Igor Identity: How Tyler the Creator Challenges Hip Hop Norms, by Juan Selvera and Christian Haigis

Tyler the Creator is something of an anomaly in the modern hip-hop scene. In some ways, he has embraced many genre-defining elements. At the same time, many of his albums (especially the more recent works) seem to challenge those elements and turn them on their head. At some points in his career, the lyrics and themes of Tyler’s earlier works have been critiqued for spouting the same bigotry and hate-speech that people have been fighting against for generations. At others, the artist has managed to foster a genuine sense of tolerance in his works, perhaps indicating self-growth and maturation, that has spoken to a global audience. To further explore and better understand the evolution of Tyler the Creator’s solo discography, we need to start from the beginning.

Tyler began his controversial solo career with a bang in 2011’s Goblin. The cover image perfectly captures the intense irreverence that awaited listeners within, portraying the artist with blacked-out eyes and an upside-down cross (the symbol of the Antichrist) on his forehead. While some picked at the atypical beats used in many of the songs, others were more transfixed on the violent, chauvinistic  and homophobic lyrics. Overall the criticism was justly leveraged, given that the word “faggot” is used nine times on the album, not to mention the infamous line in which Tyler the Creator mentions raping a pregnant woman and telling his friends he had a threesome. However, while the slurs and violent rhetoric can be quickly regarded as regressive and bigoted, they become a more intriguing topic when analyzing the man himself, as well as his future albums.

YSF

Along with his music, Tyler the Creator’s fashion line, Golf Wang, has met with critique and controversy over the years. In the above image, Tyler co-opted a well-known white supremacist symbol, the Celtic cross, and repurposed it to take on a new meaning. The cross is filled in with a rainbow, adding an element of LGBTQ pride to something that has historically been a symbol of hate. To further this point, notice the choice to have two men of different ethnicities holding hands, giving another slight nod to the queer symbolism. The question many raised with this particular shirt pertained to whether or not Tyler the Creator was genuine in his message. Nothing new for the rapper up to this point of course, given that being something of a provocateur had become a brand for him.

Given the fact that Tyler the Creator’s interviewing presence has been something of a drought since his career began, many have been left to fill in the gaps of meaning in essentially any critiques surrounding him. I think this is due to the fact that there is an unshakable quality and genuineness in his work that is indicative of a deeper reading. In some ways, Tyler the Creator is like the Andy Kauffman of hip-hop. At least in the sense that we, the audience, are typically left wondering what is real and fake— what is a controversy for the purpose of delivering a message or for the sake of controversy itself. Is the t-shirt in the above image supposed to evoke some form of biting commentary, or is it purely for shock value?

Following the critical and commercial success of his 2017 opus Flower Boy, on May 6, 2019 Tyler teased his highly anticipated fourth studio album, IGOR, with a reveal of the album’s cover posted to his Instagram. The image evoked the feminine power of 80’s New Wave icon Grace Jones. In particular, the image resembles the cover of Jones’ seminal 1981 album Nightclubbing. Nightclubbing was Jones’ departure from the disco-centric sounds that built her early music career in the late 1970s into the New Wave sound that would dominate the 80s with the likes of Talking Heads and Tears for Fears. In a similar way, though it was not yet known at the time of Tyler’s posting of this image, IGOR was a departure from the stylistic sounds of late 2000s hip-hop that established Tyler, the Creator as one of the power-house rapper/producers of his time. Instead, IGOR is a soulful, at times even jazzy, story of Tyler’s love triangle with another man that is stuck in a heterosexual with a woman.

Another point of interest becomes the notation that the cover states that: “All songs written, produced and arranged by Tyler Okonma”. On several albums throughout his career, Tyler embraces the use of characters, albeit in flashes on select tracks on each album. These characters range from the aggressive and hyper-violent “Wolf Haley” on Tyler’s controversial Wolf project, to the very goofy and playful “T” nickname that Tyler often uses to refer to himself in the first person throughout his career. Tyler’s choice to use his legal name is a sign that he was separating himself  from the “Creator” name that was present on every album he released thus far.

Retro World News

Upon IGOR’s release, Tyler released subsequent music videos for various tracks on the album. In every single video, Tyler uses the same unnamed character to deliver his lines on each respective song. This character, though different from the Grace Jones inspired version of himself he portrays on the album’s cover, acts as a liaison between Tyler, the Creator and the Igor persona that Tyler embraces on the album. Where Tyler, the Creator is a tide-shifting catalyst for controversy, Igor is a man heartbroken by the circumstances of his love. Though the album IGOR explores the more intimate side of Tyler Okonma as a man and an artist, Igor the character in sound and depiction in music videos has the same goofy tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and style as Tyler, the Creator.

This gender-bending of one’s self as well as the neo soul influenced sound of IGOR is similar to a former contemporary of Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean. (Dhaenens and De Ridder, 289). Frank Ocean and Tyler were founding members of the hip-hop collective OddFutureWolfGangKillThemAll (often shortened to Odd Future). Odd Future was a revolutionary hip-hop collective that was home to a large number of young, West Coast talent- from lesbian neo-soul producer Syd tha Kid, to the often-sudated son of African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, Earl Sweatshirt and about half a dozen other rappers, producers, and songwriters. Among the young talents that gained early notice within the industry were Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator. Tyler, for his edgy and provocative voice as the leader of the collective and Ocean for his genre bending take on the soul sound.

