Is that really him? Nah, it can’t be. But this is exactly where you’d expect to find him. C’mon… doesn’t seeing him walk down Fairfax Avenue seem just a liiiiittle on the nose? Dude, who else is 6ft 2in, wearing a mint utility vest, oversized khakis and a bucket hat, being followed by fluorescent hordes like he was about to feed the multitudes with free socks. Oh fuck, I think you’re right. I told you: there’s only one Tyler.
In the United States of America, 348,612 babies were named Tyler during the ’80s and ’90s. But even if you were christened Tyler, there’s a legitimate chance that the Creator is the first Tyler that comes to mind. Consider how difficult that is. We’re not talking a mononym like Madonna or Prince or Kanye. Even Michael Jackson competed with Tyson and Jordan. But Tyler reigns uncontested. And there he is on Fairfax in Los Angeles at 5pm on a sweaty July Monday. It’s like seeing the Pope sunbathing outside the Sistine Chapel. Bro, you better get a pic.
But Tyler doesn’t take fan photos. “People are fucking crazy,” the erstwhile Mr. I Don’t Give A Fuck says, averting his head from the pilgrims not-so-stealthily capturing him for their Instagram stories. “If I did 38 backflips and bought some kid out there a full scholarship and his mom a car, he would still say: ‘Yo, can I get a photo real quick?’”
The 28-year-old’s magnetism and impact terraformed this entire block of high-priced Los Angeles real estate. This used to be the holy turf of black-hatted Hasidic Jews until a teenage Tyler skated up from Hawthorne around 2010, became famous as the figurehead of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All and made Supreme’s box logo indelible even for those who wouldn’t know an ollie from a fakie. Supreme might have lured him here, but without his pied piper effect, this could’ve turned into a retail ghost town.
They’re mostly here for him now: the pasty tourists from the high plains who dragged their fanny-packed parents, the black skate kids with green hair, the bleach-blonde teenage girls with studded jackets and nose rings, the Japanese hypebeasts in esoteric sneakers that you can only find on the Silk Road. They’re here not to necessarily see him, but merely to sense his presence, “soak up the vibes”, bask in this streetwear Lourdes smack in the centre of LA. So when they actually catch a glimpse, it’s understandably hysteria.
“Thank you for your music,” an 18-year-old Asian-American girl giggles.
“Thank you for the album. It was soooooo good,” her friend adds.
They mean Tyler’s first No.1, the seafoam funk, monsters-need-love-too opus Igor, which marked the first time a hip-hop artist topped the charts with an entirely self-produced and self-arranged project. If 2017’s Flower Boy earned critical adulation and his first Grammy nomination, Igor marked a legitimate artistic revelation – the enfant terrible who once hurled epithets and hexes for shock value reinvented himself as the moonstruck conductor leading hold-me-tender teardrop symphonies with a blond pageboy bob and bespoke lime suits. He stitched together ’80s British jazz-funk to Studio 54 disco to glimmering Impala-cruising soul to bullfrog-larynx rap.
It’s the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds for a generation that purchased disembodied cat head Golf Wang hoodies. OutKast’s The Love Below if Dracula’s Wedding occurred at the golden hour under an autumnal forest canopy with Charlie Wilson conducting the nuptials. Recorded at studios all over LA (including Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La), Atlanta, and Lake Como in Italy, it features Lil Uzi Vert and Kanye, Solange and Playboi Carti, Cee-Lo Green and Slowthai, La Roux and Pharrell, but they’re so subsumed into his vision that you’d have to first read the liner notes to recognise most of them. If his low-hissing frequency was once mostly audible to teenagers, it’s become a siren to anyone with well-functioning ears.
“People only saw one part of me,” Tyler explains. “When Yonkers came out [from 2011 album, Goblin] and I’m throwing up, they focused on the dark side. But I’m in a kitty-cat shirt at a lake in the She video. When Flower Boy came out they were surprised, but it’s like, ‘Nah, it’s the same meal, but y’all was only looking at the bacon and the eggs and the protein shit.’”
“Can I take a picture with you… can I have a hug… I love you… you’re so sexy.”
“I AM sexy,” he tells yet another group of swooning girls.
“Especially when I shave this thing that I’m trying out for the day,” Tyler says, turning to me and his friend who works at the McLaren dealership (Tyler owns three of their vehicles). He’s alluding to a wispy moustache vainly struggling to annex his upper lip.
