In a March promotional video for Goblin, Odd Future ringleader Tyler the Creator’s second solo album, the man sits at a piano and performs an acoustic version of his first prerelease single, “Yonkers”. It’s a genuinely surprising rendition, not just because it puts one of the most caustic songs of the year in a much different light, but because of what Tyler says before he begins. “Right now, today,” he says, wearing a fake mustache, leaning into the camera. “I am nineteen years of age.” That just kinda floors me. The guy who has become the poster boy for one of the most invigorating counterculture movements in rap music in quite some time… is a month younger than me. I’m sitting at a computer like a dope, discussing the implications of a rap group that rocketed to fame with an appearance on Jimmy Fallon, and some of its members could have been in my high school graduating class.
We tend to forget that when we talk about Odd Future and their milieu of controversy. The argument that the group is too adolescent to fully comprehend nuance has been considered a copout from critics of Tyler and Odd Future’s vigorous talk of rape and gore, but they really are just kids. Some tracks on various Odd Future releases have been some of the most memorable lyrical performances of the past few years, but I don’t think it’s fair to expect the group to be constantly mature when it has been hoisted to such prominence at such a low level of artistic maturity. I mean, in Goblin’s “Nightmare”, Tyler talks about drinking alcohol for the first time with all the nuance of an irate middle schooler. Frankly, I’m surprised so many Odd Future songs are listenable, let alone as classic as “Yonkers”. Don’t forget that there was another recent rap artist that became an overnight sensation in his teens. That man was Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em.
So, despite how much I enjoyed and continue to enjoy “Yonkers”, I came into Goblin with low expectations. We’ve all heard the stories of countless albums like it, where an artist gets swallowed by the spotlight and lashes out on the hand that feeds them. Tyler, the Creator continued to be a polarizing public figure up to release of Goblin, from Odd Future’s unhinged SXSW shows to his hilarious Golf Wang commercials. There was a part of me that expected the rug to be pulled out from under him as fast as it was laid out.
Nevertheless, Goblin begins with a fantastic opening track. It sets the scene for the album’s concept, in which Tyler converses with a therapist about all his recent problems, not least of which is his sudden acclaim. He elaborates on his frustration by coloring simple insults with vibrant affectation. His lyrics paint a realistic portrait of a snotty teenager laying on a couch, telling a shrink all his secrets, and hating every moment of it. “Life’s a cute bitch full of estrogen,” he sneers. “And when life gives you lemons fucking throw them at pedestrians.” Tyler speaks candidly about his disenfranchisement with the new friends he’s made, but nothing is quite as effective as when he references his skate-rap roots. “I can’t even skate anymore, I don’t have the time,” he laments. “I can barely kickflip now.” Tyler’s performance on “Goblin” pretty much validates all the immense Odd Future hype. When his therapist responds after his massive rant, “So, you were telling me you went to New York?” and the first rattles of “Yonkers” come in, it feels like Goblin is poised to be the rap album of a generation.
I once read a review of “Yonkers” that described the track as being forced to stay in a room with a raving lunatic for four minutes, an image well buttressed by the song’s video, in which Tyler, the Creator vomits and literally hangs himself in front of the camera. It’s an excellent interpretation, especially considering that the track really has no meaning. From “Buck 50” to “A Milli”, before it, “Yonkers” comes from a long line of rap songs that have been fantastic for their incredibly memorable (but only semi-coherent) word scrambles. The track definitely embodies a raw emotion, but, taken as a statement, it’s difficult to tell whether “Yonkers” is anything other than a big, hot, brilliant mess.
The tracks that succeed “Yonkers” are, for the most part, good, but, with repeated listens, one cannot help but feel as if Tyler is slowly but surely chipping away at the magnum opus that Goblin could have been. Third track, “Radicals”, is a murky, agro-punk tirade, but it feels hokey and doesn’t hit very hard, a sentiment not helped by the “random disclaimer” that begins it. “Her” is redundant melodrama that ends in anticlimax. Even thought it’s probably a joke, the Waka Flocka Flame-aping “Bitch Suck Dick” is a complete waste of space. For the most part, Goblin is efficient over its fifteen tracks, but it’s a much lower kind of efficiency that is, unfortunately, more inclined toward my low expectations.
And what is critical about this is that, as the tracks start to sound slightly undercooked, it becomes more difficult to justify the outright sexist, racist and Dadaist behavior that Tyler observes throughout the album. In “Tron Cat”, Tyler’s over the top threats of “fucking dolphins” and “snorting Hitler’s ashes” are understandable, because it’s clear he’s joking and there’s enough satire in his delivery to make you want to laugh with him. In one of the track’s best lines, Tyler pokes fun at himself by boasting, “You niggas rap about fucking bitches and getting head / Instead I rap about fucking bitches and getting head.” But come track ten, when Tyler’s listing racial slurs in the otherwise innocuous “Fish/Boppin Bitch”, it becomes a chore to defend the guy’s ideology, let alone enjoy the music for what it is.
Also, a glaring flaw of Goblin, which I’m surprised few have been talking about, is that many of its tracks’ productions are variations of the same beat. However different their mission statements may be, “Yonkers”, “Radicals” and “Sandwitches” are all made up very similar components. It’s that vague boom bap with intentionally (or at least I hope) cheap synthesizers that soften Tyler and his guests’ gruff couplets. I have no objection to the lo-fi sound, as it is in line with OF’s DIY aesthetic, but the creative bankruptcy becomes quite apparent after multiple listens. And since we’re on the subject of crappy production, whenever OF crooner Frank Ocean appears on a track, it immediately sounds half-baked. Ocean tries to channel a Trey Songz-like quivering timbre, but just ends up sounding flat and amateurish in ways that distract from an otherwise decent track like “She”.
Goblin only truly redeems itself at its very end, when the album returns to its storyline in ensemble track “Window” and final track “Golden”. Tyler’s therapist reprises his role as moderator on the former and Domo Genesis fantastically begins the track with a deadpan, “It was all a dream.” Domo, Hodgy Beats, Mike G and Frank Ocean (who thankfully only raps here), are all competent at their respective guests spots, but it’s the track’s hazy, lurching beat that carries them all, its eight minutes breezing by as Tyler eventually takes the reigns for one of Goblin’s best performances. “Since I’m saying ‘Fuck everybody’ I guess that means I’m a fucking pervert,” he seethes. In the track’s final minutes, Tyler’s anger becomes so unbearable, he proceeds to kill all his guests one by one. “Golden” similarly finds Tyler building tension as his diatribe becomes more vitriolic, ending in a plot twist that would certainly befit Goblin: The Masterpiece. If the album were only comprised of the four tracks that bookend it, I’d probably deem it a classic EP.
Goblin is one of those albums that I would recommend in layers. If you want to browse some of the most contentious music of the decade/year, again, The Goblin EP would be your best bet. If you are already familiar with OF, you can’t go wrong with “Tron Cat” and Hodgy Beats collaborations “Analog” and “Sandwitches”. And if you’re a Tyler, the Creator devotee, you probably already have and love Goblin, and for that you have my sympathy. Not because it is a particularly bad album, but because it will always be a chore to fiercely defend a product that’s controversy has stemmed its own controversial controversy.