It’s an unseasonably warm morning in late September, and the traffic around Oxford Circus, London’s central shopping district, is bumper-to-bumper. Tyler, the Creator is ensconced in the back seat of an SUV with a Louis Vuitton bag propped up beside him and a half-eaten croissant balanced on one knee. Though he doesn’t drink or do drugs, Tyler is still a little worse for wear the morning after his electrifying performance at Brixton Academy, the second of three sold-out shows in the United Kingdom. “This is what it must feel like to be hungover,” he says in his unmistakable guttural baritone.
Even when he’s running on empty, Tyler’s no slouch. Today the lanky, six-foot-two rapper is dressed in a dapper workwear jacket and matching carpenter pants in khaki green and navy blue. “I actually never wear navy—it’s my third least favorite color,” he says (black ranks on the absolute bottom of this list). “But this works because of the green.” He designed the baby blue Chucks on his feet. The jewelry he has on is minimal but full of personality: a gold ring studded with a heart-shaped emerald and a beaded plastic bracelet thrown onstage by one of his fans that reads one of one. His nails are lacquered in glittery pink and green, a polish he formulated himself—“because when I can’t find the thing I want, I make it.” Same goes for his crisp floral perfume. In fact, if he had his way right now, he’d redesign the car we’re driving in. “Dark wood is gross—it sucks up all the light,” he says, shaking his head. “Like, why is this interior not white? Or cream?”
Nothing escapes Tyler’s withering eye, and as the car weaves through Piccadilly, he starts to critique the style of Londoners passing by. “I like his shirt—he should be a model,” he says, spying a tall, geeky-but-good-looking guy with a short Afro in a striped brown retro polo who is crossing the street. “It’s some weirdos out here, and I say that as a term of endearment. The other day I saw these weird tall dudes with weird haircuts and glasses. I was like, Y’all must be from a side of London where they don’t even take photographs or have Instagram. They looked sick.”
Once upon a time Tyler might have befriended said weirdos, but since the chart-topping success of Igor, his Grammy-nominated fifth studio album, things have changed. Now that he’s been catapulted into an entirely new realm of stardom, striking up conversations with random strangers can attract more attention than he can handle by himself. “I need two of these guys now,” he says poking Vill, his security guard, or “husband” as Tyler jokingly refers to him. More like an older cousin than an employee, Vill has been working with the 28-year-old rapper for the past nine years. By now he’s used to the cheeky banter, the dick jokes, to being addressed as “baby girl” from time to time.
Tyler has long been considered a goofball outlier in the rap universe, though the music he’s made recently has edged him toward the center of the pop-cultural conversation. He’s also fully realizing his power as a style renegade at a time when the once-narrow confines of men’s fashion are rapidly disintegrating. With an approach to self-presentation that’s meticulously offbeat and thoroughly individual, he follows in a long line of hip-hop eccentrics that includes André 3000, Missy Elliott, and Pharrell Williams, who Tyler regards as a Yoda-like figure. What’s more, he’s cleverly used the idiosyncrasies of his personal style as a springboard for something much bigger. Now eight years old, his Golf Wang fashion and lifestyle brand has gained a cult following by flouting all the conventional rules of streetwear and engendering a notion of masculine beauty that is at once tender and tough. With a string of successful collaborations—Converse, Lacoste, Jeni’s ice cream, the list goes on—it seems that the rest of the world is finally catching on.
