By Katie K
The crowd had that restless energy that crowds tend to possess when they’re teetering back and forth between being annoyed by how late the performer is and how excited they are to be there. An interesting feeling considering that for this particular event, there was no actual performance. Instead, Odd Future leader Tyler, The Creator was simply sitting down with notable rap journalist Elliott Wilson at Highline Ballroom in New York City for an hour-long interview. And even though there was no concert, the event quickly sold out with fans eager to have a more personal experience with the rap group’s charismatic frontman.
It’s a feat that only a handful of musicians can boast — at just 22, Tyler already has the star-power to fill a medium-sized venue with people who just want to hear him talk. What’s more is that he’s created a personality so vivid that an established journalist and industry figure like Wilson also wanted to hear what he had to say. I was curious to see if he’d let us into his fiercely guarded creative process, one that produces tracks as dark as “Bastard” and ones as controversially groundbreaking as “Yonkers.” One that produces artistic feats like the video for “IFHY” and one that produces clips as immaturely bizarre as the Mountain Dew commercials.
Once the discussion started, though, it was immediately clear we weren’t going to see any of his “personalities” that helped create the above. Instead we were, very simply, going to see a 22-year-old talk about shit he likes and shit he doesn’t like. Critics, journalists, and bloggers may respect and value Tyler as an artist, but he is much more than that to his fans. To them, Tyler, the Creator isn’t their favorite rapper, he’s their best friend. And it is this very idea that comprises the core of why he’s so popular.
Kids support him because in doing so, it very much feels like they are actually supporting their own friend. Though oftentimes the material Tyler creates possesses a thoughtfulness and artistry of someone much older, his actions and thoughts outside of his music are reminiscent of those displayed by teenagers who make fun of people at malls, skateboard in parking lots, and still find bathroom humor hilarious.
Tyler is admired because he stuck a huge middle finger up to authority, to parents who still don’t understand, and to people who said, “No, you can’t do that.”
Other rappers are admired because they broke free of the cyclical nature of hustling on the street to survive – a situation that fascinates listeners even though most can not relate to it. Tyler is admired because he stuck a huge middle finger up to authority, to parents who still don’t understand, and to people who said, “No, you can’t do that.” It’s something that most Odd Future listeners can relate to in a very real way.
Part of his accessibility comes from the way he opens up his life to fans; he broadcasts his personality digitally, just like the rest of today’s youth. He’s highly active on Twitter, Instagram and Vine. “But not Facebook,” he says to a thunderous round of applause from the audience. “Fuck Facebook, that shit’s weak. Facebook used to be cool but not anymore.” Their leader Tyler has deemed the world’s most popular social media “uncool.” Cue the sound of thousands of instant deactivations.
When Tyler does use social media, it doesn’t seem forced, planned, or part of some thought-out marketing scheme. After all, his Twitter handle is @fucktyler. When he took a selfie with David Letterman, it looked more like a kid goofing off around the principal. When the guys propelled the “Free Earl” movement, which Tyler explained was created by Earl himself after he was grounded, fans latched onto it and infused it into their own lives as an anthem to oppose adult authority.
What surprised me the most over the course of the night was that someone so open and seemingly carefree still has a vulnerable side. Often fidgety, you got the sense at various points in the interview that he was searching for one of his fellow OF members who so often accompany him. When asked about the group dynamic, Tyler even admitted, “I may be the mastermind, but I need them more than they need me.” Yet, his demeanor changed when he talked about something extremely personal to him: the death of his Grandma. What surprised me wasn’t that he opened up about this; what caught me off-guard was how captivated the audience was.
He struggles with his outlook on rejection, love, death, confidence, in a very genuine way; he doesn’t try to sugar coat it like Drake or use it for fuel like Kanye. He fumbles with it, he’s unsure about it, and sometimes he clearly doesn’t understand it, just like any other 22-year-old.
You see, I was under the very real impression that Tyler’s appeal was grounded solely in his rebellious nature. But seeing him speak about something very emotional for him, as awkward as he was talking about it and as uncomfortable as he seemed to step outside his own boundaries, showed that there’s this whole other side to his popularity. He struggles with his outlook on rejection, love, death, confidence, in a very genuine way; he doesn’t try to sugar coat it like Drake or use it for fuel like Kanye. He fumbles with it, he’s unsure about it, and sometimes he clearly doesn’t understand it, just like any other 22-year-old. His media presence doesn’t reflect that of someone who’s been very carefully managed and trained on how to answer things and how not to. And so when he opens up honestly about situations in life we all experience, in a way that’s very true to his age and himself, fans feel it.
So do other artists. “Kanye is a fan and that’s crazy to me. He sees me for my producing and for my videos. He sees me for the artist that I am,” Tyler told the crowd last night. It’s a statement very indicative of not only his view of himself in the hip-hop world, but also a view of himself at this point in his life. Underneath the goofy photos and videos, the pranks and the jokes, Tyler is a kid in his early twenties that desperately wants us—his peers, his listeners, his friends—to take him seriously.
“Fallon was a big break for us,” he admitted to Wilson last night. “It helped to show everyone that we weren’t just hardcore, 666, and devil worshippers. We were young kids trying to build a movement. We just wanted to be heard.” And with 90,000 copies of Wolf sold within the first week, it looks like people are listening.