As the teenage rap group's most recognisable force, he produced all the records, had the biggest hand in crafting the group's persona, and - more so than any other member - he captured their audience's imagination with lyrics that veered from goofy to self-loathing, and troubled yelps of "kill people, burn shit, fuck school".
The violent wordplay Tyler used that caught heat was always more mischievous than sinister, but something that's often missed by onlookers is the rapper's steady arc of maturity over the past few years. Last album 'Wolf' was far less shock-driven than his previous output, with the record handling themes of young relationships, growing up without a father, and struggling with the responsibility of being a role model to his fans – all coupled with a gentler set of instrumentals that reflected an oft-voiced interest in jazz.
Now 24 years old, Tyler continues his growth with 'Cherry Bomb', his shortest – and yet most musically ambitious – full-length release to date. Like Kendrick Lamar's recent sprawling masterpiece 'To Pimp a Butterfly' Tyler is less concerned with fully functioning songs here, and more interested in crafting a unified, organic work. Hooks are few and far between and potential singles are tough to pick out.
But as much as he tries to test the outer limits of his talent, Tyler can't quite pull it all together like Kendrick did. For one, he's not the MC the Compton artist is. While he tries to do some new things with the vocals – wrapping his voice in a variety of effects, rapping in a multitude of styles – his rugged flow is just not the instrument he needs it to be on tracks like the militant 'Run', which finds him spitting in pitch-shifted double time.
Other failed experiments include the title track, a dissonant, abrasive, guitar-driven joint that finds him lost in a sea of feedback. On opener 'Deathcamp' he tries to flip the opening guitar line from Dee Edwards' 1971 soul number 'Why Can't There Be Love' into a N.E.R.D.-esque banger, but fails to rein in the wild, bombastic sample, while his complaints about teachers and disobedient assertions feel a little outdated for the successful grown-up that he is.
A far better connection to the past comes on '2Seater', which sees Tyler acknowledge his achievements while assuring fans he's still the goofball skater at heart: "Back when Left Brain had the hightop fade / And we would go skate on them concrete waves / And now I switch gears to hear the cylinders pump / The beat thump, don't get it twisted boy, my board's in the trunk." The track is a synth-bathed swoon of jazzy chords, complemented by a free-spirited saxophone and large-scale strings to make Jon Brion proud.
It's these breezy numbers that Tyler most impresses on. The smooth, soul number 'Find Your Wings' hints at his second life as a film composer, while 'Fucking Young' is a summery slice of boy-meets-girl pop that sees Tyler lament the age difference between him and a young girl while questioning his ability to commit.
Moments such as these show Tyler as a producer of great craft and a lyricist with the power to draw listeners in, all of which hits an apex on 'Smuckers'. Welcoming Kanye West and Lil Wayne into his world, it's Tyler who leaves the greatest impression as he ponders the New Zealand government's decision to refuse Odd Future entry in 2013: "Ban a kid from the country, I never fall, never timber / But you fucked up as a parent, your child idol's a nigger," he wryly jokes.
When Tyler allows these strengths to shine through, 'Cherry Bomb' is provided with its best moments. If anything, the album is held back by his ambition – imprudent testing falls short of his usual standards. There are lessons to be learned here, and as a document of Tyler's growth, this may well be looked back upon as a watershed moment.
We don't want him to stop experimenting, but to go back into the lab, where a few well-placed slugs to the machine could produce something truly special.
Words: Dean Van Nguyen
- - -
- - -