“How does this look?” He answers himself before we can respond. “It looks gross.”
As for him getting mobbed, that’s actually my fault. Tyler was staying low-key until I dragged him out of the back of the Golf Wang (his clothing line) store for an iced coffee. He just got back last night from a friend’s 20-room castle in Tuscany, where he was “eating cookies and shit”. Before that, he was in New York becoming unlikely best friends with New York hip-hop radio icon Funkmaster Flex and dropping the most viral freestyle of the year (Sample lyric: “Me and Flex looking in the index/For buff net niggas just for some hot butt sex”).
He awoke at 5.30am in his mansion near the Getty Center in Bel-Air to work on music, pausing only to Facetime his favourite rapper, Pusha T.
“He answered and I was like: ‘Damn, that’s fire.’”
Meanwhile, every five steps, someone greets him: “TYLER, HOW YOU DOING?”
“DRUNK!” he bellows back.
He doesn’t drink or smoke. When I ask whether he’ll eventually do either, he responds with a flat “No”, although he admits, mushrooms might be a future possibility.
Leaning on parking metres in front of the coffee shop, I press him to consider this high-water mark of his career, as much as it is possible to press Tyler to do anything (it isn’t). After his third studio album, 2015’s Cherry Bomb, his trajectory could have flatlined. He could’ve kept churning out albums to a diehard but static contingent of first-wave Odd Future fans. Warmly embraced by Kanye, Jay-Z and Pharrell, he could have just remained the ringleader of the Camp Flog Gnaw carnival and a fixture on Adult Swim, worshipped by millions, but forever outside terrestrial radio, awards show recognition and whatever it means to be mainstream in this collapsing century.
Then Flower Boy blossomed to solve the riddle of the old Andy Warhol and Lou Reed koan: “Vicious, you hit me with a flower.” Tyler sampled Deee-Lite and The Gap Band and rapped that he’d been kissing “white boys since 2004”. His fourth studio album had squelchy head-banging rap songs and treehouse jazz fusion. The cockroach-swallowing bastard, once notorious for stage-diving while screaming about school arson, had “matured”. But this was maturity the Tyler way – without the sombre gravity and maximalist pretension that usually accompanies the evolution to Serious Artist.
“Pharrell told me once that the secret was to get older but not get old,” Tyler says. “He was 42 with blond hair and a Chanel jacket and I was in a fur jacket that I’d made at home the night before. We both stood out at this Oscar party and I looked around and it all made sense. It meant, just be you; don’t get stuck.”
You can credibly make the case that Tyler is the most influential artist of this decade. His competition is steep: Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Future and Young Thug. But Tyler’s impact extends far beyond rap and even a block of real estate, from the revival of tie-dye to every rapper having pop-up shops. After Odd Future came out, suddenly everyone hit the scene with a 10-deep mob of their own. Tyler downplays how much he changed culture, but offhandedly mentions a conversation where Lil Uzi Vert told him that he paved the way for every eccentric rapper of this generation. For the entirety of this summer, the American Hot 100 has been topped by Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road and Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy; both artists bear the distinct sequences of Tyler’s DNA.
A car with an Arizona licence plate honks at Tyler, several boys waving out of the window shouting: “WE LOVE YOU TYLER.” A crowd slowly clots.
“I’m a huge fan… I love the new album… Can I get a photo?” inquires a cherubic and gawky 13-year-old.
He’s here with his parents, a wholesome looking pair who look like they work in human resources for a midwestern hospital.
“I don’t do photos, but you have pretty eyes though,” Tyler flashes his gap toothed smile. The kid practically passes out.
“He takes after me,” the moustachioed dad chuckles.
“You got pretty eyes too, daddy,” Tyler quips. “You gotta fine-ass dad.”
“The Golf store is down there, right?” The boy asks, eyes bulging. Tyler nods and shoots back.
“Where y’all from?
“I was gonna joke ‘like Montana’,” he says playfully. “But really, I’ve been there before. We went tubing down the river. I’m going to get a vacation home out there.”
“We’re from Billings,” the teenaged boy says, trying to prolong the conversation with his idol as long as possible. No one is going to believe it back home. “It’s the biggest town out there. It has 150,000 people!”
“Well, have fun in LA,” Tyler waves, then smirks. “Don’t go past Wilshire!”