Even still, Tyler’s reputation as an enfant terrible lingers on. Tyler has made an art form of blurring the line between reality and fantasy. At once terrifying and utterly compelling, the video for “Yonkers,” off his 2011 debut album Goblin, is the most cited example. Once you’ve watched the black-and-white clip of Tyler fake eating a cockroach before hanging himself, it’s almost impossible to unsee it. Positioned on the fringes of mainstream hip-hop at the very beginning of his career, Tyler seemed to get his kicks poking fun at popular culture with the unapologetically violent, sometimes murderous gags that he put on wax. Not everyone got the joke. “I’m in a good mood 95% of the time,” says Tyler when I bring up the dark tendencies of his early work. “With a lot of my old music, I was never depressed. I may have been in depressing environments though. And though I didn’t fabricate anything, I have exaggerated sadness for the sake of a concept. Look at the video [for ‘Yonkers’], bro. I’m smiling in a kitty shirt. It took a while for people to realize that. That’s not me—it’s a thought, and I turned it into a concept.” The content of his lyrics has proved even more controversial. In 2015 the then British home secretary Theresa May made an example of him—many say unfairly—when she barred him from entering the U.K. for his violent and anti-gay lyrics, a ban that was only lifted this year.
That Tyler would then go on to write songs about falling in and out of love with men may appear like an epic plot twist to some but not to his most engaged fans. Even if you only casually follow the artist on Twitter, it’s hard to ignore the number of clues he dropped about his sexual preferences even before the infamous line about kissing white boys on “I Ain’t Got Time!”, off Flower Boy, the critically acclaimed album he released in 2017. A year prior he had posted a vibrant sketch of a rainbow-colored figure emerging from what appears to be a closet door with a speech bubble that read “Is it safe?” That followed an earlier tweet, written in his characteristic bold style: “I TRIED TO COME OUT THE DAMN CLOSET LIKE FOUR DAYS AGO AND NO ONE CARED HAHAHHAHAHA.”
Such outbursts notwithstanding, Tyler isn’t the kind to bare his soul in public. Interviewing him is a whirring dance in which he naturally takes the lead (to see his technique in action, I highly recommend watching this interview with DJ Funkmaster Flex.) He’ll steer the conversation with a stream of confusing and entertaining contradictions—example: “I mean, I’m an open person, but I’m also very private”—sometimes deflecting even the most innocuous questions with his class-clown charm and dizzy-making wit, just because he can. When pressed about the inspiration for the inexplicable Warholian Igor wig, for instance, Tyler gives no answer. In an age when oversharing has become the norm, he’s cultivated a mystique that is both rare and intoxicating, seemingly revealing everything and nothing at all. Like the most legendary rock stars of generations past—the Princes and David Bowies of the world—he is on his own planet, a one-of-a-kind creative alien; larger than life while being totally out of reach.
Despite his success, Tyler has no personal assistant and no stylist. (He scoffs at the mention of one, “I don’t even know what the fuck a stylist is.”) He packs his own suitcase, runs his own errands. That’s why we’re currently en route to Uniqlo; Tyler is running low on clean underpants. “Yo! Stop the car! You have to see this,” says Vill, gesticulating wildly towards a side street a few blocks up from the store. A petite young woman dressed in pale pink and bright red emerges seemingly out of nowhere. She’s wearing what looks like a replica of a custom suit Tyler has packed in his tour wardrobe, one of several tailored ensembles he’s been rocking as part of his Igor alter ego. All that’s missing is the kooky blond wig.
Before the driver even has a chance to pull up, Tyler is out the door, heading in her direction. “Can I get a picture with you?” he asks gingerly. As someone who has a strict no-photos policy (“I say no to everyone, even my mom,” he insists), he is especially respectful when the shoe is on the other foot. The adorable Igor impersonator is dumbstruck. “I traveled all the way from South Africa to come see your show tonight,” she says, blushing deeply. The suit, she explains, was made especially for the occasion by a friend, in homage to him. “That red should be a little bit darker,” he says flashing a cheeky grin. “But, really, your outfit is fire.”
