The Tyler, the Creator of 2018 is not the boy we once knew. Before say, last year, when I thought of Tyler, one video in particular would come to mind. It’s a 2012 clip from a Jimmy Fallon appearance, where Tyler and Hodgy, clad in ski masks, perform “Sandwiches” while destroying property and terrorizing the show’s other guests. The performance is funny and weird and smart, but also twisted—a strange teen riot acted out on live TV. For a long time, that was Tyler’s sole operational mode: 100 percent pure shock value.
So when Tyler released last year’s Flower Boy, it was an easy target for more skeptical critics: a lush, warm concept album with an ostensibly queer narrative. Cynics quickly dismissed the record as a way for a boy who used to call anything that moved a slur of some sort to earn some woke points. Listen closely, though, and Flower Boy is basically the opposite; it’s an album about growing up and reckoning with identity, a pastel-colored wonderland where black kids can self-determine and express themselves and live unchallenged. It sounds like Tyler working out who he is, and deciding, maybe, that he’s not that much of a troublemaker anymore.
Saturday’s set was a perfect extension of Flower Boy’s mood and aesthetic; bucking any expectations of what a Tyler, the Creator set should be, it showcased the depth of New Tyler as a performer and as a songwriter. No longer an agitator, Tyler is now something of a showman. He’s sweet onstage, asking us “Are you having a good time, Coachella?” and “Will you sing with me?” and urging the crowd to sing the hook on “Boredom” in a way that’s almost childlike. Wearing leather Golf Le Fleurs, a ‘No Violence!’ t-shirt and a hat bearing the words ‘Problem Child’ (all his own label, Golf Wang), Tyler looks like your friend’s shy younger brother, sheepishly sliding and shimmying across the stage during some of the songs with funkier arrangements, and walking around the set's large trees and logs like he’s exploring.
Many sets of the day—especially the ones later in the evening—featured big name guests or large set pieces, but Tyler’s set was notable for just how solitary he seemed onstage. While many of the other performances around Flower Boy have found Tyler surrounded—by his friends, at Webster Hall, or by dancing teens during a television performance—this set felt like the ultimate distillation of the album’s mood, Tyler all alone in a fantasy world of his own creation. The massive screens around him displayed technicolor landscapes that couldn’t have been more at odds with the desert surrounding the festival.
It felt like Tyler was performing as Flower Boy’s Mr Lonely character, standing quietly on a platform in the middle of the stage, starting out into the night. For punters who weren’t familiar with Flower Boy, it could have been incredibly alienating, and you get the feeling it might have been; the biggest crowd reception was a brief portion in the middle of the set when Tyler performed “IFHY” and “Tamale,” both from 2013’s Wolf. The rest of the songs didn’t receive a cold reception, exactly, but it was almost like many were there to turn up and felt disappointed that they didn’t get a chance to, outside the Wolf tracks and Flower Boy’s “Who Dat Boy?”
That’s no shame, though: the Flower Boy songs were incredibly impressive, and gave Tyler a chance to show off just how much of a talented vocalist he’s become, modulating his voice from its usual growl during “Garden Shed” into snarls and shrieks, and into an outright scream during “Who Dat Boy” and “I Ain’t Got Time.”
“I Ain’t Got Time,” performed second-last before the two-parter “Sometimes” and “See You Again,’ was an easy highlight; asking the crowd whether we could “just get absolutely buck shit crazy,” it felt like a flash of the Old Tyler, except with a more self-aware edge, certain lyrics flashing on-screen like some kind of surreal live karaoke. Cutting the song short, it ended with Tyler screaming the much-discussed “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004” line. I’m loath to assume that these songs are actually about Tyler—they might be, but it’s shallow to assume that all art is grounded in reality—but it felt like there was significance in the way the set was built around tracks that alluded to identity and sexuality like “I Ain’t Got Time” and “Garden Shed,” the latter of which was performed with Tyler standing still on his podium, looking out into the world. It was definitely a set that telegraphed the importance of Finding Yourself—“OKRA” included a spoken-word interlude of someone telling the crowd to do whatever we want to do—and of vulnerability, and the way these songs were placed in the set felt like a reflection of that.
Rather than end with a bang, Tyler eased out, finishing on “See You Again,” his first real love song. It was a fitting ending; like the rest of the set, “See You Again” finds Tyler alone in his own head, daydreaming and fantasizing about the world around him, painting brightly-hued vistas of What Could Have Been. The set may have honed in on the loneliness of Tyler’s music, but as he sang the last few bars of “See You Again” acapella, thousands of voices joined in. He didn’t seem so lonely anymore.
Shaad D’Souza is Noisey’s Australian Editor. Follow him on Twitter .