What was unknown about both of these men at the time was the influences their subsequent solo projects would have on the R&B and hip-hop landscapes respectively. Frank Ocean’s debut album, Channel Orange, revolutionized R&B and the heteronormative nature of the genre. After a highly publicized coming out via tumblr, Ocean’s debut album became a cultural and musical phenomenon for the critique of the heteronormative roles that men play in the larger R&B landscape. The album, though aesthetically similar to countless soul and R&B singers of yesteryear, thematically created a new precedent for the sound and representation of soul music.

Taking the influences of Tyler’s former crew-mate Frank Ocean, it is clear to see where the formation of an IGOR makes its case in the greater Tyler, the Creator discography. Unlike his previous works, IGOR in a similar way, through similar means subverts hip-hop listener’s expectations of Tyler and instead gives them a genuine version of the man of Tyler Okonma; trapped and confused by his love and circumstances that surround him. Rather than playing to the heteronormative expectations of rap music and R&B, Tyler tells the tale of a queer man trapped in a love triangle that is pushing him to the brink of distruction.

Separate from the visual aesthetics and influences of the Igor character, the very name Igor evokes a particular thought into the minds of listeners. The name comes from Dr. Frankenstien’s assistant in Mary Shelly’s horror novel Frankenstein. The character is portrayed in Shelly’s novel and the subsequent adaptations of the novel as a hideous and deformed man with very low skill and intellect. Though Tyler’s characterization is not a one-to-one match to Shelly’s Igor, Tyler’s Igor does act as a “B-Team” monster in the grander scheme of the Tyler, the Creator-character pantheon. Igor is underapreciated and lives in the shadows of Tyler Okonma’s mind and inner-self, whereas Wolf Haley and “T” are at the forefront of Tyler’s musical portrayal of himself.

This separation the individual self and musical caricature of Tyler, the Creator is not unlike  Janelle Monae. Throughout her studio discography, Janelle uses the fictional character of Cindy Mayweather as her musical muse to articulate her thoughts and positions on life, culture, and the future. To quote Grace D. Gibson’s Afrofuturism’s Musical Princess Janelle Monae

Janelle Monáe with the help of android Cindi Mayweather, aka Alpha Platinum 9000, is more than just a one-trick pony, her rare gender-bending, genre-bending, Afrofuturist, cyber vibe is sure to keep you thinking, reflecting, and dancing all wrapped in one.


Though aesthetically and thematically Monae’s Cindi Mayweather differs from Tyler’s Igor, she is not unlike how Tyler uses Igor to separate between himself and his art. Igor and Cindi both allow their respective artists to become more abstract and larger than life compared to their “human” counterparts. Each character allows each artist to convey the thoughts and emotions present on their respective bodies of work. The question remains, will Igor be a one-off character, or one that grows and evolves with the artist they are attached to?

Throughout his career Tyler the Creator has been, if nothing else, attention grabbing. His source of influences and choice of words are both heavily discussed and debated by large swaths of listeners. The scope of his art ranges from music, music videos, to fashion and in every instance, despite the shift in style, theme or ideology, Tyler remains true to one thing: himself. For better or worse, this is what makes Tyler so compelling as an artist- his willingness to constantly reinvent the way in which he is perceived. By not tying himself to a particular sound, style or ethos Tyler becomes larger than his art. He becomes an individual that is not dragged down by what made him successful, whether that be the hyper-violent lyrics of his youth or the deconstruction of the male identity in hip-hop. With Tyler, the Creator the question is never, “What did he do this time?”, but rather “What will he do next?”

Dhaenens, F., & Ridder, S. D. (2014). Resistant masculinities in alternative R&B? Understanding Frank Ocean and The Weeknd’s representations of gender. European Journal of Cultural Studies,18(3), 283-299. doi:10.1177/1367549414526730

Anderson, R., Barber, T. E., Brooks, L. A., DeIuliis, D., Gaskins, N. R., Gipson, G. D., . . . Whitted, Q. (2016). Afrofuturism 2.0: The rise of Astro-Blackness. Lanham: Lexington Books.

https://hiphopdx.com/news/id.51549/title.tyler-the-creator-tells-drake-send-nudes-bro
allmusic.com/album/metropolis-suite-i-the-chase-mw0000792387(opens in a new tab)
rebloggy.com/post/tyler-the-creator-odd-future-so-cute-grammys-frank-ocean/42800890627(opens in a new tab)
rebloggy.com/post/tyler-the-creator-wolf-gang-golf-wang-ofwgkta-rap-frank-ocean-rapper/89874741684(opens in a new tab)
retroworldnews.com/tyler-the-creator-drops-anticipated-new-album-igor/(opens in a new tab)
pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/19222-grace-jones-nightclubbing-deluxe-edition/(opens in a new tab)
instagram.com/p/BxIPV-lFIAA/(opens in a new tab)
rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/cherry-bomb-95386/(opens in a new tab)
whyesseff.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/tyler-and-trump/(opens in a new tab)
genius.com/albums/Tyler-the-creator/Goblin(opens in a new tab)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s