Being indoors makes Tyler, the Creator, irritable, which is why he loves public parks so much. In most cities he visits on tour, the 28-year-old rapper and youth-culture multi-hyphenate will seek one out and make it his second home. This week he's in New York to headline Madison Square Garden—and Fashion Week is winding down—but Tyler would rather spend this serene early-fall evening just kind of loafing around in Rockefeller Park on the West Side of Manhattan than at an after-party or beside a runway. Those are the kinds of social gatherings where he'd be at risk of running into “goob-goobers,” the catchall phrase he uses to describe the sorts of people he dislikes being around, of which there are plenty.
It doesn't take much to be disqualified from getting close to Tyler, who has snap judgment down to an elegant, ruthless science. So many things, both superficial and significant, do not sit well with Tyler. Chunky Fila sneakers? Absolutely not allowed in his orbit. If he sees someone wearing these, “We're not on the same page,” he says. Making the kind of music designed to blow up on Triller, a new social media platform that is basically just a dumber version of TikTok—that's gross. Not moisturizing, or having weed breath? Big no-nos. If you are a girl who wears “loose boots,” the kind of boots that jeans can be tucked into, you're in trouble. “The fact that you know where to buy those means we're not here,” he says, making the two-finger eye-contact gesture. “If you wear a size 13 and have on Air Force 1s and skinny jeans, I know we're not here.
“It's a lot,” he continues. “You just gotta be aware of certain shit and just know.” He doesn't like hanging around people who are not “athletically inclined,” even though he hates sports and is standing in a park next to a basketball court, politely declining to shoot hoops with his friends. “Bro, you can't climb over that gate? I can't be around you,” he exclaims, getting angry at an imaginary klutz in his midst. These are not just superficial concerns. The absence of physical grace signals something more sinister. “I hate people who are unaware. I hate fucking goobers. Goob-goobers. Oops, I tripped. Stay the fuck away from me,” he continues. “Everyone around me isn't dumb. I could bring them with me on the zombie-apocalypse team.”
For Tyler, being just the right way—wearing the right things, making the right jokes, liking the right music, avoiding the wrong clichés, and doing all of these things with a sense of freedom and style—is not just a matter of preference. It's this spirit that has made him one of the most unlikely successes in the pop universe. This taste—and this rigorous curation—has elevated him to demigod status for millions of young people inspired by his creative zeal and obsessed with becoming literate in his unpredictable references and jokes. To follow Tyler, an artist who evolved from internet-rap class clown and shock jock to art house pop star with a No. 1 album and a suite of successful extracurriculars, is to feel like you're part of the coolest, most honest, and most entertaining zombie-apocalypse team on the planet.
Of course, once you are on the zombie-apocalypse team, the real work begins. The chief requirement for being in Tyler's world is having a high tolerance for provocation and negging, and gamely contributing to the exchange of free-associative outbursts, jokes, and insults. Needling is a professional sport. If you do happen to be wearing the wrong thing but you can sustain the mockery that goes along with it, you've earned yourself some points. “He uses these kinds of things as filters, and ways to get reactions out of people,” says Lionel Boyce, Tyler's creative partner, whom he met in high school. “It's how he reads a person.” In other words: “It's a defense mechanism, but it's a great thing.”
For a long time, the general population was legitimately afraid of Tyler, or at least they suspected his message was harmful because they took it at face value. They believed every outburst and aggressive non sequitur was serious. They were scandalized by his skate-rap collective, Odd Future, and horrified by one of their mantras. (“KILL PEOPLE BURN SHIT FUCK SCHOOL.”) Many called him homophobic for using antigay slurs liberally. Corporations were fearful about signing deals with him, and venues were afraid to book him. He was banned from performing in New Zealand and the U.K. for five years because his lyrics were deemed dangerous by authorities. (He only just returned to play London shows this September.)
Over time, though, Tyler evolved, and so did everyone's perception of him. For one, he overcame the curse of being a viral teen and began making more conceptually ambitious solo music. Odd Future went their separate ways, leaving his audience to meet Tyler on his own terms. He began to upend not just ideas of who he was, but of what a rapper could ostensibly be. He rapped about his romantic involvement with men—without bothering to stage a coming-out moment—marking a perspective shift for anyone who believed he was homophobic. These days he can be so over-the-top about sleeping with men that it still seems like a joke. (“I like girls—I just end up fucking their brother every time,” he says.) Tyler's new album, IGOR, is an impressionistic romp through a fog of stylistic references, and it's sung from the perspective of an alter ego for which Tyler dons a mushroom-cut blond wig and a pantsuit. It's difficult to be afraid of someone who's chosen to dress like the long-lost black Golden Girl.
