Tyler the Creator’s Queer Punk

The first time I saw Tyler live, I was 15, and it was his second British show. A free underage outdoor stage in Camden organised by Red Bull, who had evidently booked and set the timeslot for his crew Odd Future unaware of oncoming internet buzz; the street’s population swelled from 70 stragglers watching a live dubstep artist (Engine-Earz Experiment) to a packed out screaming mass by 2pm. First onstage was Syd (yet to form The Internet), playing dark, lurking beats, before Hodgy Beats and Tyler ran onstage. Clad in a bright green knitted balaclava, he immediately leapt into the crowd, back out again and around, violently stomping, yanking knees into the air. They ended the show by provoking the crowd to rush the stage, I remember standing up there looking back out into the crowd howling GOLF WANG, before making eye contact with a wide eyed, unimpressed blonde stage hand, who implored me to get off the stage. 

Tyler was the smart, critically appreciated but shockingly boisterous punkjock, a mix between Dakin in History Boys and Cook from Skins, or Nick from Skins and Cook from Skins. The chaotic joker, but also the disaffected emo skater boy, and, gradually, the powerfully confident, sexually experimental dandy. I say gradually; his fourth, Grammy-nominated album Flower Boy would feature the line ‘the next line gonna make em go woah, I been kissing white boys since 2004’, after which he tweeted that he had come out years ago but ‘nobody cared’. Which is funny considering how much media attention Odd Future member Frank Ocean’s revelation got; the media is slow to respond to a character’s development if their stereotypes aren’t quickly, lazily compatible. I don’t get why reviews of Tyler’s 2019 album Igor didn’t focus on the significance of him, a major rapper, releasing lucidly gay songs, actively accosting a ‘boy’.  

When I was 15, I had never met, never seen an outwardly gay man, not in the flesh. I had seen a few who would turn out to have kissed men, but they presented themselves a totally seperate from the gay stereotypes I had been fed of camp, effeminate flamboyance. Tyler was so un-gay that his aggressive homophobic language got him banned from the uk. When I was 22 I brought this up in conversation with my local MP; I had been invited to the town hall after my angry written response to the Conservatives’ DUP deal, correlating this to their 1989 ban on in-school homosexual education. As it turned out, my Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, was himself gay. His straight marriage had only ended a few years ago, and he was now able to enjoy holding hands with his boyfriend in public. He told me that he had actually found acceptance in the Conservative party, that it had been a welcoming home before the streets allowed acceptance, that I was mistaken about them. It’s funny as I’m sure Tyler or Frank or Syd would say the same thing about Odd Future. Blunt was exasperated when I brought up Tyler’s banishment as a reason why my generation don’t like Theresa May; ‘he was banned for homophobia; we can’t win?’ ‘Well yes, but he’s actually gay himself.’ ‘Well he might be a self-hating gay man but that doesn’t mean he isn’t harmful.’ 

A few years later this ban is lifted, and Tyler standing in front of an enormous, screaming crowd, stood perfectly still in a powder blue suit, black shades and a blonde wig, alone underneath Brixton Academy’s grand curtains and the classic ominous Odd Future synth line of Igor’s Theme. Some of the crowd surely attempted to go to what should have been Tyler’s first gig back in the uk, an impromptu show at The Bussey Building that got called off after hordes started climbing walls. There are a lot of teenagers, possibly because each ticket costs £60; it would make sense as a rare treat for those unable to enter queer clubs. At one point, before the performance, I complimented a pair on their outfits (she wears a black King Krule T-shirt replete with silver jewellery, he wears an eye-grabbing pikachu-collage Hawaiian shirt which apparently eeeveryone was commenting on), she told me they had come straight from college (US readers; in the UK college is the last 2 years of school, the last years before you can easily legally enter a nightclub).

My younger brother and I (I got him two thirds of his ticket as a 21st birthday present) are stood near a bunch of contrastingly het lads football chanting along to the ‘ohhhhhhs’. One of whom says ‘ah mate I want that suit’, and almost on cue, after a minute of stillness, Tyler breaks, and starts swinging and lunging around onstage. He deploys young punk Tyler like this a few times, whipping the crowd up with youthful abandon, before returning to the coy character of Igor.

The show reminds me a little of Young Thug, another rapper whose lyrics have dabbled in both intense toxicity and radical femininity. I saw him at this same venue a few months ago. His vocals carried all that wondrous charisma, but nothing else about the show did, he basically just wandered around onstage beneath a big screen of trippy visuals until he got bored, muttered ‘goodbye London’, and left the stage midway through The London, leaving the DJ to play the rest of the track, including his OWN VERSE. IN ACTUAL LONDON. FUCK. 

There’s also a great contrast to be made between DJs; Young Thug was opened by Tim Westwood, who played some pretty sick uk rap but nothing that gave much context to Thug’s world, whilst Tyler was opened by Odd Future member Taco, who played a fantastic variety of tracks; Backseat Freestyle, Pursuit of Happiness, Reborn, Solo (interlude), Thugger’s own Relationship – which Taco cut short, muttering ‘I’m getting bored of this’ into the mic – and best of all, the acoustic version of Jorja Smith’s On My Mind, before which he muttered ‘trust me on this one guys.’

At the end of his gig, Tyler says ‘thanks for coming, I mean I put on a great show, there’s no doubt about it, but I love to bring you along.’ This works in both of the senses that Young Thug missed; on one hand it’s a show, as in he’s showing himself, exposing himself. The few moments that he revisits old content are interesting; before playing the twisted Frank Ocean-featuring slow jam She, he tells the crowd that his old stuff isn’t all crazy and aggro, before missing out the first verse and cutting straight to the second verse’s lonesome angst. During during Yonkers he adjusts a crucial lyric, changing ‘I’m not gay’ to ‘I’m not suss’. When playing Flower Boy cut 911 / Mr. Lonely, he particularly emphasises ‘They say the loudest in the room is weak / That’s what they assume, but I disagree / I say the loudest in the room / Is prolly the loneliest one in the room (that’s me)’, words that reverberate later whenever he gazes coldly into the crowd. 

He’s also very fair when calling it a great show in the classical sense; he’s a genuine performer, syncronising his body to each song’s mood. The show goes through Igor chronologically, punctuated by the occasional old song, and every bodily movement adds to the narrative. There’s only one use of big trippy visuals, this amazing animation of Igor’s face being smashed by elastic globules of electric paint; Tyler prefers to use the actual stage as a tool of expression; different curtains drop and open, a blurred feed of his face is projected onto their layers, eyes separated from face, at one point he writhes on top of a slowly rising scissor lift. 

Oh and Jesus fuck does this album sound amazing live. It really makes sense here; Tyler has always looked to rock for inspiration, a genre focussed more for the live experience than anything else, and whilst Flower Boy contained his most beautiful, headphone symphony shit, this stuff fucking SLAPS harder than anything else he’s produced, so hard that it doesn’t feel indulgent to mostly play new stuff. His intro to Earfquake is probably the most shocking, unexpected moment of the night; he plays a few movements of it solo on the piano, allowing the crowd to sing its words, notes pirouetting around us. No wonder he wants to put on an amazing show, he’s built this music from the ground up, it must feel amazing building up tension and watching it unleash people. When introducing his favourite song on the record he says ‘it’s not the one you’d expect’, before leaping around to Black Magic, all the awkward chaos of explorative love, kissing in public with your eyes open, watching his face and watching out for the homophobes to whom your uncensored existence is a shock. The production values on Tyler, Syd and Frank Ocean’s work have never been higher, but they’re as musically, expressively radical as ever.