The hidden symbols in Tyler, The Creator’s ‘Igor’

There's a lot to unpack in his latest

Tyler, The Creator released his latest album ‘Igor‘ last Friday (May 17), along with providing a set of instructions. “Don’t go into this expecting a rap album,” he wrote. “Don’t go into this expecting any album. Just go, jump into it”

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TONIGHT

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After living with the record for a week, there’s endless detail to unpick: from Tyler’s brand new bleach-blonde bowl cut, to the intricate use of sampling that draws together the threads of ‘Igor’.

Here are just some of the reference points that pepper his frankly exceptional new record.

Who is Igor?

Igor is a name that comes with a few connotations, particularly if you happen to be really into films about Frankenstein. Something of a stock character, Igor has played lab assistant to multiple horror villains over the years, and he’s often portrayed as a hunchbacked sidekick who helps to create a monster.

Gothic reference points crop up a couple of times on this record: ‘What’s Good’ deploys vampiric innuendo (“Dracula, Dracula, Dracula/Suck me first, I might get back at ya”) and on ‘Running Out Of Time’, Tyler addresses a love interest who keeps concealing his true self behind masks: “Halloween ain’t for a minute, lose the costume”. Beyond the odd pun, that’s where the explicit horror association begins and ends, but there’s still a second figure glaring over Tyler, The Creator’s shoulder nonetheless.

What does he represent?

There are two clear personas on ‘Igor’ – the Andy Warhol-meets-campy-soul-singer character, and the short-haired, more serious face on the cover of the album. Likewise, there are two distinct voices on the record: often Tyler’s vocals are pitch-shifted into a higher register, but occasionally another distinct lower-register voice pops up.

Often, the visuals we’ve seen from ‘Igor’ examine performance: in the video for ‘EARFQUAKE’ Tracee Ellis Ross – playing a brilliantly gushing daytime telly host – says to Tyler “you are a performer, I understand. What is it exactly that you do?”. The musician, sporting turquoise suit, bleach-blonde wig and sunnies, can only blurt out a nonsensical “yes”.  In another visual, a stage performance of ‘NEW MAGIC WAND’ pans out to reveal a five audience members watching his gig in the desert.

At its heart, ‘Igor’ is a heartbreak album, picking up the pieces of a love interest who leaves and chooses their girlfriend instead.My eyes are green, I eat my veggies,” goes ‘NEW MAGIC WAND, “I need to get her out the picture”. And rather than Igor representing the person Tyler’s in love with, it seems more likely that Igor represents the angrier side of heartbreak. For every pitched up, helpless admission on ‘RUNNING OUT OF TIME’ drenched in sincerity, Igor is the meaner, lower register counterpoint. On ‘PUPPET’ Kanye West appears to be acting as the voice of Igor: “You lost, son, and you’ve been tryna find your way to me” he snarls, in stark contrast to Tyler’s helpless verses. The tension between the two voices hints at a nagging artistic dilemma; weighing up the vulnerable sincerity of ‘Flower Boy’ against the shock factor that defined the rapper’s earlier material. It’s as if the two personas are cooking up the album in a lab together, and toiling over how much to reveal in the final performance.

Elio, elio, elio…

It’s common knowledge that Tyler, The Creator is a huge fan of Call Me By Your Name; the Oscar-nominated adaptation of André Aciman’s novel. Set “somewhere in Northern Italy” the plot of Call Me By Your Name bears several strong similarities with the narrative of ‘Igor’ – it doesn’t exactly end happily ever after for Elio and Oliver – and Tyler, The Creator’s location on Twitter is a direct reference to the book. He’s also rapped about Timothee Chalamet, who played lead character Elio in the film previously: “Tell Tim Chalamet to come get at me,” he says on ‘Okra’.

During the making of ‘Igor’, Tyler flew out to the idyllic Lake Como in… you guessed it, Northern Italy, with Frank Ocean and eventual album collaborator Solange. “My dad’s Nigerian, supposedly, and Nigerian music, it’s good,” the rapper expanded, speaking about the trip during a concert live-stream on Apple Music. “You have Sade, you have so much Nigerian rock… in the ’70s they made a lot of funk, a lot of dance-disco… they used to take photos of all the young kids who would go to these disco parties and dance and dress up and shit. And I wanted to live in that moment for a day… So me, Solange, and Frank [Ocean], we flew to Lake Como, Italy. I wanted to check out a lot of the dance clubs out there and shit, but I didn’t. Instead, Tyler most likely ended up working on a handful of songs

There’s another direct reference to Call Me By Your Name on ‘I Think’ – “Man, I wish you would call me/  By your name ’cause I’m sorry”

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2. Blue Note

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The Jerrod Carmichael feature spots

Alongside guest collaborators like Solange, Playboy Carti, La Roux, Cee Lo Green, Jack White, Charlie Wilson, Jessy Wilson, and Kevin Kendricks, ‘Igor’ also features the comedian Jerrod Carmichael. Appearing on tracks three, five, eight, nine, and ten, snippets of speech from Carmichael seem to function as narrator’s asides, making sense of Tyler/Igor’s state of mind as the record progresses. “Exactly what you run from, you end up chasing/giving it everything that you can. There’s always an obstacle,” he says on ‘I THINK’, shortly after the infatuated high of ‘EARFQUAKE’ . And towards the end of the record, Carmichael wraps things up: ‘Igor’ is mourning a relationship that could’ve gone somewhere but didn’t: ”I hate wasted potential,” he says, “that shit crushes your spirit.”

A monster built with samples

A record that sees Tyler, The Creator flexing his production muscles, ‘Igor’ also sees the artist deploying recognisable samples in a new way. There are also multiple references to ‘Igor’ guest Kanye West; a skilled and prolific sampler in his own right. ‘The Boy is a Gun’ samples ‘Bound’ by the Ponderosa Twins Plus One – which was also sampled on Kanye West’s ‘Bound 2’. On top of that, ‘Igor’ also features Charlie Wilson (who guested on that same West song). ‘WHAT’S GOOD’ also paraphrases a lyric from West’s ‘New Slaves’  – N****s turning it up, well, shit, I’m tearing it down/Hard to believe in God when there ain’t no mirrors around – while also nodding towards the godly themes of ‘Yeezus’ as a whole.

The album opener ‘Igor’s Theme’ samples ‘Attention’ by Head West, along with Christine and The Queens’ recent ‘Girlfriend’ collaborators Dam-Funk, while Bibi Mascel’s ‘Special Lady’ provides one of the main hooks for ‘I THINK’ (which elsewhere samples Nkono Teles’ ‘Get Down’). Drawing a musical pun, of sorts, ‘Running Out Of Time’ rehashes Run-DMC. There’s also a sample of the American indie band Part Time. In some ways Igor and Tyler have created their own Frankenstein’s monster; built on diverse snippets of music history.