A few weeks from now, thousands of similarly well-dressed and adoring Tyler, the Creator fans would fill the grounds of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles for what is known as the Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival. The festival (held earlier this month) is now in its eighth year and was Tyler’s brainchild. It is easily one of the most exciting on the West Coast, if not the country. The lineup speaks to his wide-ranging and exacting tastes, a combination of big-name rappers (A$AP Rocky, YG, Lil Uzi), avant-garde soul singers (Blood Orange, Solange, FKA Twigs), and emerging talent (Dominic Fike, Slowthai). More than being a destination for good music, the event lends a window onto the fun house of Tyler’s outsize imagination. There are carnival rides and food trucks sandwiched between the three stages, as well as a playground of merch stands and fashion installations, including a gigantic slide in the shape of Tyler’s latest Golf le Fleur sneaker collaboration with Converse. Known as the Gianno, the shoe is inspired by hiking and the great outdoors, or what Tyler calls “the substitute-teacher look”; the first pairs will sell out at the festival in a matter of hours.
At the highest point of the stadium grounds, three life-size Igor statues preside over the event like benevolent despots. In this brave new world, all the familiar festival-style tropes are reimagined in interesting new ways. Instead of tie-dye, the charming hand-drawn prints—donuts, daisies, bumblebees—from Tyler’s clothing lines pepper the crowd. A multitude of faces is dusted with Euphoria-style glitter, regardless of gender. Flower crowns, once the ultimate signifier of festival style, have long since fallen from grace at Camp Flog Gnaw, replaced by bucket hats, babushka scarves, buzz cuts tinged with highlighter colors, and a sea of the inexplicable Igor wigs. As one stylish young local in the crowd observes, Camp Flog Gnaw is essentially Woodstock for Generation Z.
Tyler Gregory Okonma realized he would take this unusual path in his life when he was a boy of 12, sitting in a church in Inglewood, California, and bored out of his mind. “I hated going to church,” he says. “I was always thinking, Why are there eight different pictures of this man no one has ever met? Something was fishy to me. I remember asking my mom, ‘Is God real?’ And she was like, ‘Hey, listen, I’m a Christian woman, but you can believe in whatever you want, okay?’ When she said that, it really opened my eyes.”
That instinct for questioning the status quo quickly drew him toward the world of skateboarding as a teenager. As Tyler puts it, skate culture “is the other. When everyone’s saying yes, skating is the no. It’s about embracing that.” He formed the hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, or Odd Future for short, in the mid-aughts with a group of like-minded skater friends. They quickly gained notoriety as a ragtag crew of foulmouthed indie-rap rebels, making headlines for their provocative lyrics and prankster YouTube stunts. Music critics at the time drew comparisons between Odd Future and Eminem (who famously trolled Tyler on a 2018 song), though ultimately the group and its trajectory would cleave more closely to left-of-center hip-hop acts like Outkast and N.E.R.D. Before Odd Future, the landscape of West Coast hip-hop and R&B had been defined by a hypermasculine, gangster-leaning aesthetic. With Tyler leading the way as instigator in chief, the ground was primed to crack wide open. Before long the seeds were sown for a flourishing new generation of Californian artists—the likes of Odd Future alumni Frank Ocean and Syd from the Internet—with a softer, more nuanced look and sound.
“The way the light hits in L.A. just makes everything seem so saturated,” says Tyler. “It’s not dense or cluttered with people so I guess it just allows you to just dress in these vibrant colors.” His keen sense of color is undoubtedly influenced by his environment. His fashion impulses, however, are largely guided by his gut and a smorgasbord of cartoon references stored on that hard drive of a brain. His uncanny sense for what’s next has been proven right several times with Golf Wang. Consider that, when it launched it, no one thought of elevating music merch beyond a simple band tee. The fashion show he staged in the summer of 2016 was a precursor to the immersive experiences that dominated New York Fashion Week just this past season, featuring live performances, skateboards and mini motorized bikes on the runway, and a surprise reveal of his first sneaker design with Converse. Paloma Elsesser and Slick Woods, then little-known faces on the scene, were handpicked by Tyler as models. Meanwhile his friends—the likes of Kendall Jenner and rapper YG—cheered him on from the front row.
