In 1861, Charles Baudelaire – a rakish poet who changed hairstyles as often as hotel rooms – went for a walk in Paris. He passed cottages, shuttered shops, fields of wheat at the city’s edge, the spiced black smoke of hashish bars. Baudelaire was hounded by creditors, but these journeys had a more essential meaning. In his poem Le Soleil, he mentions tripping over the potential ahead, wandering with guided aimlessness through the stink and glitz of French life. There are several translations and this one is my favourite: “Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme, stumbling over words as over paving stones, colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.” He got lost. By falling into the shock of the present, the past began to cohere. I wonder what Baudelaire would make of a man who’s taken his name – taken the past – and shoved it under a trapper hat, the wheels of a Rolls Royce, as an excuse to reiterate he wanted to have sex with Selina Gomez “just in” Bieber.
For Tyler, The Creator is sick of concepts to the degree that his latest concept is about not having one. Across Call Me If You Get Lost, his sixth and probably most emblematic album, we are invited to hit the gas. We move forward in space, but backwards in time. You can see it in the video for ‘WUSYANAME’, the start of which may paint references to the jagged outcrops of Camp Flog Gnaw, setting for 2013’s imperious Wolf, otherwise known as the record that proved he could spit hard in the upper tier of American hip hop. That album and this are brothers, the point being one is older, more talented and just better with ladies, fellas and key changes. But neither can we forget the story between them: the Grammys interview, the open closet, the Cherry Bombing near-derailment. CMIYGL is a road trip that has been packed with almost everything we’ve been through with Tyler in a decade or more. It feels like a culmination that never strains with the weight of accomplishment. Ironically, for an LP that traces the past so finely, you could play this to anyone who hasn’t heard the man’s work and expect them to latch onto something.
‘WUSYANAME’ is an excellent pop song ripped raw from house parties in the early ‘000s. It bounces with the delight of tiny shorts and BBQs, of spotting a girl who just totally needs to realise you exist even if you’re telling her she looks malnourished. As you’d expect from a Tyler love tune, there’s a lot going on: vocals lathered and pitch-shifted in harmony or response; abrupt beat drops; a chorus where various assaults coalesce into words you’ll remember the very first time around. Guest star Youngboy Never Broke Again launches a stunning barrage of flirtation and watery-eyed worship, “tryna get down to the root of the apple, the deepest I could in them jeans.” It’s almost a musical number, come-ons that anyone would sniff at if they weren’t so shameless in public.
There is a love story here, it’s just buried by design. After introducing his Tyler Baudelaire persona, our road-hog protagonist uses a double-plinking piano key on second track, ‘CORSO’, almost indicating an indicator on his vehicle. DJ Drama, the album’s hype man and callback to mixtapes of yore (much has been made of this already, so let’s skip it), asks if we understand what they came here to do. Tyler, meanwhile, sets up the drama to follow on ‘WILSHIRE’, using his psycho tendencies and Drama’s sheer noise to suck the pain out of a romantic decision. There’s a niggling itch for escape with a person. In the early going, we are treated to the whimsical presence of flutes, which bubble and take over ‘HOT WIND BLOWS’, sampled from Penny Goodwin’s 1974 song ‘Slow Hot Wind’ in case you think Kanye’s still the king of obscure vinyl. Tyler describes the whistle of plane wings, then pauses. There are a couple of kick drum beats like he’s tapping your shoulder. “Man, they ain’t listenin’,” he says, going on to lament being “stuck in the middle of a sandwich like slaughter meat,” the competings winds of nature and fame or scandal. Who’s the “they”? Why aren’t they listening? By flipping his confessions from us, the travel companion, to the other us, the distant listener, lines such as “we gettin’ lost but we know who we am” aren’t as self-assured as they may appear.
You’ll recall that romantic hell was the subject of Flower Boy and IGOR - the first as a cathartic confession, the latter as a twist and churn on the sidelines of a guy who doesn’t know himself very well. On CMIFYGL, we are treated to the thanks, bling and retrospective humility of a highly confident artist, behind whose exterior lurks a yearning for that final (and largest) missing piece of the soul. The album is fond of referencing eagles, diamonds, wide skies and burning rubber. Skit ‘BLESSED’ extols the wonderment of good skin and nails. Tyler’s momma even turns up to say that “I’d kill a motherfucker over this one right here,” promising that if your kids beat up her kids, she’ll smack them right back. These are not the writhings of ‘911/Mr Lonely’ or ‘PUPPET’ or ‘She’. They are fortifying elements: snow capping the mountains he has climbed.
And yet, as ‘WILSHIRE’ makes clear, some hurts just don’t heal no matter how expensive your skin cream is. Tyler raps for more than eight minutes about a girl, their chemistry, their small failures, a conversation in the backseat of a car – now staging a journey that never takes off – as he listens to her denying their relationship when she’s with someone else. Another encounter, again behind the wheel, stumbles over both characters asking “Do you have a –” while we fill the blank: condom? Plan? Tissue? She leaves his shirt looking “like a showerhead got it.” Tyler wants to get lost, to keep moving and changing, but she seeks peace. Baudelaire’s eternal present isn’t enough to resolve a love triangle. Our hero pops plosives on the microphone, an odd choice I cannot explain.
It’s credit to the record’s sly no-theme-as-theme that we’ve gotten so far without saying, boy, is this a great rap album. CMIYGL reminds me of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN in the sense that it follows its creator’s most celebrated, instrumentally dense work, and responds with a fist to the face of anyone who claims they’ve lost pure respect for rhyme as centrepiece. DJ Drama’s inclusion mimics that of DAMN’s Kid Capri, who shouted “Kung Fu Kenny!” like a coach ringside in a martial arts finale. But whereas Kendrick’s last album fell prey to repetition and lame production, Tyler’s mean chest-thump manages to stay compelling almost all the way through. Listen to him terrorise highways on ‘LUMBERJACK’, using the slowing tap of two notes – B and B-flat – to lay tension beneath the bars. ‘MASSA’ sieves the river junk of old outrages, making a case for his innovation as a cancellable figure while claiming that few of us are ready to accept how far he’s developed. Still, he prefers “that ray of light show that nobody is front seatin’”, the hue of sunshine in a simple place, leaving eyes open when he prays “‘cause I can’t trust God neither.” If you believe Tyler found strengths on IGOR but grew weaker in other respects, there’s much to celebrate.
Then we have ‘SWEET/I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE’, living up to the glory of track 10s gone by in the rapper’s canon. While the lyrics in part one are so-so (couldn’t he have thought of anything else to call her? Amoxicillin, maybe?), they’re in thrall to a swaying synth progression, panoramic oscillation effects, and star turns from Fana Hues and Brent Faiyaz. There’s a line of French. Beautiful layering. “My plan was to step my toe in it, check the temperature.” And out of nowhere, it goes reggae. The smile that broke on my face was huge by this point. I’m pretty sure I stayed on the bus longer than I needed to. Unfortunately, the album also carries the Tyler tradition of finishing with a lesser cut, ‘SAFARI’, showing he still hasn’t mastered his exits.
By this point though, it’s a jolt to realise you’ve been listening for over an hour. An LP that swerves so much off the straight and narrow should remain consistently tense – fun and seriousness, vulnerable and offhanded. Call Me If You Get Lost manages to make the whole trip worthwhile, even if you’d rather get off early. It may not supplant the previous two albums in Tyler, The Creator’s catalogue, which are tighter and more rewarding, but for a dipper, a pick-me-up, it’s a blast.