Despite All His Rage: Tyler, The Creator's 'Goblin' Turns Five

Reconsidering the soft heart inside a cult-classic document of adolescent anger

He didn’t actually eat the bug ... right? No, of course he didn’t. Five years ago today, the music video for “Yonkers,” the second single off Tyler, the Creator’s 2011 breakthrough, Goblin, first shocked and awed us. Fans and detractors argued for days about the stark black-and-white images that flashed on our screens — Tyler staring into the camera with blacked-out irises, Tyler vomiting, Tyler hanging himself. The "Yonkers" video summed up everything that was already making Tyler a cult hero by then: his taste for gleeful provocation, his gift for self-mythologizing, and his talent at crafting rough but effective beats were all there. With edges too jagged for your parents but smooth enough for your dorm, it was the ultimate Odd Future mission statement.

Tyler says he made the song “Yonkers” in 10 minutes, as a joke — the same way he qualifies a fair share of his lyrics and actions. Tyler’s best work sounds like it comes from the seconds immediately after waking up from a bad dream, while he’s still scared and needs to tell someone about it. "Yonkers" is a perfectly tossed-off fuck-you to anyone and everyone, and it remains the most successful and enduring part of Goblin. For a moment, Tyler stares into the void and the void says, “lol.”

It’s been five years since the release of Goblin — a lifetime for a rap career, and a mythic, trans-historical epoch for Odd Future, a group that thrived on swiftly burning controversies, a sub-hourly news cycle, and fans with radically shortened attention spans. Revisiting the album five years later clarifies something about what was really going on: For all of Goblin's shock tactics, it works because of the adolescent heartache underneath it all. (Tyler isn't alone here: Think of how Drake is at his most effective when his alpha persona is young and cut with tears.)

In retrospect, it's clear that Goblin is an album overwhelmed by insecurity. Tyler is dealing with levels of fame that would skyrocket, then peak, after the success of “Yonkers” (“my best friend is now my fucking assistant”). He's also grappling with the heightened visibility of the then-incipient “Free Earl” movement, in which his own teen fans loudly decried the absence from the scene of Earl Sweatshirt, Odd Future’s other visible personality. The “Free Earl” meme forced Tyler into the sole leadership role in the collective, and you can hear his awkwardness in that frontman spot throughout Goblin. He spends much of the album trying — a little too hard, perhaps — to avoid getting pinned down as a demon, a conclusion it’s not hard to imagine reasonable people reaching about him after hearing the violent fantasies on the previous year's Bastard. On Goblin, he admits: “OK, you guys caught me. I’m not a rapist or a serial killer. I lied.” He's thinking out loud, redefining his persona on the fly.

Robbed of their immediacy, many of the most controversial lyrics on Goblin sound more like easy-to-ignore, intentional provocation by an angry kid — something many sober, adult critics pointed out at the time. Take “Radicals,” the most self-consciously bombastic moment on the record: “Kill people burn shit fuck school” isn’t a threat, it’s what you write in your notebook after the cool kids give you a wedgie. When he has a meltdown on “Window” that ends with mass murder, it feels more like a group of friends playing around with toy weapons. The imagined acts of aggression on “Transylvania” (say, making a Buffalo Bill–style skin suit entirely out of white women), meanwhile, leave the impression that Tyler is audibly uncomfortable talking about sex with anything approaching realism or detail. It’s almost hard to tell whether he knows what sex is, or whether it’s just something he’s supposed to brag about having as a way of asserting his own power.

But even people turned off by Goblin's rough edges found it hard not to like Tyler and fellow Odd Future MC Hodgy Beats's performance of “Sandwitches” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon that year.

Looking back now, there is a lot of weird, cute stuff going on here. When network standards force Tyler to rap “I’m a rebel dog” instead of “bitch,” the line becomes sweeter — the obvious joy he takes in his work renders the moment disarming and vulnerable. Someone yells “Free Earl!” in the background. Tyler and Hodgy hide under their Supreme and balaclavas. (For most of the performance, Hodgy just stands there and occasionally nods — he looks a little paralyzed, and it’s hard to blame him.) There are multiple garden gnomes doing prayer hands for some reason. Imagine the flabbergasted faces of the suburban moms, tourists, and Fever Pitch fans in the audience. The future of Goblin is Tyler, the Creator riding around on Jimmy Fallon’s back, forever.