For anyone still grappling with Tyler's outrageousness, Boyce has a potent, if not especially flattering, metaphor. “I think of him like a Chihuahua,” he says. “A lot of barking, but not a lot of bite.”
Back in the park in Manhattan, Tyler is barking. He's chosen this place to avoid the undesirable and corny, but they've found him. There's a vexing noise coming from an SUV at a stoplight outside the park's perimeter: The driver is blasting “Earfquake,” Tyler's most popular song. He's spotted Tyler and is trying to get his attention. Goob-goober incoming.
Now, unfortunately, this poor civilian has Tyler's attention. “I want you to know how gay that is,” Tyler shouts as he walks over to the car, agitated. “Why are you driving by, playing my music? Just in case you ever see another person who makes music, that's the gayest thing ever. Just don't do it ever again.” The guy grins and drives away, unscathed. To be able to recognize Tyler, the Creator, in public is also to be aware that he's a professional antagonist.
Tyler returns from the sidewalk and walks toward his friends in disbelief. He's here with his security team, his managers, and a handful of friends, including a gap-toothed model named Erin whom he jokingly declares is his wife. There are also a couple of kids who work at his clothing store in L.A. whom he's grooming for more ambitious projects because he likes their sense of style, and they've tagged along on this New York trip.
Everyone is prepared for Tyler's riff about the guy in the car: “I just don't…like, what do they expect? They want me to say, ‘Yooo, you fuck with my shit!’ [My shit] that's already platinum. I don't know what their fantasy end result is. Like, okay, you play it, and okay, I hear it. I made the song, and I've heard it a billion times. What would you like to happen? Like: Oh, shit, whattup, bro! You fuck with my shit? Fuck it, get out the car, come smoke with us,” he says. (Tyler never smokes weed, nor does he drink alcohol or consume any other drugs.) “Come to the hotel. Here, here's my number.”
Now Tyler senses an opportunity for some impromptu stand-up. “That guy talks his way out of pussy,” he says, and everyone begins to chuckle. “The girls are like, ‘I almost fucked him, but then he said…’ I love the talk-your-way-out-of-pussy guy. That was him. Always doing a little too much. And he doesn't have the charisma or charm to, like, get away with saying something. So it's, like, bad taste.
“It makes me dislike him,” Tyler says, shaking his head. “I really hope he took that in.”
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All of this agita might suggest that Tyler is chronically dissatisfied, but that's not the case. In fact, Tyler is currently at his most peaceful. This has been a milestone year, culminating in an ambitious headlining arena tour. The night before we hung out at the park, he played a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden and moved a record volume of merchandise. The crowd was filled with kids sporting their own homemade IGOR costumes, interspersed with just the right mix of cult celebrities, from the indie filmmaker Josh Safdie to Good Charlotte's Benji Madden to the newly minted 15-year-old tennis star Coco Gauff. And there was Tyler's good friend, the elusive Frank Ocean, out in the wild in the pit. Backstage, before his set, Tyler's label presented him with a plaque certifying “Earfquake” platinum. His other good friend, A$AP Rocky, having been released from Swedish jail, joined him onstage. And thousands of Gen-Z fans, along with Tyler himself, looked like they were having the best night of their lives. One of Tyler's most loyal disciples, Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett, opened for him and performed a set that was essentially a Tyler tribute and a testament to the sheer force of his influence. (“Every song he spends five minutes talking about how great you are,” his manager Christian Clancy tells Tyler.)
After the show, a group of about 30 people went to a late-night dinner at a fancy restaurant. At some point, after midnight, Tyler sneaked off with his security guard, an imposing but extraordinarily good-natured man. The pair found a nearby McDonald's, where Tyler ordered a double cheeseburger and fries and sat in the car with his driver. “And I was at peace,” he says. “I was sitting like, there's nothing I want to buy. I was fully okay with life. It was nothing I was stressed about. I wasn't sore nowhere. I'm financially good. Everyone around me is healthy. No grudges. The weather was great.” Backstage at the show, he'd looked around and realized that all of his friends—all the people he cares about—were in one room. He pulls up the selfie he took—a grotesque, bloated-looking close-up that only someone supremely content with the world could have felt comfortable taking. “That is me with a double cheeseburger at 2 a.m. That is peace. It was fire. I was floating,” he says.
“I was just such an erratic, wild personality,” Tyler says. “When you finally find someone to listen to you after years of not being taken seriously, you hold that shit to your heart.”
