Music criticism dies when we stop criticising music. This seems a somewhat obvious statement, but unfortunately it is a necessary one. With Flower Boy, critics have been quick to jump to personal attacks, denying Tyler’s ‘coming-out’, refusing to accept him as part of queer culture and dismissing the album’s messages. Such critics, however, are missing out: Flower Boy is wholly exceptional.
A man of many talents, Tyler is responsible for both the production and rapping on Flower Boy, and he delivers. Painting a warm, orchestral background with violins, pianos and guitars, Tyler’s production builds on his previous work to craft a lush collage of almost child-like innocence. These vibrant instrumentals are well-suited for Tyler’s new lyrical focus, aptly accompanying his romantically-charged lyrics and the gentle harmonies of his guests. This does not, however, come at the expense of Tyler’s creativity. His infectious energy, off-the-wall production and surreal lyricism still works its way into the album, blending with Tyler’s new approach on tracks such as I Ain’t Got Time!. As such, despite the sweeping changes to Tyler’s style, Flower Boy seems more progression than diversion.
Despite this luscious sonic façade, at the core of the album lie Tyler’s darker sentiments of loneliness and unrequited love. The object of this love remains obscured, making a sole appearance at the end of the album’s third track. Soon, he begins to develop a larger-than-life status: we hear about him (on tracks such as See You Again, November and Glitter) but he fails to make an appearance. In this way, we are aligned with Tyler – the mysterious figure remains just out of reach of the listener as well.
Whilst the tale of unrequited love is potent, it is overshadowed by something bigger – Tyler’s coming out of the closet. Whilst this is not Tyler’s first allusion to homosexuality (he has, after all, been “kissing white boys since 2004”), the harmony between guitarist Austin Feinstein and vocalist Estelle build track Garden Shed up to a natural peak, allowing for the track to truly feel like a final, climactic event. Flower Boy’s narrative is aided by other schemes too: the “golf radio” snippets and car travel narrative (across tracks 5 and 6) help to present the album as a journey, letting it progress fluidly and neatly. Whilst it can be hard to bind these emotionally-charged tracks to one another, these devices present the album as a complete unit rather than a mere assortment of songs.
This ‘unit’ allows for a particularly effective use of features, with voices dipping in and out of the record at will. Flower Boy’s collaborators include Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Lil Wayne, Pharrell Williams and other industry titans, each rallying their talents to complement Tyler’s own. These features are excellently placed, with each collaborator merging perfectly into the tracks on which they feature. Tyler’s assertive voice and the sparsity of these features keeps him atop the pile, however, allowing for a creative balance that works without fail.
On his breakout single, Yonkers, Tyler declared himself a “walking paradox”, and this continues through Flower Boy. Tyler is at once childish and mature, presenting his most sincere self yet, whilst dabbling in immaturity and childishness. Moments of thoughtfulness are indeed far more common – on Where This Flower Blooms, Tyler acts as a role model, telling black kids to “be who they are” and offering to dye his hair blue with them. Similarly, his comments on loneliness show a new level of thoughtfulness – on 911 / Mr Lonely he raps “they say the loudest in the room is weak / that’s what they assume, but I disagree / I say the loudest one in the room is probably the loneliest one.”
Paradoxically, much of Flower Boy delights in childlike joy. Glitter’s “I feel like glitter”, See You Again’s tinkling xylophone and 911’s childish “ringa-ringa” paint Tyler as immature, expressing himself through the motions of childhood. This contrast with the more thoughtful moments presents Tyler as a man coming to terms with his feelings, expressing them for the first time as a child would upon their first love. Every aspect of Tyler is on display here, and the album is all the better for it.
All in all, Flower Boy marks a phenomenal progression from Tyler, and a strong contender for album of the year. The arguably weaker aspects of Goblin, Bastard, Cherry Bomb and WOLF are gone, replaced by luscious instrumentals, excellent lyricism and, most importantly, a sincere portrayal of Tyler himself. Whilst his previous works were dotted with genius, this one is oozing with it, each tiny moment packed with soft vocals, powerful flow and beautiful instrumentation. This is undeniably Tyler’s greatest work yet.