When Tyler released Cherry Bomb in 2015, it seemed like a half-baked attempt at reinvention from an artist that was panicking to redefine himself. The album was packed with dazzling moments but lacked the brand of self-assured focus that was cementing Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt as indispensable voices in the burgeoning hip-hop landscape.
What critics didn't realize at the time was that Cherry Bomb wasn't a reinvention at all: it was a journey of self discovery. Tyler had already asserted himself as a trailblazing personality within the public eye, but an archive of interviews circa pre-2015 make it blatantly clear he had not found a sound that was definitively his own. Cherry Bomb is far from a perfect record, yet Tyler continuously claims it to be his favourite. How come? Because it's the record where he found himself as a musician; and that's when we come to Flower Boy.
Fast-forward two years, and we wouldn’t blame you for overlooking Tyler’s surprise masterpiece. For the first time in his career, he released an album that was effortlessly himself. By combining the experimental, Roy Ayers-inspired instrumentation of Cherry Bomb with the unapologetic candor of Bastard, Tyler created a sonic self-portrait of his evolution not only as an artist, but as a human being.
Take a song like "Pothole". Lyrically riddled with references to his back catalogue, Tyler hits the beat with the same absurd confidence we loved on Odd Future cuts, but with a newfound maturity that only comes from a McLaren drive or two around the block. He's not jaded exactly, just more accustomed to reality. These are the rhymes of someone who has learned to live in his own skin, no longer chaining himself to anyone who tries to drag him down.
This vulnerable, self-actualized attitude permeates through the whole tracklist. While introspection is nothing new for the foul-mouthed provocateur, the contrived therapy-room confessional style of his earlier work has been supplanted with a more honest self-reflection, yielding astonishing insights into his psyche. The same man that was banned from the United Kingdom for homophobia was now rapping about “kissing white boys since 2004”. On a similar note, the most jubilant thematic quality of the album is its rejection of identity politic-fueled groupthink. There’s an infinite number of ways to express one’s intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality, and Tyler’s liberated individualism is an important representation for kids growing up on the fringe of society. “Tell these black kids they can be who they are” he raps on “Where This Flower Blooms”. “Dye your hair blue, shit, I’ll do it too”.
This message of acceptance comes to a head on "Garden Shed", where Tyler flexes his full circle skillset as a producer and gets keyboards clicking after coming out over angelic, reverberating guitar chords. But it's not just his sexuality that Tyler is laying bare for his audience to see; he's also revealing his loneliness. Yet Tyler captures solitude in a way that doesn't have to be sung in a minor key. "911/Mr. Lonely" and "Boredom" don't just articulate the catharsis of admitting you're lonely, they also seem to emote the power in relinquishing yourself to it. It's only in your lonesome that you can truly learn to love yourself-- and if there's a moral to be taken from Flower Boy, it's that.
Growing up is hard; harder still if the public and the media are tracking your every word, but Tyler managed to use his persona to present a sonic blossoming from adolescence to adulthood. Flower Boy is a coming of age story tailored for Generation Z, but will resonate with anyone who's looked in the mirror and wondered what was staring from the other side.