I’ve been a late bloomer my whole life. From not easily sharing with others in preschool to low levels of self awareness in high school, I seemed to always be a good two years behind my peers. Naturally, this trait I’d carried with me for most of my life also came with me to college.
While I did exceptionally well in my classes, I wasn’t actually doing anything with my life. I had no passion projects, participated in no clubs, and didn’t even have a boyfriend to share my boredom with. To put it bluntly, for the better part of freshman and sophomore year at college, I was stagnant. While my peers were busy making fast friends with those around them, I spent my days watching hours upon hours of late night TV, writing angry political Facebook posts on topics I knew nothing about, and other nonproductive activities. I took just about any low-effort time waster available if it helped chase away the recurring fear that I peaked too early. Back in high school I had a boyfriend, a bustling social life filled with friends, and a successful “career” in numerous extra curriculars like swim team, theater and jazz band. But at college, I was frozen stiff with insecurities, seemingly incapable of sucking it up and pushing myself to build the life I wanted back. There I was, again stuck two years behind my peers and too frightened to take the effort required to fix it. Some things never change.
On particularly lonely nights I’d sometimes think about attending the campus LGBTQ club again—which I had only attended twice before deciding to stick to the comforting drywall of my dormroom instead. I’d wrestle with myself on the topic for a little longer, but eventually turn the TV back on to another mindless night of Family Guy reruns instead, until the thought was drowned out by the white noise.
Tyler, The Creator’s 2015 record Cherry Bomb received a lukewarm response, at best. Despite continuing to showcase growing talent as an arranger and producer, critics slammed the record for having “trashy lyrics” and awful mixing that unfortunately suffocated its moments of promise. For every step forward with regards to composition and arrangement, gross mixing and overly-graphic lyrics dragged him right back.
It didn’t help that Tyler was also under heavy scrutiny from music journalists for his continued use of homophobic, misogynistic lyrics, his vain, aggressive social media presence, and his continually dissolving relationship with Odd Future (Tyler’s musical group which jumpstarted his, Frank Ocean’s, and other hip hop artists’ independent careers). With social pressures mounting and music too distorted and off-putting to attract new listeners, Tyler’s professional growth stalled. It was around this time he started closing up, leaving his home less and less, and getting fewer and fewer phone calls from friends.
However, instead of burying the problem under another wall of distorted noise like he did his own voice in Cherry Bomb, picking more fights on Twitter, or overcompensating with even more graphic lyrics, Tyler did something entirely unexpected. He took a deep breath, cut the distortion, and just started asking himself questions.
Why was he so homophobic? Why wasn’t he leaving his home as often anymore? Why was he buying so many cars he didn’t need? Why’d he find it difficult to get started on his next project?
Such a radical change in approach wasn’t wasted. The fruit of this intimate self reflection was a gorgeously produced record, teeming with a lush bed of colorful chords, groovy beats, and moments of genuine, quiet honesty. It was in this headspace that Scum Fuck Flower Boy was conceived.
Scum Fuck Flower Boy is a grounded struggle for self understanding and acceptance, the likes of which we’d only gotten tastes of in his past work. Alongside swelling strings, Tyler lays his fears to bare in the opening track, “Foreward”, where he imagines suddenly dying (perhaps from drowning), and wonders who would even know. It’s a well-penned verse that says much about his social life’s health without explicitly stating so. His ruminations continue alongside Disney-like orchestrations in “Where This Flower Blooms”, where Tyler delivers startling lines (given his long history of homophobic lyrics and Tweets):
Tell these black kids they could be who they are
Dye your hair blue, shit, I’ll do it too
Look, I smell like Chanel
I never mall grip1 with my manicured nails
Manicured nails? Chanel? What’s traditionally feminine things doing on a Tyler, The Creator album, let alone with regards to Tyler himself?
The confusion continues into the transition track “Sometimes”, where Tyler ambiently sings “Sometimes, I sit in my room / and think about us”, while an unknown man’s voice indirectly tells us the next song will be about him. This transition track establishes a new frame for the following track, “See You Again”, where Tyler wistfully describes longing for the ideal lover of his dreams over a whimsical, dreamy soundscape.
Given the framing from the previous track, Tyler effectively came out as gay (or bi).
