I haven't thought of a good introduction to this semi-regular column yet, but it will be about music: some good, and some shit. Thank you for being here. Peace and love, peace and love.
Somewhere off from Pacific Palisades, at the top of a mountain, there's a lake where the sun shines yet never feels too bright. Although the city of Los Angeles vibrates slightly below—the towering blocks of steel, the backyard swimming pools, the mirage of possibility—everything here remains still. The air is clean and quiet. The wind passes back and forth. There's nothing more to be asked of you than to dream, because that's exactly what this is. Some intangible work of fiction.
This serene and peaceful lake doesn't exist, at least not physically. Instead, it's in my mind. Getting there is easy: all that's needed is a song like "Perfect," or "Hey You," or "Bimmer." Or, more recently, "911 / Mr Lonely" and "Biking." These are releases from (or featuring) Tyler, the Creator—the director, visual composer born Tyler Okonma, whose songs have created a movie to live again and again. In one way or another, he's become the Wes Anderson of lazy, summertime daydreaming. Crushing, cruising, falling in love—or, in the case of his most recent song, a lack of the latter.
Having stormed into news posts in the early 2010s by whipping off his shirt and eating a cockroach, then later being arrested and banned from several countries, the Californian rap artist isn't widely associated with relaxing depictions of nature. But as the years have passed—his vision expanded, his person matured—it's as though the fantasy element of Tyler's early work (one initially described as horrorcore) has become carefree, blooming with an innocence, a level of cinematic detail that was never there before. The ski masks, gone. In their place: a fuckload of flowers. (And, of course, the themes of "Who Dat Boy"—but that's another piece).
Those who are familiar with Tyler, the Creator will recall previous references to such a utopia in his work. The cover art of 2013's Wolf features a cartoonized Okonma sitting on a BMX bike, next to a similar mountainous landscape to the one described earlier—welcoming and silent trees, untouched water, distant mountains ready to be explored. His yearly, early 2010s DJ Stank Daddy mix series ran with the name "Summer Camp"—and featured laidback, lake-side tracks from the likes of Toro Y Moi, Jill Scott, Real Estate and Coco O. Then there's his annual festival, Camp Flog Gnaw, which is also rooted in the aesthetic of an endless, sun-soaked getaway.
Looking deeply into Tyler, the Creator's back catalog provides a litany of similar references. And sitting beneath the profanity and horror of his first three albums is one singular location: the lake. "Won't you meet me by the lake?" Frank Ocean sings on 2012's "Analog 2," a follow-up to the previous year's release of the same name. Then Syd from The Internet pitches in: "Meet me at the lake around ten (it's cool to kick it)." Finally, Tyler lays down his statement: "If you need a way down there, I'll ride you on my handle bars".
On a now defunct Formspring page, Tyler declared "Analog 2" as the favorite song he had then released. It's not hard to see why. Its references to bicycles, love of nature, a relaxed yet cool desire to kick it with someone—they've all since been brought to the forefront of his work. "Slater," from 2013's Wolf, is about a bike of the same name—referenced on Frank Ocean's 2017 single "Biking" ("Why I name it Slater? Ask my date") most recently. "2Seater, "Okaga, CA", "Find Your Wings" and "Fucking Young" from 2015's Cherry Bomb build on the sound Tyler created in "Analog 2" and expand its vision of an eternal afternoon—one spent hanging around in the sun, potentially with a crush, coasting through a place where everything is perfect and colorful.
One of the greatest things about music is its ability to transport, as though a brief but no less brilliant spell has been cast on the listener, uprooting them from life and into a vivid new place. Bob Dylan and his literary portrait of a surreal circus on "Like A Rolling Stone"; the leather-and- opioid-scented warehouses of 1970s New York as presented by the Velvet Underground; Parliament hosting a funky-ass disco on the moon. These works coalesce emotion, writing and imagery, then bring the listener into an environment. And they do so in a way that feels beyond sound, as though it's possible to use all the senses to experience the scenarios embedded in their music.
Rap is great at creating these environments too. Yet, for the most part, there can be a similar thematic: JAY-Z on the streets of Brooklyn, Kendrick or Ice Cube rolling down Rosecrans Avenue, OutKast cooking up in the basements of Atlanta, Georgia. Despite its brilliance, the genre can often be rooted in a dense, clogged-up city environment—and if not that, then a club. Increasingly there are anomalies (Chance's Coloring Book; Kevin Abstract's American Boyfriend; Lil Yachty and his sailing crew, et al), but, over his now almost a decade long career, Tyler, the Creator has created a unique space, one that is more akin to a film set than a piece of music. There's even a rotating list of characters—Frank Ocean and Syd, Chaz Bundick and Pharrell Williams, Coco O, and Kali Uchis—who soak pigment into Tyler's backdrop with their own unique tones, making all the parts into a grand whole. The result: a paradisiac exploration of the outdoors.
Of course, Tyler isn't the first artist to use rap as a means to explore nature, or to use music as an aural reflection of it. "Bonita Applebum" from A Tribe Called Quest is touched with the trails of a jet-plane coasting at 36,000 feet, looking down on some hidden island. The video for Soul of Mischief's "93 til' Infinity" literally takes place next to a waterfall so beautiful it should be spread, double-paged, in National Geographic. Soulquarians—the neo-soul rap collective made up of Erykah Badu, Questlove, Talib Kweli and D'Angelo, among others—have several green-fingered compositions in their catalog too. But Tyler, the Creator is different: his world exists in nature, yet it also involves skateboarding, doughnuts, polaroid cameras, streetwear. Cool shit, basically—kind of like what you might see in a coming-of-age film, but so fucking sweet.
As time passes and early albums Bastard and Goblin begin to fade into the distance, perhaps this world will become more prominent in the public's perception of Tyler, the Creator. It's one of bike rides into sunsets, treehouses, wearing a different color each and every day (as he does with his GOLF line of clothing), exploring the world rather than throwing hours away on the internet, eating far too much sugar, being conscious and not wasted, bumblebees, afternoon adventures with a crush—or even doing nothing, except being still and outside. In a way, it's an ongoing exploration into the six-week summer vacation most of us think we can never have again, now we're old. But we can. As Frank Ocean once sang: "My cool summer never ends."
You can find Ryan on Twitter.