Earlier this week, Billie Eilish was obliged to issue an apology, after an eight-year-old video of the singer emerged, featuring her mouthing along to a racial slur in Tyler, the Creator’s Fish, in a lyric that is also about date rape. It had provoked the kind of bad-faith performative outrage in which certain corners of the internet specialise, but, if nothing else, it functioned as a reminder of different era, in which the Odd Future collective were held to be The World’s Most Notorious Rap Group – a broiling mass of wilful controversy thanks to their lyrics – and Tyler, their de facto leader, was quaintly thought such a threat to public morals that the then-home secretary, Theresa May, successfully petitioned to have him barred from entering the UK.
For all the column inches expended on them, you would have been forgiven for thinking that this was not a career built to last: the succès de scandale tends to burn bright, but not long; dissenting voices wondered if it were possible to translate infamy and a willingness to give their music away for free online into a career. Occasionally, those voices belonged to Odd Future themselves. “I could fail tomorrow. A year from now no one will give a fuck about this interview,” Tyler told the Guardian in 2012. “That’s always in the back of my head. But I have to keep doing what I’m doing.”
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried: nine years later, Tyler, the Creator finds himself a lauded, longstanding figure in hip-hop and beyond, and the author of a succession of Top 10 albums, the last of which – 2019’s Igor – won a Grammy and went to No 1 in the US. “Doing what I’m doing” turned out to mean doing the last things you would once have expected, including gradually toning down the more controversy-provoking aspects of his style without losing his experimental edge, bringing tenderness and greater sincerity to his honesty and vulnerability, imperiously shifting his sound at will, and singing. The author of 2011’s starkly oppressive Goblin was subsequently to be found making Dr Seuss-inspired EPs with “seven-year-olds in mind”; the contents of Igor were less like hip-hop than an exploratory, 21st-century take on soul music.
It’s a process of evolution that continues on Call Me If You Get Lost, an album on which all the tracks elide into each other; that deals largely in short, sharp bursts of music but finds room for two episodic epics that each clock in close to the 10-minute mark. It goes some way towards fusing the two extremes of Tyler, the Creator’s persona – the hard hitting rapper who, as he’s often wont to point out doesn’t “give a fuck”, makes jokes about terrorism and brags about having been “cancelled before cancelled was with Twitter fingers” and the sensitive, lovelorn melodic experimentalist who claims “I would rather hold your hand than have a cool handshake”. The latter is in the middle of Wilshire, eight-and-a-half minutes of breakbeats and gentle wah-pedal funk guitar over which he details an illicit relationship sparking, then failing, in painful detail, as well as alluding to his flexible attitude to sexuality.
The album introduces yet another new persona – Sir Tyler Baudelaire, presumably named after the decadent French poet – and underlines that, in a straitened world, where artists are expected to adhere to certain standards and fulsomely apologise for their transgressions, its author remains a thrillingly messy and conflicted character. At one juncture on Corso, he apologises for saying “bitch” (“I don’t even like using the word”), elsewhere he lets fly with far worse in hair-raising style; Manifesto offers a complex, nuanced examination of the Black Lives Matter protests and his own reaction that declines to fall in line with pat sloganeering (“I ain’t gonna cheerlead with y’all just to be a dancer”) and wonders aloud if his past reputation means his support will do more harm than good.
The lyrics veer wildly about, and the music follows suit, in the best possible sense: its stylistic lurches are both unexpected and hugely impressive, the product of an artist with eclectic tastes and a disinclination to make music that fits in with prevalent trends. Sweet/I Thought You Wanted To Dance alone goes from spindly synth-pop with a melody that vaguely recalls Neil Sedaka’s Laughter in the Rain, to two-step soul ballad to reggae; the straightforward menace of Lumberjack is followed by Hot Wind Blows, which sticks a guest feature from Lil Wayne over an abstract, jazz-infused backdrop.
The result is a dense, kaleidoscopic album that might take a lot of time to fully unpick, but clearly isn’t going to diminish in quality if you do so. “I came a long way from my past … it’s obvious,” he says at one point, which it is. Call Me If You Get Lost is another stop on a far longer and more serpentine musical journey than anyone might have expected Tyler, the Creator to undertake a decade ago.