It's hard to imagine a purportedly heterosexual artist who has a more intimate relationship with the word "faggot" than the rapper Tyler, the Creator. His frequent use of word has defined his career to many (especially those who haven't taken the time to listen to his music or are generally hip-hop avoidant), its legend reaching exaggerated proportions – an oft-quoted, erroneous post on NME says he uttered the word and variations of it like "fag" 213 times on his 2011 sophomore album Goblin. Fader, in a more measured post of various Goblin stats, counted only nine.
That's still nine times too many for a lot of outraged people (folk-turned-dancey duo Tegan and Sara among them). Before listening to Tyler's third album, Wolf (out this week), I wondered what effect such outrage would have on his new output. The world, after all, is changing around Tyler and it goes beyond receiving way more feedback than he did before his career exploded two years ago. Gay acceptance is at an all-time high. Marriage equality seems like more inevitable by the day. Tyler's cohort Frank Ocean came out as having loved a man before the release of his major-label debut and it did nothing to impair his career.
In the face of advancement, Tyler puts up his middle finger and says "fag" or "faggot" about a dozen times on Wolf (I counted 15 utterances in total, but a few come from guests like Domo Genesis). While once tossed-off or haphazardly provocative, coming from Tyler's mouth the word feels more pointed than ever. It's part of Tyler's narrative. He's been asked about it repeatedly and has cultivated a stance on it. It's mutated from apathy — "Well, I have gay fans and they don't really take it offensive, so I don't know. If it offends you, it offends you. If you call me a niggaa, I really don't care, but that's just me, personally," he told MTV in 2011 — to something vaguely political. Regarding Frank Ocean's opinion on his fag-bombs, Tyler recently told Rolling Stone, "He knows me, and he knows I don't care about being gay. It's just another word to me. The same as ‘nigga.' Let's say Frank started using the word ‘fag,' just jokingly. People would be so fucking confused! They wouldn't know what to do. And it could take the power out of that word."
On Wolf, though, Tyler stays invested in using that word for all the power that it wields. On multiple references, "faggot" is how he refers to his absentee father, a common figure in Tyler's music who's so present on this album I started wishing he'd go away. He also expresses rage at being called it himself: In "Pigs," Tyler/his character recalls, "My step-father called me a fag, I'll show him a fag I'll light a fire up in his ass." The wordplay at work doesn't betray the simple truth that being called a fag hurts. Tyler knows this, too – in 2011 he told NME:
I'm not homophobic. I just think 'faggot' hits and hurts people. It hits. And 'gay' just means you're stupid. I don't know, we don't think about it, we're just kids. We don't think about that shit. But I don't hate gay people. I don't want anyone to think I'm homophobic.
And so "fag" is far from "just another word," which by the way, is a ridiculous way for any writer to treat the tools that facilitate his expression and ultimately get him paid (Azealia Banks, another young rapper notorious for her use of the word "faggot," has made a similar claim). His insistence on saying "fag" is something of a platform for him, and the more you poke around on it, the more you realize how hollow it is. On "Rusty," he pulls out his frequent, trite refrain of, "I don't hate gay people, I have gay friends": "Look at that article that says my subject matter is wrong / Saying I hate gays even though Frank is on 10 of my songs." Funnily enough, neither of the two Ocean-featuring songs on Wolf find Tyler saying "faggot." On record, it is a word that he says when his friend whose name works as a get-out-of-homophobia-free card isn't around.
This is not to accuse Tyler of hating gay people outright, although as Alex Macpherson noted in 2011, Tyler does seem unable to distinguish between active and cultural homophobia. "Gay" may just mean "stupid," to him, but it seems that he hasn't examined why, even when it's brought to his attention. That said, he doesn't seem particularly riled by actual homosexuality – in the "Stan" rewrite "Colossus," he says of an overzealous fan, "And I appreciate the fact that you would suck on my dick / But I'm not gay so it's awkward." In the single "Domo 23," he references provocation to respond to the response to his initial provocation: "So, a couple fags threw a little hissfit / Came to Pitchfork with a couple Jada Pinkett signs / And said I was a racist homophobic / So I grabbed Lucas and filmed us kissing / Feelings getting caught, it's off, I'm pissing / You think I give a fuck? I ain't even stick my dick in yet (No homo. Too soon.)." His friendship with Ocean is crucial, although unlike the similarly confused Banks, Tyler's use of the word "faggot" seems less of a product of thinking he's so down with gays that he can appropriate their slurs than the general aesthetic recklessness that Tyler and his Odd Future crew embody.
That hedonism excites and galvanizes Odd Future fans. It's certainly how some people live and so even if we don't endorse it or admire it, there is anthropological worth in its expression. There is a greater argument to be made about the complicated relationships people have to certain relics originating from outside of their immediate culture – relics that through their use by these outsiders become different-acting parts of their culture. Unfortunately, Tyler exhibits not enough depth to persuasively or consistently argue for his use of anti-gay hate speech (or the misogyny that still abounds), which he has no real claim to. He's clever (and is growing before our eyes as a producer, as Wolf is something of a lyrical slog but a musical journey) but his wit is on the surface. This person is not yet a great thinker.
Perhaps that's never been more clear than in Tyler's relationship to a word that he arguably does have some claim to reappropriate. With the same punkish attitude, he spits on Wolf's "Tamale," "Tell Spike Lee he's a goddamn nigger." Lee is an outspoken opponent of that word, and as usual Tyler's telling his potential adversary, "Fuck you for caring so much." But Tyler's principle is rooted in willful ignorance of history and progress. HipHopDX recapped a February interview with New York's Hot 97 about this very issue:
"We don't actually give a fuck about that shit," he said when asked about White people using "nigga." "Mothafuckers who care are the reason racism is still alive."
Confronted about the historical view of the term as a derogatory one, Tyler said that is not on his "palette."
"That's sick. That's cool," he said about those who fought for racial equality and against the derogatory term in the past. "I guess people my age, we're not even thinking like that. When you think like that, you keep the racism alive when that's not even on our palette."
He was then asked what he stands for.
"Being rich and trying to have as much fun as I can," he replied.
It seems that #YOLO is about the most salient political stance thus far issued by Tyler, the Creator.
[Image via Getty]