Late night thoughts on Tyler the Creator’s album artworkAugust 29, 2019
10pm on a wintry Saturday night in August – a dozen or so readings to catch up on for Australian Foreign Policy, an Italian test to prepare for and an utterly confusing Applied Research Methods assignment to get my head around, yet here I am watching Los Angeles radical rapper-producer Tyler the Creator’s – real name Tyler Okonma – interview with Beats 1.
Completely intrigued at how he explains his interest in character development, I can’t help but voice my completely biased opinions on the way he creates a different persona in each album cover and reinvents his sound without sacrificing his radical edge. However, there is a real aesthetic consistency to this artistry, as he possesses an innate capacity to work with a complex and multi-faceted character within his extensive body of creative work.
Beginning with the deluxe edition of Goblin, I am instantly reminded of his infamous ‘Yonkers’ music video from the same year.
The dark, twisted and highly controversial opening lyrics delivered in his distinctive baritone voice, “I’m a fucking walking paradox, no I’m not / Threesomes with a fucking triceratops” mark the song as a breakout hit for Okonma.
The striking black-and-white visuals in both the music video and album cover reflect the creative purpose of the entire album – a look into his brutally honest and brave persona of being an out-spoken public figure. The hot pink typography across his face accessorises the artwork and is used to label himself as a ‘goblin’. Even without this loud typography that makes a bold statement, Goblin would still solidify his uniquely diverse voice in the alternative hip-hop scene.
This monochromatic cover almost resembles a portrait of Okonma to me.
We are introduced to his alter-ego, Wolf Haley, quite literally with the eponymous opening track and its delicate piano chords and distorted voices in the background of Wolf meeting the album’s other characters, Sam and Salem, at Flog Gnaw. The two pictures of him are dichotomous – a confused and reflective Okonma that overshadows the eccentric and unorthodox Okonma in the public eye that we are all used to seeing. It is reflective of the current mental state he raps about throughout the album.
He oscillates from two states of frustration – first, his rage and cynicism towards music critics as suggested on the track ‘Rusty’ with Odd Future members, Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt: “Look at that article that says my subject matter is wrong / Saying I hate gays even though Frank is on 10 of my songs”. The second is his continual confessional reflection where he reveals his disappointment with the fantasy of fame in the American music industry.
Behind the pastel blue background that appears as if it has been airbrushed on Photoshop, you wouldn’t believe Okonma has reached this radical maturity on Wolf.
Cherry Bomb, 2015
A very divisive album amongst fans and music critics, however artistically it remains a personal favourite of mine.
The whole DIY-aesthetic that Okonma has always associated himself with is very apparent to me on this album artwork. The mixed-media artwork combines both photography of Okonma’s blue flame Golf Wang shirt and Sharpie-drawn illustration of his face, arms and the album title, and reveals his appreciation for unconventional approaches to art. The cartoon-like ski mask creates a somewhat punk-rock aesthetic, which mirrors the chaotic yet dynamic musical experimentation on the track list that ranges from heavy and abrasive noises all the way through to melodic vintage jazz sounds.
The large parental advisory sticker is also very ‘on-brand’ for Okonma and his idiosyncrasies. With its vibrant yet hardcore album artwork that largely experiments with colour, Cherry Bomb becomes the epitome of Okonma’s artistic freedom.
Flower Boy, 2017
The most artistically complex album artwork from Okonma’s discography. I immediately feel immersed in his utopic landscape of driving a McLaren 650s in the orange gold L.A sunset, surrounded by bumblebees and a sunflower field.
The New York based visual artist, Eric White, has included many hidden details that exude Okonma’s visual reality. The awkward yet seemingly perfect composition of the bumblebee covering Okonma’s face suggests how he himself is a manifestation of all the pollinating bumblebees: a symbol for brightness and personal power. The botanical imagery of the bees and the flowers in the Flower Boy era represent his growth and abundance – he has finally achieved individual authenticity and truly become a ‘flower boy’. The warm and naturalistic palette within the artwork illustrates the thematic structure of the album – a myriad of reflective memories showcasing the personal and complicated feelings of youth.
Following his tendency to create characters, IGOR welcomes us with a black-and-white vintage cut-out of a newly formed Okonma.
His serious yet uncomfortable facial expression instantly reminds me of the 1818 Mary Shelley gothic novel, Frankenstein, which would be a common observation to make, considering the character Igor in the film adaptation, Young Frankenstein. The potentially villainous character in the artwork seems to allude to the spooky and more emotionally charged instrumentals on tracks ‘IGOR’S THEME’, ‘NEW MAGIC WAND’ and ‘WHAT’S GOOD’.
The soft bubblegum pink backdrop seems unrelated to this gothic portrait, although perhaps it refers to the more soulful sounds on the album – ‘A BOY IS A GUN’ and ‘ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?’ – that deal with the crippling nature of unrequited love.
Another character evolves from this contrasting sound on the album: a bleach-blonde musician with sunglasses and azure blue suit who recounts the hard emotions of being the odd one out in a love triangle.
The fact that he includes “All songs written, produced and arranged by Tyler Okonma” at the bottom reminds us of his extensive creative capacities.