I've been following Tyler's work in a semiprofessional capacity for about a decade now and spent many hours in his presence in recent months. And yet his appeal—and his creative vision—does not fully click into place for me until I see the IGOR show. Tyler has always been about doing what you want and being yourself, which in his case means following his every adrenalized whim. But up there, dressed in his IGOR costume, Tyler seems far more powerful and at ease when he's becoming someone else—an androgynous platinum blond with a bowl cut and a tailored pantsuit. This getup allows him the latitude to harness his oddball creative impulses into something highly specific and controlled. It allows him to moonwalk and to perform flamboyant choreography, and to sing sweetly, to gyrate as if possessed by David Byrne and Bjork. It allows him to make art rather than just jokes. “The IGOR shit plays a thin line between goofy and funny and art,” he explains. “I always have to be careful so it doesn't fuck everyone's perception up. It's art, and an idea.” And the idea is landing: Each night, tens of thousands of people chant the name of his alter ego with a religious ferocity. There were more people losing their minds at the IGOR show than at any other performance I've witnessed at Madison Square Garden.
“It was one of the craziest feelings,” Tyler says the next day, talking about his transcendent moment of peace. “If I died right now… Bro, I don't know. I was okay with everything.”
Kelly Clancy, who, alongside her husband, has managed Tyler for nearly a decade, turns to me. “That made me so teary-eyed,” she says.
Kelly and Christian technically work for Tyler, but together they've been more like surrogate parents. They have been the true core of the zombie-apocalypse squad. Tyler has such a high velocity and volume of weird ideas that he especially needs people around him to help bottle them without sucking all the air out. Like the time he wanted to open a Fatburger in Los Angeles. “Sometimes, when he was younger and a little crazier, he would want to do shit that was like… Uhh, maybe fall back on that,” Christian says. “And sometimes he'd say, Go fuck yourself.”
“I think that's why it's worked for so long, because I found people I can trust,” Tyler says.
When Christian and Kelly met Tyler, in 2010, Odd Future was just beginning to attract attention. He was a frustrated young adult bursting with adrenaline and ideas, and Christian was becoming disillusioned with his career in the music business. Tyler remembers what Christian told him the first time they met: “Nobody has made me want to sock someone in the mouth since Rage Against the Machine or N.W.A. However the fuck I can get into business with you motherfuckers…I'll be the fucking mop boy.” Tyler also remembers the first time he met Kelly, when she picked him up in a Porsche Cayenne: “Who the fuck is this? She was this stern woman, always on her Blackberry, just handling shit.”
There were plenty of people trying to win Odd Future's business in the early days, but the Clancys triumphed. Unlike the other suitors, they were not just excited by the irrepressible youth and excitability of Odd Future. They were willing to listen closely enough to hear when something was an idea worth pursuing rather than just an outburst or a defense mechanism. “I was just such an erratic, wild personality. But I had these ideas I was serious on,” Tyler tells me. “When you meet someone who's like, ‘PEE ON ME!! RAH RAH RAH! I'M CRAZY!’ all the time… But then, I have this actual, serious idea. Some people would write you off, but they didn't. When you finally find someone to listen to you after years of not being taken seriously, you hold that shit to your heart.”
In the past eight years, Kelly and Christian have helped Tyler become the creative director of his own universe, which includes not only his music career but a booming set of side projects that scratch Tyler's imaginative itches. There is the annual Camp Flog Gnaw, a Tyler-centric music festival reimagined as a carnival. Camp Flog Gnaw began, in 2012, as a modest one-day event; now it takes place over two days on the grounds of Dodger Stadium and sells 45,000 tickets. A student of the Adult Swim and Cartoon Network sensibilities, Tyler also leveraged his comic interests into a first-look deal with Sony TV, for which he and Boyce are developing a catalog of projects. Tyler now sells his Golf clothing line at his own store in Los Angeles and has partnerships designing for Lacoste and Converse. He even has his own signature ice cream flavor (“Snowflake”) with the artisanal ice cream brand Jeni's. (It's described as “a cool and warm ivory green mint with white chocolate.”)
Unlike many stars who simply license their names for additional revenue, Tyler uses these deals to manifest the zany doodle book of his brain, infusing the world with his sensibility. “I can say: I want to do this, or that,” Tyler says, “and so far everything's worked out.”
“It’s just, like, Trust me, bro,” Tyler says, talking about gatekeepers of pop. “I know this isn’t your type of thing, but I know that this end result will be a good idea if you just let me cook.”