If longtime Tyler skeptics were having difficulty buying into Tyler’s honesty up to this point, revealing such a secret certainly helps break down those walls. It provides valuable insight into Tyler’s psyche and suggests the root cause of his homophobic lyrics in the past were to deny his own feelings.
That’s not to say the visceral, aggressive Tyler of yore is gone in Scum Fuck Flower Boy, far from it. Much like the title of the record, there’s moments of “Scum Fuckery” just as there are “Flowery” moments cross-pollinated throughout the record. Sometimes one side gets a whole song, sometimes they share. It’s as if Tyler’s playing a game of tug-of-war with himself instrumentally and lyrically, and it’s surprisingly effective at keeping the record fresh through a full listen.
Compared to Cheery Bomb, him moments of aggression work so well this time around because the songs are genuinely fun, despite being relatively scummy. Take “Who Dat Boy”, whose Jaws-like intro is a delectable treat for those that love build-up and anticipation in their music. It makes the drop and first appearance of Cherry Bomb-like Tyler on the record all the more impactful, without having to resort to even more offensive lyrics.
There’s also “I Ain’t Got Time!”, which could have easily been a run-of-the-mill fight instigator, but instead sounds as delightfully funny as “an Aunt putting earrings in her purse about to fight”. It’s dirty and mean, yes, but it’s presented in such an quirky, unusual way I can’t help but love it.
For those that still can’t get into the grittier songs, there’s plenty of softer songs interwoven throughout the record to help make the overall package more palpable, like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. In “Boredom”, Tyler confronts his bitterness towards old friends copping out and his loneliness at not even having a partner to share a proper meal with (though he fails to do anything to address it).
Tyler’s insecurities and aversion to action appear again in “911 / Mr. Lonely”, where he and the features emphatically chant “I can’t even lie / I’ve been lonely as fuck”, with Tyler urging listeners to check up on him occasionally at the end of the song. Again, instead of “finding the time to do something” to improve his situation, Tyler’s crippling anxiety throughout Scum Fuck Flower Boy continually shuts him down.
In addition to making a well-paced record sonically, these duel facets of Tyler’s personality also serve as a reminder that questioning oneself and meditation don’t immediately make oneself a better person. Tyler’s still the Tyler from Cherry Bomb and before, we’re simply seeing the softer side he had locked up tight up until this point.
While our situations are different, I can’t help but empathize with the loneliness and anxiety in Scum Fuck Flower Boy. Since my college was halfway across the States, I slowly lost contact with my old friends from high school. Not to mention, the distance was almost certainly a factor in the breakup with my first boyfriend. My bitterness at losing these connections held me back from improving my situation, or at least taking the effort to maintain those connections myself. My fear of failure and obsession with the way things used to be also numbed my hunger for pursing new projects or activities to better myself, so nothing changed as the days went by. Different situations—to be sure—but similar outcomes.
Take Me Back To November
Everything comes together in “November”, easily my favorite track on the record and what I personally feel is the most touching. The directness shown in “Foreward” and the end of “Boredom” return in full glory with Tyler analyzing another road block keeping him from moving forward: his longing to return to that one November.
The November in question is most likely the 2015 Camp Flog Gnaw—an annual music festival orchestrated by Tyler himself—where many members of the old Odd Future group temporarily reformed to perform. Peppered between these nostalgia trips, Tyler expresses even more fears, like that coming out on track seven would further drive his fan base away, or that his numerous car purchases of late are just vain attempts to fill the void he fears only another man could fill.
Later in the song, Tyler turns the mic towards us for the first time and asks what our own “November” is. Is it a place? A person? This question leads into what I feel is the most moving moment on the record; the music cuts as an interlude of Odd Future members and other friends tell us what their own Novembers are as their voices weave in and out together into a musical tapestry. After the isolation and loneliness up to this point (particularly with regards to friends copping out or disappearing), to have those close to Tyler all come together to share their own “Novembers” with him feels like a warm embrace from a loved one, and stands out as a moment of solidarity in an otherwise lyrically bleak and lonely album.
Afterwards—with what appears to be newfound confidence—Tyler moves back to focusing on today and for the first time on the record takes an active step forward by calling someone he wrote a song about “cause the love I got for you has exceeded appearance”. He gets as far as hearing the answering machine as we transition into the album’s climax, “Glitter”.
