Tyler, the Creator’s Victory Lap (2024)

In the early two-thousands, the Philadelphia d.j. Drama propelled the careers of countless rappers through his Gangsta Grillz mixtape series. A raconteur and prodigious trash-talker, Drama served as an m.c. and narrator of sorts, prodding his guests to perform as the most confident, swaggering versions of themselves. The series, which would later include performers like Jeremih and Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) in its ranks, showcased the talents of mixtape vets like Lil Wayne and Jeezy. In 2005, the rapper T.I., also part of the Gangsta Grillz coterie, signed Drama to his record label, and the d.j. made a deal with an independent distributor that started selling his mixtapes in a major retail chain.

Things took a turn in 2007, when SWAT officers raided the Atlanta offices and the studio of Drama and his then-protégé and future partner Don Cannon, looking for drugs and guns. Instead they found and reportedly confiscated more than fifty thousand mixtapes, and both Drama and Cannon were arrested for bootlegging and racketeering under RICO laws. The raid seemed to be a bad omen for a cornerstone of the rap world: the mixtape.

One inheritor of the mixtape tradition is Tyler, the Creator. Tyler founded the rap collective Odd Future, in 2007, and the group released its first tape, “The Odd Future Tape,” for free download online. Tyler also self-released many of the early individual projects by Odd Future members, which were produced and mixed like studio albums, in the same way. Alongside artists such as Drake and J. Cole, he was blurring the lines between the two formats, just as mixtapes were starting to lose their viability as a release strategy—the Recording Industry Association of America was cracking down on piracy, and the arrival of streaming platforms hovered menacingly over the world of analog media. At the same time, Drama, whose charges were dead-docketed, or postponed indefinitely, had all of his money seized and was left trying to figure out how the mixtape medium might survive the Internet age. Now, nearly a decade later, the two have come together on Tyler’s new record, “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST”—an album constructed around the Gangsta Grillz mixtape convention—to honor the best of tapecraft.

If there is one distinguishing characteristic of the mixtape form, it’s free association. Incongruity isn’t seen as a blemish, and the lyrics tend to be more freewheeling and braggadocious. Tyler uses the framework to great effect; he steamrolls through beats with resonance and bluntness. The production, which spans soul sampling, nineties R. & B., synth-rap, and N.E.R.D.-esque funk, is constantly banging and shifting to reveal something new and unusual. The nearly ten-minute epic, “SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE,” transforms halfway into a slow-tottering reggae jam. All of this is underscored by Drama, who masterfully keeps the procession rolling.

D.j.s have hosted mixtapes since hip-hop’s earliest days, though their presence is not always welcome: they can be intrusive, and even annoying. Many present as if calling the finishing blows in a one-sided prize fight, or announcing imminent disaster. But Drama isn’t simply a human air-raid siren; he acts as a hype man, fact checker, and jester all at once. He brings color, charm, and a certain measure of nostalgia to the project. Tyler drew inspiration for “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST” from the 2006 Gangsta Grillz mixtape, “In My Mind: The Prequel,” in which Pharrell, with assistance from Drama, pivoted to swag rap. The entire project embraced luxury and opulence, and the verses were utterly self-important. In one skit, Pharrell asks the Victoria’s Secret Angel Karolína Kurková if she likes riding in the back of Rolls-Royce Phantoms. (“It’s too fancy,” she replies.) Pharrell is nowhere near the rapper that Tyler is, but the hallmarks of his performance on “In My Mind” inform Tyler’s throughout “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST”: air travel; talking down to naysayers and imitators; hyping up sneaker endorsem*nts; revelling in healthy skin, casual sex appeal, and beats as currency. On “Juggernaut,” Tyler even gets Pharrell, who has distanced himself from the mixtape and the excesses described therein, to relapse.

Tyler has been quick to clarify that “CALL ME” is an album and not a mixtape, but performing with Drama allows him to channel his days as a flippant, madcap mixtape rapper. The Gangsta Grillz format is perfectly suited for this moment in his career: in the wake of the critical and commercial success of his conceptual 2019 album, “IGOR,” Tyler swivels away from experimentation and toward a more bruising style of rap, one that prioritizes the victory-lap indulgences of globetrotting and adventuring. Commercial and institutional validation has stoked quite the ego trip for the former outsider, and “I told you so” seems to radiate from Tyler’s every pore: there is nothing he loves more than proving himself right. “That’s my nuance; used to be the weirdo / Used to laugh at me, listen to me with their ears closed / Used to treat me like that boy from ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ / Now I’m zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero,” he raps on the lead single, “LUMBERJACK.” With an icon of a bygone era at his back, Tyler wields his success like a cudgel. He has rarely sounded so in command.

Beneath the swaggering exterior, though, are carefully paced stories of heartbreak and self-awareness. Tyler has publicly struggled with his racial and sexual identities in the past; on “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST,” he’s more open and self-critical than he’s ever been. That doesn’t mean he always comes across as enlightened. Songs such as “MASSA” and “RUNITUP” make a mess of unpacking what Tyler has long deemed to be his outcast position in the Black community. But in the ruminative verses of “MANIFESTO,” he demonstrates a capacity for contrition, even apologizing to Selena Gomez for some old, offensive tweets, and loosens up enough to conjure some of his most incisive and eloquent songwriting. This is all thanks to the Gangsta Grillz template, which gives Tyler license to uncork and let the raps spill out. In his return to this space, he sounds freer than ever.

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Tyler, the Creator’s Victory Lap (2024)
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