!") or simply misogynist and homophobic? Was it a case of white journalists going gaga for Black rage? Was it a group of young people agitating the sanctimonious, or was it hate speech that endorsed violence, raping women, and gay bashing? "I can't see them having a radio or video hit without them changing their style dramatically," Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg told the New York Times in November 2010. This year, Tyler's song "Earfquake" reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, his highest-charting single ever.


The story of Odd Future's rise, in terms of pieces filed across publications from Billboard to Pitchfork to NPR to Cokemachineglow to the Wire to the Root to New York magazine to the New York Times to Poetry Foundation, is also a story about media. It's hard to imagine so much ink being spilled around a new musical act in 2019, because there's less money to spend on this sort of coverage and fewer outlets to run it. The moral metric deployed in thinkpiece after thinkpiece in 2011 felt exclusive to the treatment of this particular group, especially for a generation of listeners and writers decades removed from the culture wars of the 90s. Now, taking stock of the moral character of a song or album or movie or TV show or book is practically a given in arts criticism. But it's not a lens that Tyler's recent output calls for. His new work no longer sets that particular antenna to twitching. At 28, he's mellowed.

Let's talk about "AssMilk," though. Track nine on Bastard, available to the world on Christmas, 2009, features Earl Sweatshirt. The two teens trade short, four-bar verses as an eager tag-team—until the song comes to a halt because, from the sound of it, Tyler is hitting Earl in a game of uncle. "Say sorry," Tyler blurts, "Say sorry"; "I'm sorry as fuck," Earl cries. It's the last row of the school bus, the corner of the cafeteria where the aides can't see, the roughhousing of a carpeted basement broadcast into your ear. As the critic Nitsuh Abebe put it, on this song "you can actually hear the joy of people creating music because it doesn't exist yet, and they need it to." "Rihanna haircut, somebody tell Chris Brown to fuck me up," Tyler raps, accentuating the word "fuck" like it's a balloon to be inflated and popped. They're testing the limits.


Sara Quin, of Tegan and Sara, wrote an open letter decrying Tyler in May 2011, after he released his first studio album Goblin on XL Records, home of Vampire Weekend and Adele. "Why should I care about this music or its 'brilliance' when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible?" Quin wrote. "The more I think about it, the more I think people don't actually want to go up against this particular bully because he's popular. Who sticks up for women and gay people now?" (On Twitter, Tyler responded: "If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up.")

Tom Breihan, writing about the early Odd Future releases for Pitchfork in 2011, said that "morally, it's repugnant" and that while "the other Odd Future guys can come off like kids clowning each other when they talk about stuff like that…Tyler actually sounds demonic."

Pitchfork booked the group to play its music festival that July, and in response Jim DeRogatis, the journalist best known for his relentless work chronicling R. Kelly's history of abuse, interviewed Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber and former president Chris Kaskie for a story entitled "Pitchfork & Odd Future: Endorsing rape or showcasing art?" The anti-domestic violence organization Between Friends handed out fans at the festival that read "COOL IT! DON'T BE A FAN OF VIOLENCE." From the stage, Tyler offered a winking "big shout out to the domestic violence group that's here—we love you guys" before MellowHype played "Igotagun." (Sample lyric: "I got a gun/I'ma kill that bitch.")

Revisiting this chapter in 2019 can feel a bit like explaining to someone too young to know why Tyler is so angry with something called NahRight on the intro for Bastard. He changed. He grew. And now, everybody knows that—as the lyric from the Grammy-nominated Flower Boy goes—Tyler has been kissing white boys since 2004. On his recent albums, he doesn't sound settled, but his caustic id is no longer so enthralled by the possible reactions to physical and emotional violence, or various slurs; he works from a different palette, is more interested in melancholic longing, wistful sincerity, and the brightness of Charlie Wilson's voice. The homophobia and misogyny of Tyler’s juvenilia can in fact be read as a rambunctious young person working through, among other things, their own insecurities about sexuality. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Tyler explained that, because of his provocative persona, he found himself having to come out again and again—because no one believed him. "Scary Movie 2 is one of my favorite movies," he said. "She gets stabbed on stage—but it’s acting, in a beauty pageant, so they’re like: 'Oh my God, she's so good.'" He also said that the accusations of homophobia bothered him—especially when his language got him banned temporarily from the U.K.—because he didn’t intend his lyrics to be treated as serious hate speech. "Bro! That's the thing, bro. People knew I wasn't. People knew the intent!," he said. (As Syd, the former Odd Future DJ and engineer, put it in a 2018 interview with Billboard, "It's hilarious. I went through all of these interviews [about homophobia], and everybody was gay the whole time.")

The Tyler playing arenas touring IGOR is the wounded-but-hopeful, childish-but-charming Tyler from "Analog" and "Awkward" and "OKAGA, CA." His most offensive material, save the magically incorrigible "Yonkers," is no longer part of his repertoire. (According to Setlist.FM, he hasn't performed "AssMilk" since 2014.)

In 2011, Nitsuh Abebe wrote about who is invited into the circle of Odd Future's listenership, and who is taunted out by the music's misogyny and homophobia. At the decade's close, the circle Tyler creates is as big and inclusive as it's ever been.