Tyler, the Creator became famous, in part, for being hateful. When his rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (“Odd Future” is fine) caught buzz around 2010, it was because of their delirious energy and Eminem-like love of mayhem. But it was their threats against women and “faggots,” delivered in song and on social media, that elevated them from subculture phenomenon to become essay prompt and political flashpoint. The likes of GLAAD and the band Tegan and Sara declared Tyler poisonous and asked the music industry to stop supporting him. Theresa May, back when she was home secretary of the U.K., took the extraordinary step of banning him from her country because his lyrics “encourage violence and intolerance of homosexuality.”
Now Tyler, age 26, has delivered an album with an altogether different kind of shock to its lyrics. “Next line will have 'em like ‘whoa’,” he says with trademark gruffness. “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.”
It’s one of a number of times on Flower Boy (unofficial title: Scum Fuck Flower Boy) in which Tyler seems to reference his own same-sex attraction. The aching journey of “Garden Shed” comes off as a confession from the closet (actually, the “shed”), and for the album’s intro he says he’s been “in the woods with flowers, rainbows, and posies.” Elsewhere, he searches for a lover who looks like Leonardo DiCaprio and brags about driving with a guy who looks like River Phoenix.
If Tyler’s now “out,” it’s a landmark moment: He’d be the highest-profile queer male rapper in a genre that, like all pop genres to varying extents, has long traded in homophobia. The way Tyler’s now presenting himself can also be seen as a sign of the murkiness of celebrity identity, a signal of generationally shifting sexual attitudes, and the contradictions of the closet itself.
Stipulated—maybe Tyler is just trolling. His early albums were wars between different alter-egos: There was a masked maniac who smoked pot and broke stuff; there was a murderous cat; there was a calm therapist coaching Tyler to get a grip. The centerpiece of 2015’s Cherry Bomb was an intoxicating/queasy contribution to the pop tradition of lusting after an underage girl. Perhaps he’s simply now introducing a fictional “Flower Boy” persona who makes out with guys.
But if it’s a con, it’s a committed one. In 2015, he tweeted, “I tried to come out the damn closet like four days ago and no one cared hahahhahaha,” and he rapped, “How can I be homophobic when my boyfriend’s a fag? / And we been hiding in the closet like our passion is fashion, still trying to come out.” He’s referred to himself with gay slurs over the years and has joked—or not joked—about having a thing for freckly white guys. He also put out a controversial t-shirt that re-worked neo-Nazi imagery with the rainbow flag. Then there’s this passage from a 2015 Rolling Stone profile by Ernest Baker:
For the past two days I’ve wondered, is Tyler actually gay? I cannot emphasize how much gay humor plays a role in the atmosphere around him. It’s like a continuous loop of the “You know how I know you’re gay?” scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Never more than a few minutes pass without him saying he’s going to suck someone’s dick or him accusing someone of wanting to suck dick. At one point on the bus, he recalls sending nude photos to a group chat with his friends and no one responded. “My friends are so used to me being gay,” Tyler says, “they don't even care.”
I finally ask, Why all the gay humor? “Because I’m gay as fuck,” he says, without a flinch. Seriously, are you gay? Are these repressed feelings? “No, but I am in love with ’96 Leonardo DiCaprio,” he says. “I one hundred percent would go gay for ’96 Leo. Oh, and Cole Sprouse.”
In all of this Tyler may be staging a crasser version of the public process Frank Ocean went through in declaring his non-straightness. Ocean’s news came from an open letter in which he talked about a relationship with a man; he still hasn’t publicly identified with a label, whether “bisexual” or “gay” or “queer,” and his songs spin stories about affairs with both genders. Tyler has cheekily accepted and rejected the term “gay” over the years, and he doesn’t use it on Flower Boy, an album preoccupied with matters of the heart. Over a musical palette generally gentler than that which he was originally known for—more spacey synth jazz than noise—he confesses to deep loneliness and nostalgia for past loves. It’s the individual relationships, not his overall identity grouping, that’s the focus here.
“The homie not gay, he just likes dudes,” Odd Future associate Mike G tweeted after Flower Boy’s lyrics began to leak online. This sort of post-labelism is certainly in vogue, and Tyler, as much as a millennial icon as any musician, may be embracing it. Notably he justified his previous use of slurs with a philosophically adjacent thought: Words are pliable, their meaning up to the user. In 2013, he said of “faggot” on The Arsenio Hall Show, “That’s just a word, you can take the power out of that word. The way that I see things, it’s you chose to be offended if you care more about stuff like that.”
Tyler’s career now and before, though, actually shows the extent to which such words do have fixed meanings—and gay slurs reinforce a stigma that he may well have struggled with. “My step-father called me a fag, I’ll show him a fag / I’ll light a fire up in his ass,” he rapped on 2013’s “Pigs,” a song inspired by the mindset of the Columbine shooters. Tyler knows that words can wound. “I’m not homophobic. I just think ‘faggot’ hits and hurts people,” he told NME, though he then added: “‘Gay’ just means you’re stupid.”
On some level he had to understand that conflating a sexual identity with being stupid is an insult to that identity, and the fact that he could make that conflation was because of longstanding stigmas. After all, why does the closet exist in the first place? Why’d he post this drawing, a pretty clear depiction of anxiety over coming out? Why is the Flower Boy track “Garden Shed” so shot through with turmoil—“Them feelings that I was guardin’ heavy on my mind / All my friends lost, they couldn’t read the signs”? Why does he preface his admission about kissing boys with a line anticipating backlash?
Being anything other than straight, Tyler’s latest chapter implies and modern queer history would confirm, is still not a socially neutral status. Tyler knows that people are still told—in ways big and small, intended and not—that same-sex romance is something to be hated. If he’s not propagating the same stigma anymore, the apparent revelations of Flower Boy are a reminder that it’s not only straight people who can be infected by homophobia. One of Tyler’s most famous lyrics, from 2011’s “Yonkers,” now comes off like a classic queer declaration, showing an internal battle between shame and fear and desire: “I’m a fucking walking paradox / no I’m not.”