Last summer, Tyler the Creator seemingly made a startling personal admission on his latest album, Flower Boy. It came in the exact middle, the seventh song of 14 tracks, "Garden Shed."
"Them feelings that I was guardin'/Heavy on my mind/All my friends lost/They couldn't see the signs," he writes. "Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase/Thought it'd be like the phrase, 'poof,' gone/But it's still goin' on."
Tyler can be hard to pin down. He is both the sophomoric prankster of Adult Swim's Loiter Squad and the sadistic mind behind shocking, edgy works such as "Yonkers." But here, he seems sincere. You can tell by the sun-dappled guitars and the ebullient vocal feature from Estelle. Is Tyler saying he's gay?
Just to remove any possible doubt from listeners' minds, on "I Ain't Got Time," later in the album: "I've been kissing white boys since 2004!"
This revelation might come as a shock to those who know Tyler only from headlines. He is a frequent and infamous user of the word "faggot." His early music is full of the slur; one example, from the track "Orange Juice," reads, "All you fuckin' bloggin’ faggots yappin' up that extra shit." His use of the word has always been controversial, and he has been bombarded with accusations of homophobia. But he has always defended himself, saying he doesn't hate gays. Ultimately, he argues, "faggot" is simply a word, and whatever offense one takes from it is not his fault. It's like the defense used by the kids on South Park when they were called out for using "fag" as an insult. To them, gay is gay, and fag is something else; the negative connotation of the word remains, but the homophobia is somehow removed.
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That shaky defense aside, some of Tyler's fans, when they got wind of the new lyrics, did some digging. They unearthed a tweet from April 2015 in which he declared, "I TRIED TO COME OUT THE DAMN CLOSET LIKE FOUR DAYS AGO AND NO ONE CARED HAHAHHAHAHA." They reexamined a lyric from the song "Fuck It," in which he raps, "How can I be homophobic when my boyfriend's a fag?"
Journalists began delving into old interviews. In 2015, a Rolling Stone reporter, confused by the 40 Year Old Virgin-esque "You know how I know you’re gay?" type of humor on Tyler's tour bus, asked why the rapper makes so many gay jokes. Tyler simply answered, "Because I'm gay as fuck," and then stated he would "go gay" for Cole Sprouse or Leonardo DiCaprio circa 1996. Larry King asked him about the possibility of a "gay rap artist" in 2014, and he responded, "Why does that shit matter? Like, if he wanna fuck dudes or whatever, why does that matter?"
Maybe the narrative is different. Maybe it isn't that Tyler has come out. Maybe he has been trying to come out for years, and because of his wild personality, everyone thought he was joking.
Let’s go back to that Rolling Stone piece. "I cannot emphasize how much gay humor plays a role in the atmosphere around him," reporter Ernest Baker wrote. "Never more than a few minutes pass without him saying he's going to suck someone's dick or him accusing someone of wanting to suck dick. At one point on the bus, he recalls sending nude photos to a group chat with his friends and no one responded. 'My friends are so used to me being gay,' Tyler says, 'they don't even care.'"
A theory in American culture is that many of the most homophobic men are actually deeply closeted: Last year, for example, a vocally anti-LGBT Ohio Republican politician was caught having sex with a man. There is also the concurrent idea that many alpha-male activities — frat hazing rituals, sports, anything that involves the phrase "no homo" — are simply masking homosexual behavior and that those who engage in these behaviors and call themselves straight are closeted or in denial. "You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men," one famous Barbara Kruger print reads.
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Yet Tyler's case doesn't square exactly with any of this, because he is someone for whom language and action are separate entities, along with his separate public and private personas. Tyler is someone who constantly invents new personalities, new characters to play, new situations to express himself in, that do not reflect what he is in reality.
It's as if, through his creative production, through his outlandish behavior, Tyler has reached a point where the people around him accept him for who he is, no matter what label the world wants to place on him. "Why do we care?" he told King.
Maybe this is the ultimate conclusion: It doesn’t matter whom Tyler, or anyone else for that matter, chooses to be with, and perhaps the words and labels we assign have lost their relevance. People cannot be as cleanly categorized as many would like, so we should live how we prefer and eschew definitions. If it's someone like Tyler making that point, maybe it's a sign of progress.