Welcome to the Seven-Day Listen, in which a Heave writer listens to one album for an entire week nonstop to see what they find. This week, features editor Dominick Mayer tackles Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin.
Thought the think pieces about the ethical dilemmas presented by Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin were finally over? Well, allow me to force one more into the ether. A friend suggested that, for my next Seven Day Listen, I try to do something that really makes me uncomfortable, an album of such brazen subject matter that I’ve barely listened to it. In context, this was an invocation for me to cover an Insane Clown Posse album and thus drive myself insane, but it got me thinking about albums that’ve truly shaken me, albums that I think are of value but also stray far from the realm of leisure listening.
Enter Goblin. Tyler’s second album, after the uneven but striking Bastard, sees him using the concept album conceit of a meeting with his therapist to purge all his most aggressive demons. I’ll stay away from the ethical aspect of it for the purposes of this writing (cliffsnotes of my opinion: I can see what he’s doing, but once you put that out into the world, ‘it’s just fiction’ doesn’t hold salt), because I want to focus instead on exactly what makes Goblin so breathtakingly frightening, so bold and genuinely dangerous in a time for music where a genuine aura of terror is nigh impossible. The age issue is essential to this, because youth violence is a bigger problem in the U.S. than anywhere else. Despite this upsetting truth, though, we don’t like believing that our kids have problems, or that they have the kind of dark thoughts that Tyler says everyone has when they’re alone. And if they do, we sure as hell don’t like hearing about it.
“Goblin,” the opening manifesto, sets the tone for the album, one that’s simultaneously earnest in its fear and rage and venomously sarcastic in its self-awareness of how uncomfortable the whole enterprise really is. Tyler wants us to be abundantly aware that he doesn’t give a shit how Goblin is received, that he just did this to work out some of his own shit, but he also spends the duration of the album issuing defensive mea culpas for his lyrical nightmares. For instance, the opening to the swaggering, snarky “Radicals”: “It’s fuckin’ fiction. If anything fucking happens, don’t fucking blame me, white America.” If nothing else, Goblin is a stark chronicle of teenage insecurity from a troubled mind that really (really) doesn’t know how to feel about his newfound status as a cultural mouthpiece. “Radicals” is really where the fun, however long we can argue over that term in this instance, ends.
The other prevailing theme of the record is Tyler’s vulnerability, a factor that I’d argue is essential to understanding exactly why Goblin has such staunch defenders willing to look beyond lines like the now-infamous “Rape a pregnant bitch/And tell my friends I had a threesome” from “Tron Cat.” Tyler isn’t fetishizing his deviant visions (though, again, putting it on record complicates such an assessment) so much as he’s pouring them out and hoping somebody else can make sense of them. Even with respect to “Tron Cat,” it’s the beginning of the album’s most mortifying portion, commenced with the emotionally brutal “Nightmares.” Tron Cat is Tyler’s most sadistic inner monologue, the voice in his head that tells him to rape and kill and destroy his whole world. It also leads to the album-ending twin sucker punches of “Window” and “Golden,” in which Tyler loses his joie de vivre and murders all his friends, screaming at his therapist about how “You were supposed to help me!”
Goblin is a record for its generation, one addicted to infinite self-disclosure to a point where secrets are uncool and making sure the world knows your dirtiest, sickest thoughts is becoming more and more compulsory. The paradox of this whole concept is that the more we talk about ourselves, and the more we carefully curate even our most warped thoughts for maximum empathy/accessibility/reciprocal sex potential, the less we’re ultimately learning. With this album, Tyler becomes the face of this contradiction, a totally open book who begs for his privacy as he airs every imaginable grievance against himself and everybody else. Goblin is stunning in this regard, as it captures an entirely new generational creed, and drags it kicking and screaming into the mainstream. There’s a perfectly executed comedown at the end of “Bitch Suck Dick,” which seems like the album’s one unnecessary track (and probably is) until the finale, where after three minutes of idiotic crunk, Tyler apologizes to his friends before killing them. Strung along by depression, the album slowly comes undone, whether by the addled pseudo-romance of “Analog” or the genuine heartbreak of “Her,” until all the ironic posturing and cocksure bravado of everything that came before is rendered irrelevant by an intimate form of apocalypse. As a rap album, Goblin was and likely will continue to be a cultural battleground. As a generational war cry, though, it’s unleashed something that’s every bit as fascinating as it is disconcerting.