That future has turned out to be less odd than some might have expected in 2011. Tyler isn’t a megastar; “Yonkers” is still undoubtedly his biggest hit. But he is a solidly successful, consistently productive artist whose next two albums both bowed in the Top 5 of Billboard's albums chart in their debut weeks. He’s built an adoring fan base of teens and young adults, which he lovingly cultivates across a diverse array of spaces that would make more sense coming from a lifestyle brand. His Golf Media app approximates the functions of a magazine and a TV network; he organizes public screenings of his favorite movies (mostly Zoolander); he has made several attempts at film after finishing a reasonably successful run with a sketch show on Adult Swim; and he turns out music that sounds less and less like the product of anger and more just like some stuff he wanted to hear. If you listened to “What the Fuck Right Now,” his remix of Kanye West's "Freestyle 4," you know that Tyler can rap when he wants to, but he’s got other stuff to do. I went to one of his shows last year, and much to my surprise, the largely teen audience flourished in a wholesome, relentlessly positive environment — something like a Lil B show with less irony.

And Goblin? It is, admittedly, way too long. It’s childish, and occasional careens over the line to straight-up brutishness. But all of Tyler’s albums are like that. That’s part of their charm. I’m probably never going to listen to “Window” all the way through again, but it makes me happy to know that Tyler made a song that takes the form of an extended intervention and mass murder, in the same way that I am generally pleased by the existence of prog rock but am not particularly inclined to spin an entire King Crimson album — it’s a fun, weird, high-concept idea, and it’s heartwarming to know that someone invested time in its execution.

The good parts of Goblin, buoyed by the strength of Tyler’s beats, are great. Often they're gloriously aggressive: The squeal on “Golden” sounds like a malfunctioning video game in the best way. Since Goblin, Tyler moved on to all-but-explicit Neptunes homage in his production work, but that early harshness has all sorts of echoes in current rap production — say, Yeezus. (Kanye put in a guest appearance on last year's Cherry Bomb, and Tyler took the photo Kanye gloriously tweeted as a fake Rolling Stone cover.) Tyler is far more influential than he will be given credit for, because of how much he’s been consumed by the earlier versions of his character.

Then there’s the album's other, softer mode. Try revisiting his Frank Ocean collaboration “She,” released as the third track on Goblin just a few months after Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra. Tyler, as always, makes himself gross, almost beastly, rapping about stalking his love interest and burping “swag” as an interjection into Frank's angelic crooning. Frank, meanwhile, adds some vocal sugar to Tyler’s stalker character: “Check your window.” (“Swag.”) Tyler doesn’t have the guts to actually do anything about his feelings, but it’s important that he has them, and has them in deeply uncomfortable ways. Where the motivating factor of Bastard was rage, Goblin marks the beginning of Tyler’s transition to music about love.

Not actual love songs, understand. The album is about the idea of love — believing you should be in it, without really knowing what it is. We fetishize love as something with an object, but it’s usually just a lack, feeling the edges of a hole that you are convinced by hormones you can’t fill by yourself (try as Tyler does on his own, repeatedly). So everything becomes evidence for what’s meant to be, and everything you do is simultaneously necessary and repulsive. On “Her,” Tyler expresses his feelings in the most juvenile ways possible, probably because he’s turned the girl he has a crush on into “the key to love,” an object of his affection he can only connect with by poking her on Facebook. One of the subtler touches of the “Yonkers” video is the way Tyler looks at the bug, like he cares about it more than anything else in the world. But he shoves it into his mouth anyway, almost as an afterthought.

Goblin’s best song, “Analog,” reflects the upside of this tension. It's as complicated and intense as a fumbled pass at dusk, the colors of the sun bleeding into night. It harbors the promise of menace, an orientation toward threat, rather than the real thing — Tyler’s entire aesthetic in miniature. "This is not Dawson’s Creek," he insists, but it is nonetheless a teen fantasy. And though Tyler spends the song trying to entice a girl to meet him by the lake, there’s no twist, no orgy of violence, no outburst. Just an awkward boy coming on a bit too strong. There’s a light dusting of skeeviness over the track that never quite settles — what most people refer to as adolescence.

Changing from a malcontent adolescent to a relatively well-adjusted adult is a magic trick, and having that trick hold up over time, in public, is difficult. A successful magician has to maintain the sense that there’s something behind the curtain to get anyone coming back. Behind, say, Eminem’s rage hid … more rage, and more misogyny. But like most teen boys, Goblin has a heart buried somewhere, and the pleasure of listening to it, even after five years, comes in allowing that softness to reveal itself and stick over time. When Tyler play-acts hanging himself at the end of the “Yonkers” video like it’s nothing at all, it remains as unsettling a sight as any in recent music video memory — precisely because it’s more mournful than lurid or spectacular. That slow-burning sadness is the best reason to take another look at Goblin. Catch the bug.