A couple of years ago, Tyler started collecting random photos of girls with a specific silhouette that he was drawn to: “With the scarf and the cool blazer. It's like, I don't have the hair to pull that silhouette off,” he says. “So it's like, man, if I was a fucking white lady in Denmark…” He poured these thoughts into a stop-motion character he was drawing, which eventually became the inspiration for IGOR, the namesake of his latest album and the inspiration behind the blond-wigged alter ego. The record is entirely self-produced, filled with spoken-word interludes, abrupt tone shifts, and the mourning of a same-sex relationship that didn't last. It's not easily categorizable or playlistable, nor is it always the most fun thing to listen to. It could have easily been written off as an experimentalist blip in Tyler's career—a psychedelic detour on the way back to superstardom. Instead it became his most successful project to date. During its release week, it bested DJ Khaled and earned Tyler his first No. 1 spot on the Billboard, kicking off weeks of industry debate about the nitty-gritty of chart tabulation. Khaled was so rankled by the situation that he posted an Instagram video (which has since been deleted) bragging that he, unlike some people, makes “albums so people can play it and you actually hear it.” Tyler is the rare artist who (a) gets more popular as he gets weirder and (b) accelerates gradually rather than suddenly. (His previous albums have ranked No. 5, No. 4, No. 3, and No. 2 in the years leading up to IGOR.) He's had a Grammy speech prepared since childhood, and it's becoming increasingly likely that he'll need to use it.
The success of IGOR is, in some ways, a bittersweet victory. Tyler may have beat DJ Khaled in the chart race, but Khaled is still the winner of a different kind of popularity contest. He has enough commercial clout to persuade the Rihannas and Biebers of the world to collaborate with him. See, Tyler didn't even want “Earfquake,” his biggest hit to date, for himself. He initially sent Justin Bieber the song. “I wanted him to have it, and it didn't work out,” he says. “And then I asked him to do background vocals, but nothing.” After the Bieber rejection, he solicited Rihanna for background vocals. No dice. “I be trying to send people songs and it didn't work,” Tyler says, suddenly morphing from hyperactive and antagonistic to thoughtful and hypersensitive. Sold-out arena tours, a massive album, a fan base that rivals the Beyhive in its intensity, a suite of lucrative partnerships, and Tyler is still an outsider begging to be taken seriously. You can feel this curious dynamic in the air during the viral interview Tyler did with New York hip-hop DJ Funkmaster Flex in July. Flex, who first approached Tyler like an exotic animal who'd gotten loose in the studio, admitted to being perplexed by Tyler's music, telling him: “I have not given the album a chance with my ears.” (Tyler, who has always harbored a desire to be played on the radio, told me Flex never followed up after the interviews with his thoughts on IGOR.) “It's just, like, Trust me, bro,” Tyler says, talking about gatekeepers and figureheads of mainstream pop. “I know this isn't your type of thing, but I know that this end result will be a good idea if you just let me cook.
“That's the one thing I can't crack,” he continues. “I don't know what the fuck it is. To just trust me on little shit like that. It's still a learning curve. I've figured everything else out thus far. It might take long. It might be next week. It might be another three years.”
He pauses, thinking about the crushing possibility of having to wait that long. “Hopefully not,” he says. “Fuck.” The irony is that because of how Tyler has been able to deconstruct pop superstardom, the traditional pop stars may be obsolete in three years. He wants entry into a burning fortress that he helped set on fire.
By now, Tyler has lived many lives in hip-hop years, and his shows are populated by thousands of fans a decade his junior. When I ask him if he feels old on this tour, he admonishes me. “No, I don't,” he says. “My skin's great and I can outrun most of those kids. I am not 48.” He turns to Christian, who is about to turn 49. “No offense, Clancy.” Late last year, Tyler crashed his car after falling asleep at the wheel. When I ask him if this has altered his zeal for driving, Christian interjects: “No.” Later, though, Tyler hints at a creeping sense of mortality, even if he won't say it outright. Exhibit A: One day he began to fear he was getting fat.
“Honestly, I don't know if I felt different, or if I was aware that people around me were gaining that adult weight,” he admits, reflecting on his whirlwind year. “So then I start looking at myself like: Oh, no. I was like: Hey, I need a treadmill as soon as possible.” The only thing more goober-y than worrying about your weight is trying to lose weight, but Tyler managed to subvert the supremely mundane process of getting fit. He ordered the nicest treadmill he could find and assembled it in his kitchen in Los Angeles three days later. For a while, Tyler could be found in a full-body sweat suit and a beanie, blasting fusion jazz and sprinting his heart out for 13 to 15 minutes, making the tedious and pedestrian act of getting in shape seem like a private-performance art project. It's almost as if, upon reaching a pinnacle, he wanted to preserve himself exactly as he was.