Up to this point on the record, Tyler enlisted numerous features to help with the more demanding vocal sections. It’s not news that Tyler’s singing and rapping voice isn’t a particularly strong attribute of his, and he’s even gone on record admitting he “hates the sounds of his voice” (which explains why it’s usually buried in his past work).
Not in “Glitter”. There’s no features this time, just Tyler singing his heart out the best he can: wobbly, pitch-shifted falsetto and all. While Tyler timidly explored these feelings earlier on the record, “Glitter” is an unashamed celebration of them:
I feel like glitter
Every time you come around
I feel like glitter
You’re the one that I needed in my life
At the tail end of the song—just when things finally seem right—Tyler’s hesitations come back in full force as the song itself gets cold feet and freezes up along with him. The jubilance vanishes, replaced instead with creeping, down-pitched hesitations about his weight, the relationship’s destined failure, and other fears. Tyler even starts to softly mock himself with a haunting, children’s sing-a-long that also serves as the one and only title drop on the record:
Scum Fuck Flower Boy
Scum Fuck Flower Boy
Scum Fuck Flower Boy
The song ends with the answering machine closing the call because nobody was speaking, confirming the jubilant confessions in “Glitter” weren’t even said aloud. He chickened out at the last minute.
Enjoy Right Now, Today
The album could have ended there. Throughout Scum Fuck Flower Boy, the “scum” and “flower” aspects of Tyler’s personality have wrestled back-and-forth from song-to-song, but on “Glitter” they both appear together in a final showdown, with the “flower” side withering and dying at the end. In this respect, “Glitter” makes for a fitting thematic closer.
That’s not how it ends. Instead, we are met with a marching anthem, of all things, entitled “Enjoy Right Now, Today”. Surprisingly, there’s no singing or rapping for the entirety of its four minute runtime, just unreserved instrumental optimism. Coming from a lyric-heavy, somber record, it’s certainly a curious choice, but one I believe can be explained solely by the title: “Enjoy Right Now, Today”. After an entire album of fits and starts, misgivings and insecurities, to have such a clear, hard stance towards doing something to build towards a better tomorrow at the tail end of the record says more than any lyrics could.
In fact, I like to think the slamming car door and footsteps at the end of the record hint at Tyler arriving to talk to his crush in person, a second (and this time, successful) chance at a new November.
Scum Fuck Flower Boy is a career-defining record. Sonically, the record is easy to get into with a plethora of earworm melodies, but with rich production and melodic intricacies that offer something new after every relisten. It would have been fairly mundane to take the subject matter Scum Fuck Flower Boy tackles and make the instrumentation as nasty and distorted as it feels to live through such times, but it’s facilitating to see those feelings instead turned into something that’s as remarkably beautiful as many of the cuts on Scum Fuck Flower Boy are. For these reasons and others I barely skimmed the surface of, Scum Fuck Flower Boy is a rewarding experience from every angle.
Like Tyler in “Enjoy Right Now, Today”, I did eventually break out of the drywall and begin making serious efforts on meaningful side projects (like the site you’re reading this article on). I also began looking for a companion in earnest with online dating instead of waiting around and hoping they’d stumble onto me. It wasn’t an instant cure, but it did start turning the wheels. My numerous side projects landed me my first real job at Independence, where I got my first experience with big data. That experience got my foot in the door at Comcast (after numerous failed attempts), and it was there I swallowed my fears, took a timid step forward, and met the love of my life last year.
Long gone are the days of sulking about my dorm room, longing for my high school glory days back. They’re just fond memories to me now. After “finding the time” and finding the courage to take that first step five years ago, I can finally say today with a smile:
“My November’s right now”.
- The album’s filled to the brim with clever gardening imagery, see if you can find them all (practically every song has at least one!)
- There’s a faux ending in “Pothole”, followed by a short, rough demo made by Tyler that was accidentally left in an early “Pothole” cut. Tyler liked the effect so much though that he kept it in the final master. Keep an ear out to see if you can distinguish the “real” ending and the start of the rough demo clip at the end of “Pothole”!
- Listeners that love the Jaws theme are bound to love the intro to “Who Dat Boy”. See if you can tell where it is without looking at the track listing.
- Anthony Fantano’s TheNeedleDrop YouTube review.
- FLOWER BOY: a conversation - interview with Jerrod Carmichael.