Unlike the majority of his hip-hop peers, Tyler has little interest in the Fashion Week circuit—he’s never been to the shows in Paris and has no desire to go. He’s just as ambivalent about the red carpet, though every now and again he’ll pop up at some glamorous event and remind the world of his prowess as a fashion unicorn. Just last month he had the internet buzzing when he showed up to the LACMA gala in Los Angeles dressed in an English prep-school-like look, complete with neatly tailored shorts, white calf-high socks, a loosely knotted tie, and chunky-sole mary jane shoes. “No matter your age, I think everyone stays the same at their core,” he says with a shrug. “And that’s what people don’t realize. Maybe the shorts I wear now have a different cuff, maybe the dress socks I’m wearing are a little nicer, but it’s still the same as when I was 19 or 15 or eight years old.”
To spend a day with Tyler, the Creator is to pop the cork on the unbridled energy of your inner teen. Give the man a BMX bike, then show him the way to the nearest park, and he’s basically in heaven. In the absence of bikes, he decides that it would be a good idea to climb trees in Regent’s Park, one of the city’s biggest and busiest tourist attractions. “You have to get up here,” yells Tyler, who has somehow scaled the gnarled branches of a weeping beech tree in a matter of seconds. At this point in the afternoon, a few of the rapper’s male friends have joined the spontaneous field trip, mostly all cool-looking creative types with mussed cherubic curls who are dressed like they’ve just walked off the set of a Golf Wang look-book shoot. One of them is brave enough to scramble up the tree behind him. Tyler produces a point-and-shoot camera from his jacket pocket. An impromptu photo shoot ensues. Tyler gets a dreamy shot of the light streaming through the leaves and his friend’s hair that will later be uploaded to Instagram.
Over the course of the afternoon, Tyler will capture a series of bizarre candids. One features a large but surprisingly docile bumblebee that he manages to pick up off the sidewalk with his iPhone. This picture of Tyler and the giant bee is an instance of life imitating art, recalling the cover art for Flower Boy in which the rapper is depicted in a field of sunflowers surrounded by a swarm of bees. The title of that record is significant: Flower boy is a moniker commonly used in Korea to denote a delicate, gender-fluid young man. The album features Tyler at his most vulnerable, its songs reverberating with tales of heartbreak and the aching complexities of self-discovery.
These days, Tyler appears more comfortable existing in an emotionally vulnerable space—even if he is too shy or cryptic to talk about it openly. With me, he seems only willing to back into sensitive topics.
Tyler: “Having secrets as an adult is low-key trash.”
Me: “Wait, you don’t have any secrets?”
Tyler: “Like, it’s kind of gross after a while. Y’all know me. I ain’t got nothing to hide. I ain’t trying to die, and then it be like, Oh, shit, look at the juice they found! Imagine having a secret heroin addiction at the age of 36. Yes, doing heroin is gross, but the fact that you sneak away from your friends to shoot up is really fucked up. Just be open about it... It’s like coming out of the closet at the age of 53 is crazy, especially in today’s time. Why the fuck would you wait 38 years to tell us? We’re cool, we were fucking in front of you the whole time. You know how much you missed out on?”
What Tyler will be doing or 10 or 20 years from now is anyone’s guess. “I might do a rock album,” says Tyler with a shrug when I ask him about his future. “I mean, I probably won’t, but who knows. Maybe in another life I have a blue mullet. That is one thing I’ll never get to achieve.” The body of work he’s created thus far is remarkable and speaks to someone twice his age. Look past his playful Peter Pan exterior, and there’s a steely focus and determination that’s hiding in plain sight. Watching him ignite the crowds at Camp Flog Gnaw with synth-laden melodies and mesmerizing footwork, and it’s abundantly clear that Tyler has come into his own. Toward the end of the night, he emerges to thank his fans for their support, wide-eyed and giddy with disbelief at the legions of people chanting his name. And you can’t help but root for him. He built this.
Originally Appeared on Vogue