This is where you’re probably wondering what else Tyler had to say. Did I ask about the subtext behind the boy-loves-boy-who-also-loves-girl love triangle at the heart of Igor, the wig, his thoughts about finally being allowed back into England after a four-year ban for his early lyrics that Theresa May claimed encouraged “violence and intolerance of homosexuality” and fostered hatred with “views that seek to provoke others to terrorist acts”? Well, sort of.
I’ve interviewed Tyler a number of times over the last decade, enough to know that unless you’ve cornered him in front of a camera or on a radio show, it’s practically impossible to get a straightforward interview. He’s an open book inside a locked room, an unreliable narrator by design, a natural acidic to every medium. Ask about discovering Zhane’s Sweet Taste of Love as a child, chord progressions, cars, or his latest ’70s and ’80s funk discoveries (Heat Wave, Savanna, The Style Council) and he’ll nerd out all day. But if you think you can lull him into a safe zone where he’ll get Oprah couch-confessional with you, it just won’t happen. Unless, of course, he decides that’s exactly what he wants to do. In which case, he’ll do it immediately.
So here are some things that you may want to know. Inside his sketchbooks right now are random words that he finds interesting, movies he wants to see, the rough drafts of new songs that he wants to send out to people, and the next season of clothes for the Golf line. He’s always reading (“not the 7 Laws of Power or the books that people say you should read, but books about [artist] Jane Dickson and the work she was doing in 1985, and how rally racing got started”). Today, he took his flat white ’92 BMW to his mom’s house in the Valley and “that was fun”. His ideal pastime is riding his bike in the forest at the golden hour.
He’s neurotic enough to have bought a treadmill because he was worried about getting fat, but still loves waffles and anything breaded that you can dunk in syrup. The more you know Tyler, the more obvious it becomes that he’ll never assign a deeper meaning to anything. The wig and the suits? Was it his version of the Thin White Duke, a nod to Grace Jones, an attempt to access the secret character that he’s always wanted to be? Nah, he just thought it would look tight.
“What inspired Igor – I noticed there was a lack of the Odd Future members on this album,” Tyler says to me in a fake reporter’s voice.
By now, we’re safely ensconced in the parking lot of the Golf Wang store, an area only accessible to store employees. No more photo requests. Just other banalities.
“Interviews are fucking stupid,” he says matter-of-factly.
“Tyler has a very keen eye for colour,” he continues in his scholastic journalist voice. “He noticed the different hues of brown on his shoes.”
I can’t lie. The guy certainly does have a discerning palette.
“Oh my god, fuck my mouth,” he scoffs.
What about the title Igor? Is it a trenchant commentary on personal alienation or perhaps an allusion to Frankenstein’s monster? LOL.
“No, I don’t feel like a monster,” Tyler rolls his eyes. “Everyone on Reddit and the message boards with their theories… it’s fucking weird! You be yourself, do your fucking thing, but no, it’s nothing at all. [Igor] is just a sick word.”
“Did you ever see any of the Frankenstein movies?”
“No,” he pauses a beat. “I wish I was lying.”
What about Theresa May? Does he harbour any enmity towards her?
“That was then. I’m back in the UK. What now?”
“Your publicist told me to ask what you were excited to do now that you can re-enter the UK,” I tell him.
“I’m going to fuck some people.”
He points out that even the famed Flex appearance wasn’t really a traditional question-and-answer. “I just wanted to go on Flex and freestyle and we ended up being best friends for two hours,” he says. “I didn’t even come prepared with a verse.”
What Tyler’s saying is revealing but only on his own terms. There is another possibility where you approach a conversation with him by calling him on the games, and pinning down his inconsistencies until he’s backed into a corner. But still, there is no reason for an artist of his stature to risk telling the entire truth. Besides, he’s too smart to fall for a cheap journalistic gambit and, despite the bluster, he’s fundamentally kind and thoughtful.
Tyler’s go-to move is deconstruction. When rap felt relatively safe amidst the Auto-Tune and EDM mash-ups of the late ’00s, he terrified hip-hop traditionalists, Top 40 apologists, and social puritans with his rape and murder-drenched lyrics that skirted the line between transgressive irony and poor taste. When his generation was still addicted to Tumblr, he founded Golf, a print magazine (since discontinued). At a certain point, his ability to survive off the back of shock value would have run out, but before it did he subverted the 1950s utopian ideal (summer camps, long bike rides, carnivals) to give it a weird modern currency. If the face tatts and Xanax indulgences of Soundcloud rappers are the trite modern rebellion, Tyler countered with something that melded Norman Rockwell to Barbara Kruger.
