Wolf's weakest and most divisive attribute, like its forebears, is the name on the spine. Unlike the last two times around, that may not matter.
Wolf is not Goblin. At the end of the record, that may be the most important thing one could say about this album. It is for me. Tyler, The Creator's debut album (notwithstanding Tumblr release Bastard) was a pretty controversial one here at PopMatters back in 2011. Our own Max Feldman gave it an 8/10, and then slotted it into the Honorable Mention category of our year-end hip-hop round-up. A few articles later, PopMatters readers would also learn we'd tallied up the votes and discovered Goblin may have been an honorable mention to some on our hip-hop staff, but it was also the fourth worst album of the year. I'm happy that happened.
Tyler, The Creator is supposed to be that kind of divisive presence in the music industry. If he wasn't, I'd posit he'd merely get hated or die trying. Nothing illustrates that further than an album that can manage to be so loved by a few and yet so hated by so many. Personally, I've seen potential in Tyler from the beginning, but like most I settled on EARL and let most of the Odd Future thing run out its hype cycle. My response to that album was mostly indifference. I don't care about offensive rappers, but I do care about boring albums. Goblin, with its intentionally bloated and undercooked nature, was that. To be honest, I simply no longer fretted over what Tyler was doing.
Coming to Wolf in that regard has turned out to be a bit of a blessing. I was barely aware this album existed before I got the call. Let me start getting relevant by saying this thing is very easy to listen to. That's a huge first step with Tyler, for me. Say what you will about his content but he's been blessed with the voice of a 45-year-old chain smoker since the womb, a quality that makes him a natural rap artist regardless of content. But the juxtaposition he proposes on "Answer" where he exposes his absenteé father (as he's done before) and personal doubts about his friends over a lilting Explosions in the Sky sort of lead guitar and some intermittent organs is a little fascinating from a pure auditory sense.
A lot of the album works in this way, all pianos and 808s. Tyler's infatuation with Pharrell Williams has never been clearer, but he seems to be drawing equally from albums like 6 Feet Deep and Nocturnal in ways that allow the ADHD, mock manic depressive personality Tyler's come to be known for to shine through in much more creative ways than before. Wolf can often be god-awfully addicting melodically, with many of these beats from the ignorant "Jamba" and "Trashwang" to the twinkly "Treehome95" and "Slater" toting tones hooky enough I was humming along well before my first listen to them was done.
Unlike Goblin, there's not any single track here that can be pointed to as a real bummer. But there's still something about Tyler himself, once you get past the great beats and clever rhyme schemes, that just doesn't sit right. Weed and explicit sex talk sits right next to roaring advocacy for abstinence and drug free living. Much of what Tyler discusses here has already been told by him whether on record or Twitter, and while his angst for haters is admirable they're still free to have their issues after this album. "Colossus" is a decent song, but it comes off like one of Tyler's biggest mistakes yet, trolling those who'd criticize Odd Future for aping Eminem's shock value persona by making fun of his group's stereotypical fans with a "Stan" tribute. It sounds great on paper, but in reality the song is just "Stan" without all the things that made "Stan" stand out, if only because Eminem did it first.
If "Wolf is not Goblin" is the most important statement I feel like I could make about this album, the second most important thing I can probably say about it is that nothing has actually changed about Tyler himself. All his flaws as a coherent lyricist and person are on full display throughout the album, and the charm or lack thereof of that fact goes a long way towards how enjoyable this album can be. He's improved in every phase of the game except for perhaps the most important to a rapper: I still feel antagonized by him. At times he presents himself so evasively that it's hard to tell if he actually wants anyone to listen to this album at all. This album is so enjoyable on a musical level that my qualms with Tyler as a personality are essentially nullified, but I'm not sure that will ring true for most others. It'll be interesting to see.