Labelmates have described the scene at a Tyler, The Creator music video as follows: One minute, the rapper/director is going over instructions or staring stoically into the playback monitor, the next minute, he is yelling off-color jokes fit for the fourth-grade playground.

This cross between focus and flippancy — and, more generally, the musician’s struggle with honest artistry and the awkwardness that can follow — is evident from the opening lines of Tyler’s latest album, Wolf. A dreamy melody in the title track leads to a chorus of “f – – –  you,” and with that begins a performance that reinforces the reputation of one of hip-hop’s most polarizing young stars.

Although Tyler’s third studio album belongs in the rap genre, the 22-year-old adamantly rejects the “rapper” label. Tyler’s self-produced Wolf reflects the diversity of his musical influence, and the result is an experimental hit or miss. Some will note the album’s severe discontinuity, others will praise its ambition at a time when much of rap is drearily formulaic.
Wolf likely lacks a likely radio hit, and much of the album is better suited for headphones than party speakers. Tyler’s sound is an acquired taste: critics find it raw and simplistic, fans appreciate the creativity of rap lyrics over piano chords and neo-jazz. Tyler has expressed concern over how this mellowed sound will affect his rambunctious concerts. The real question isn’t whether a talented performer can adjust, but whether his audience can.

Tyler is at a lyrical crossroads. He is in many ways an overgrown kid only a few years removed from obscurity, yet while Wolf delves into issues like loneliness and loss it is noticeably less dark than its predecessors, Goblin and Bastard. The album is a break from Tyler’s concept-album trilogy about a therapy session, with the psychiatrist leaving Tyler in Wolf to confront two alter egos. Although the album’s plot is hard to follow, it allows Tyler’s softer side to emerge.

Gone in Wolf are the lyrics about rape and murder from his earlier works that were accurately labeled “horrorcore,” and in their place are gentle tunes about bicycles, tree houses and romance. Granted, Tyler is still emotionally distraught, but it stems more from challenges of fame than the struggle to get noticed.

Guest appearances are mostly limited to the Odd Future crew, including Grammy-winning singer Frank Ocean, who is regrettably limited on Wolf to a few easy-to-miss vocals. An exception is the collaboration with Pharrell on “Ifhy,” for which Tyler directed one of the most bizarre and creative rap music videos in recent memory.

The gem of the album is “Answer,” a touching track about Tyler’s deadbeat father, recently deceased grandmother and a distant unknown lover. His longing for these people to pick up their phone is a startling theme for someone known for irreverence, and the slowness and vulnerability of the song make it a standout on Wolf.

Tyler, The Creator has two critically acclaimed albums, a television show and a VH1 Video Music Award, yet he is still obscure to most music fans. His fan base will savor Wolf and the mainstream won’t hear it — a rough situation for someone pigeonholed as hip-hop and desperate to branch out.Wolf is a daring venture for Tyler, and the result is artistically successful but without broad appeal. The former, he has said, is all Tyler really wanted.

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