A few weeks after his Madison Square Garden show, I meet up with Tyler in another quiet park. This one, in downtown Atlanta, is dotted with architecturally significant playground equipment that could pass for public art. Tyler is draped over one of the structures, seeming at home in a space that, like him, is all about whimsy and aesthetics. He's wearing wool dress pants, a sweater-vest, and a newsboy cap, and light fusion jazz wafts from his phone speaker. He'd been hanging out with Lil Yachty all day, and from a particular angle, he could have easily been mistaken for Yachty's father.
Tyler and I loll around the park for a few minutes before piling into an SUV and heading to a five-star hotel, where he and his friends kill time and decompress before tonight's show. When we get back to his suite, Tyler seems subdued—a bit somber, even—but he's still cracking jokes and verbally sucker-punching his friends in a way that seems almost involuntary.
“Shut your fat ass up,” he tells Jasper, a friend from high school and a founding Odd Future member who now accompanies Tyler around the country on tour. Jasper is slumped lethargically over on the couch in a suite at the hotel, begging to be provoked. “You're grosssssss,” Tyler says. “Everything about you is GROSS!”
“It's crazy,” Jasper snaps back. “You be so nice when nobody's around. You be like, Jasper, come hang out! You so cool and skinny!”
“I never said that! You're a liar,” Tyler says, prompting an eruption of laughter from the group.
Tyler opens up a cardboard box filled with white T-shirts, which are prospective blanks for his branded merchandise. He puts on one of the shirts and begins to make tiny adjustments, tucking and untucking and assessing the shirt's movement and fit in the mirror. He begins to jump up and down, throwing his hands in the air and shadowboxing—the kind of things that people wearing his clothing might want to do.
Suddenly I notice Tyler's demeanor change. His body softens and his voice takes on the enthusiastic politeness of a college student interviewing for his first real-world job. He's just picked up a FaceTime call from 2 Chainz, the kind of establishment Atlanta rapper who might have written Tyler off as a weird joke five years ago. “Nigga! I'm in your goddamn city and you are nowhere to be found,” Tyler tells him.
“Man, I wish you was here,” he continues. “I fell in love with this place. I would get a spot here and live here for like a month. It's too hot, though.”
“You need to, though!” 2 Chainz tells him. “We got AC, nigga! And we got some dope-ass skate parks.”
The two exchange the niceties of long-time acquaintances who've yet to have a proper hangout but are fond of each other nonetheless. 2 Chainz offers some paternal encouragement for that night's show, telling him to “kill that shit,” and Tyler opens up another invitation: “The carnival is in November, so if you're in L.A., I'll get you passes and you just pull up,” Tyler tells him.
“That's your shit, right?” 2 Chainz asks.
As a formality, the two promise to send each other music. Hip-hop of this era, particularly in 2 Chainz's world, is a game of strategic collaboration conducted largely over email attachments. “Send it, and if I like it, I will fuck with it,” Tyler says. At this stage in their careers, it's difficult to discern who would be soliciting whom for a feature.
2 Chainz chuckles at Tyler's candor. “I love that: If I like it, I got you,” he repeats. “I gotta start using that one.”
“Bro, honesty is the best policy!” Tyler tells him, and they hang up.
“Man, 2 Chainz is so cool,” Tyler announces. He needs to clarify something, though. “He's just an acquaintance,” he says. “These guys here”—he points around the room—“are my friends. They know where I live. They've met my mom.”
“I wanted [2 Chainz] to come to the show tonight, like, just to see it,” he explains, almost sounding sheepish about this form of solicitation. “I want as many people to see the show as possible. Jermaine Dupri is going to come, and I invited Tyler Perry.”
I notice he never says my show. The IGOR show is The Show—the single most ambitious and artistically complete thing he has ever done, and the center of his world, the spectacle that cleanses him of everything he's ever been known for. If only people would go, he knows they'd start to understand. They'd finally trust him.
Carrie Battan is a writer living in New York City. She wrote about SoundCloud rap in the February 2019 issue.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January 2020 issue with the title “Tyler, The Creator.”
Tyler, the Creator is GQ's Provocateur of the Year
Photographs by Casper Kofi
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Grooming by Barry White for barrywhitemensgrooming.com
Set and prop design by Andrea Huelse
Originally Appeared on GQ