In a yellow suit and blonde bowl-cut wig, Tyler’s statuesque in the centre of the stage, a silver curtain twinkling behind him. He’s gazing downwards, the rolling drums to ‘IGOR’S THEME’ clattering over the PA. He dummies as though about to sing into the microphone, then stops. Every time he repeats the motion, 5000 fans scream back at him. He does nothing, and they scream, a testament to the iconoclastic – and controversial – figure he’s become.
No wonder: fans have waited four long years for this. Back in May, Tyler, the Creator’s surprise comeback London show caused so much pandemonium that it was shut down at the last-minute. Hundreds of kids snaked around the Bussey Building in south London, climbing up the walls, leading the Metropolitan Police to announce that they had felt compelled to intercept the hyped event “because security doesn’t like what’s going on here.”
This latest run-in with the authorities did nothing to harm the Californian musician’s reputation as an enfant terrible, earned with his early, taboo-trashing records and a subsequent ban from performing live in New Zealand and the UK. In 2015 his manager released a statement revealing that the Home Office, then led by Theresa May, would uphold the ban for “three to five years” because, they claimed, the rapper’s music “encourages violence and intolerance of homosexuality” and “fosters hatred with views that seek to provoke others to terrorist acts”.
Well, the ban lifted, now he’s back for three nights at the 02 Academy in Brixton, south London. In the meantime Tyler has released two astonishing albums, 2017’s ‘Flower Boy’ and the recent ‘IGOR’, both of which established him as an unlikely queer icon. Softer in tone than his early, jagged output, they exude an ‘80s pop sound with pretty, jazz-inflected arrangements. On ‘Flower Boy’ he infamously claimed: “I been kissing white boys since 2014.” ‘IGOR’ appears to be a heartfelt, complex tale about the break-up of a queer relationship.
Fans have been waiting outside Brixton Academy all day. 18-year-old Kamil Noga and his friends arrived at 4pm.
“He came out from his Mercedes,” he says excitedly, “and gave us a high-five and was like, ‘Yo, what’s up?’”
Did they think the ban was justified?
“It was an alter-ego,” Kamil replies. “He uses different alter-egos to tell stories. Why would it mean being banned?”
Certainly there’s a strong theatrical element to tonight’s show, even as the set-up is minimalist: Tyler, the occasional spotlight, sporadic weird visuals plastered across that curtain and a white piano in the corner, which he tinkles on as the audiences roars the chorus to ‘EARFQUAKE’. He’s alone onstage throughout, reflecting the vulnerability portrayed on ‘IGOR’. At times he thrashes and dances spasmodically, running in a crazed zig-zag from one side of the stage to the other, as though he’s deflecting body blows from an unseen force.
The set-list is structured like a narrative, introducing the new character in the first half, delving back to the gnarlier, older stuff before reintroducing the softer Tyler at the conclusion. We glimpse what he’s become, then flash back to learn how he has arrived there.
He mentions the ban twice, and refers to Theresa May as “that bitch [who] banned me”, before tailing off. “I’m past that,” he insists, using the reference to segue into the older, more dangerous stuff. ‘Yonkers’, his blood-stained 2011 calling card, shudders with bug-eyed rage and the kids in the audience scream the lyric “stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn oesophagus,” even though many of them must have been around 10 years old when it was released. The stage lights flash, accompanied by horror movie synth stabs, to 2011’s ‘She’.
Tyler contrasts this sense of menace with the softer moments – the clinking drums of ‘GONE, GONE / THANK YOU’ could have been cribbed from soppy ‘90s cornballs Savage Garden – so that everything takes on a sense of foreboding. He requests a mic stand for ‘NEW MAGIC WAND’ (a new cut), implying it’s a ballad he’ll croon through. Instead he throws himself around like a rag doll, thrashing about within the confines of the heart-shaped spotlight that frames him.
At times video screens him depict him in real-time, sweat-slicked, in extreme close-up, as though this is some kind of nightmarish convention. At others, the real Tyler marches alongside hundreds of his own life-size likenesses. A cartoon Tyler melts in sync with the refrain “runnin’ out of time / To make you love me”. The piano-led ‘EARFQUAKE’ is the show’s emotional centre, though dramatically it peaks when he rides a rising podium through ‘Who Dat Boy’, flamethrowers blasting the front of the stage, the temperature rising too.
Towards the end of the show, barely audible through roaring applause, he tells the audience: “I don’t take back nothing I said. I’ll never apologise. They can suck my dick… I’m really happy I’m back.”
All of which begs the question: how much of this is a performance? Should Tyler, the Creator’s past transgressions, and previous use of homophobic language, be forgiven because he wrote some lyrics about queerness?
Kamil and his friends praised Tyler’s honesty and claimed he’s taken us on the journey through his own self-acceptance. But he loathes interviews and is elliptical and evasive in most of them. How do we know Tyler, The Creator – who once defined himself as a troll, gleefully pushing buttons – isn’t backstage after the show, cackling about his ruse?
NME speaks to 21-year-old fans Natasha Carlin and Megan Moore by the merch stand, where kids are dropping £80 on swimming shorts from the rapper’s clothing brand, Golf Wang. Natasha has come down from Liverpool especially for the show. “We’ve been waiting since the ban,” she says. “We bought tickets for the Manchester show [which was cancelled].”
The ban was “stupid”, she adds. “If you look at Theresa May and when she was Home Secretary, it’s a war on black art.”
Are they at all sceptical about the fact that Tyler was targeted for his use of homophobic language and then released an album – his first since the ban – in which he used queer imagery?
“No,” says Megan. “That was his way of expressing himself then. Maybe he didn’t feel comfortable with at the time, but that was the only way he could express it and now he’s more comfortable with it. It can’t have been easy for him as black male in the hip-hop and rap scene.”
“A lot of [his earlier albums] are about the struggle to find your identity,” adds Natasha. “The LGBT community has achieved so much and now it’s more like: ‘I can be true to who I am. I don’t need to be that confused boy any more who hides his sexuality and puts on a front.”
Nathasha, Megan and Kamil and his friends’ passion for Tyler’s art demonstrates the redundancy of questions about authenticity. The point is that Tyler, the Creator is a provocateur – first, one who shocked, and now one who starts the kinds of conversations like those outlined above. The comeback show was one of shock and awe, a lightning bolt that illuminates the mood of the time. As Kamil said: “He’s back now and he’s not going anywhere any time soon.”