“We got a boat and a lake, bro,” he describes his new world. “We gonna have a little disco dance party. Everyone’s invited and everyone is fucking whatever they want. Come have a good time.”
Tyler has a No.1 album, a clothing line that presumably rakes in tens of millions and thus no more need to stoke for any more controversy.
“I got cancelled before all these niggas,” he exclaims. “This ain’t no Twitter little cancelled shit, bro. I got dropped from corporations. I got banned from countries, I got for real cancelled before that was a Twitter hashtag. That’s why I’m like, ‘Nigga, I’m not scared, I’ll say what the fuck I want. What the fuck y’all gonna do? Get 3,000 retweets? You gonna pull up an old tweet?’ Nigga, Goblin is in stores right now.”
The walking-talking paradox of 2010 endures. He’s not afraid to say what he wants, but he wants to say as little as possible. I tell him that I think Igor is sad and he reflexively counters: “It’s not sad. It’s not sad.”
I respond that it’s all about unrequited love.
“It’s honest and I wrote those songs in real time,” he retorts.
There are things he’s willing to discuss. He hates people on the internet who fake care, those seeking sympathy or emptily virtue signalling. (“A lot of people need some purpose. Just go the fuck outside. Take up a hobby. Cancelling is people’s hobbies.”) He doesn’t understand the collective anxiety strangling his generation, which makes sense for someone who lacks the emotion we commonly recognise as fear.
But really, he just wants what every creative person wants in the end: the art to speak for itself.
“If people saw a deer driving a car, motherfuckers would still be like: ‘How’s Bambi?’” Tyler rubs his head in disbelief. “Are you fucking kidding me? Do you see what I’m fucking doing? I’m moonwalking in a motherfucking blond wig. What else is there to say?”
Tyler orders an Uber to meet up with a plaid-vested A$AP Nast and his friend, warmly greeting them with the offer:“I’ll give you $50 grand to eat my ass.” Nast’s homie, a recent British transplant to LA, chauffeurs us to a Beverly Hills boutique that sells House of Pain shirts for $600 and pink Christian Dior sweatbands. A Takashi Murakami Louis Vuitton bag is waiting for Tyler. During the car ride over, he alternates between playing us esoteric disco-funk discoveries and rapping his latest “lyrics”.
“I put the croissant in the butt / make the girl wake up / nigga it’s breakfast time!”
Everyone in the car laughs.
“You fuck with that?” Tyler deadpans. “I wrote that in Italy. It took eight weeks.”
Wandering the haute emporiums of 90210, Tyler buys a periwinkle sweater vest at the Gucci store. In the middle of the intersection of Rodeo and Brighton, he puts the Louis Vuitton bag between his legs and rides it like a horse.
This followed by a brief trip to the Grove, a Disneyfied ersatz Italian shopping mall just off Fairfax, where Tyler goes cologne shopping for rare scents. Eventually, a half dozen of us wind up back where we started, lingering in the parking lot of the Golf Wang store. While flipping through neo-soul and mid-2000s rap CDs to listen to on the ride, Tyler makes a bunch of terrible off-colour jokes that he somehow makes funny through the force of timing, charisma and his Howlin’ Wolf Haley rasp. Then he looks at me, sticks out his hips and demands “Grab my ass.”
I pause for a second and start to call his bluff before he bursts out laughing. “You were going to do it!”
“I couldn’t resist,” I reply. “Don’t tell anyone.”
Then he addresses the group of us and sticks his palm out: “SOMEONE GRAB MY HAND!”
But no one is willing to take the bait. Not this time. Frowning, he yells to no one in particular: “WHY DOESN’T ANYONE TRUST ME!?”
Hair Ronnie McCoy III, Make-up Lottie using DIOR BEAUTY, Photography assistance Kevin Coffey and Paul Collins, Styling assistance Sharon Chitrit and Borys Korban, Make-up assistance Nicolette Fernandez, Production Lisa Weatherby at M.A.P, On-set production Vincenzo Carrano and Djosefina Maurer-Soto at Production LA