Sammy Willbourne examines the horrorcore aesthetics of Tyler the Creator and why they mean so much to her.
(Content warning: murder, mental health)
DISCLAIMER – I will literally do anything to write about Tyler the Creator. Moving on!
Hip hop has gone through a mad transition. We know it’s become a mesh of aspirational capitalist ideals but it wasn’t always that way. The origins of hip hop were political and about social unrest. Rappers spoke about where they were living, and whether that was writing about rival gangs or the welfare system, there was always a sense of social commentary. If they didn’t directly write about it, nearly every rapper alluded to the government’s failings or at the very least had a song about Black empowerment.
The transitions of visuals have been fascinating. The 90s were full of colour and street videos—which still happen now—but there’s been an influx of high concept videos that have transcended what has come before. Most of these are soft colours, maybe a little experimental but there’s been no real scary shit. I always wanted a rapper to come out and take what Eminem did with the hockey mask on a bigger scale. That was a cool moment, but to have a rapper where that was just their aesthetic organically, would be just monumental.
Then there was Tyler the Creator.
Tyler smashed all my wishes out of the window and then some. First of all, the guy can dress. He became one of my style icons overnight. His swaying between pastel golf and street casual was something that my brain swallowed instantly. The sets of his videos reflect his fashion style with pastels or highly saturated backdrops. But what solidified Tyler for me as one of the most innovative new wave rappers is his influences with gore, special effects and general uneasiness.
I’m convinced Tyler is a horror fan. If he isn’t, he’s as warped as I am. I dig both options.
I mean his rise to fame came from the horrorcore category. There’s a discussion there for Tyler’s first mixtapes being in the horrorcore genre. Whether he used that controversial category to rise out of it eventually, is something that we’ll never truly know.
Then Yonkers happened.
Taken from his debut studio album Goblin, Tyler and his Odd Future collective catapulted into the mainstream. The video for Yonkers pictures Tyler in black and white, rapping darker lyrics about mental-health, murder and the human paradox. It carries on the themes from his 2009 debut mixtape, Bastard but we see visual representations of his horror infused aesthetic. He’s seen eating a cockroach and vomiting, only to be hanged and we see his feet swing in the top of the frame.
It has every horror movie vibe going.
I love Tyler for many reasons but… as we go further into his discography and corresponding videos, it’s clear to me that this man is as close to a creative male genius as we may be able to get. That’s not to say that’s a universal thing, because it’s subjective, but I haven’t seen many other rappers past say, 2005 to have such a clear and original style.
There’s a clear mix of absurdism, with his oversized sets (see Tamale, Fucking Young and IFHY), pastel colours (nearly every video) juxtaposed with masks (Who Dat Boy and IFHY and a few others), gory special effects, painting himself white and various other effects make his work as uneasy as it is appealing. It puts you in the same phenomenal energy as a horror movie. I hate this but I love this. I know I should look away but I don’t want to.
He shares the same magnetism as he sits at his desk in Who Dat Boy as a modern Leatherface. We don’t know what he’s going to do, but he instils a sense of dread in the starting moments. He doubles this up with the wearing of another man’s face as a mask. I think there are some deeper connotations to this, and it draws many parallels of social commentaries, but I can’t speak for another artist’s work. In IFHY, he’s more reminiscent of Alice Sweet Alice and House of Wax’s disconcerting aesthetics. He steers towards the old age of horror cinema with the black and white graphic imagery in Buffalo. It reminds me of Birth of a Nation in all its hectic and chaotic energy.
There’s a lot of reasons why I love Tyler. Not one for shying away from being different and on his own path, outspoken, bright, high energy with high ambitions and even higher concepts. His horror influences solidify him as one of my favourite modern rappers. He juxtaposes things that people would generally associate with ugliness or vulgarity with tenderness and a chance to sit and reflect at times on what you’ve just seen. His work takes the same stance as horror – you can’t think about me in one sitting. The rich layers of pastel-infused fear and direct gore make a case for his past and potentially being a lifelong horror fan. You can take the guy out of horrorcore, but you can’t take horrorcore out of the guy.