It’s our weekly throwdown amongst the new releases in music. This week in Album WAR!, one of the most creative hip-hop artists takes on one of rock’s creative stalwarts as Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy vs. Nine Inch Nails’ Added Violence!
Tyler, The Creator
Whatever Tyler, The Creator’s reasons for titling his latest release Flower Boy, the clearest parallel is readily drawn from the full range of his artistry that comes to bloom throughout. While his abilities, creativity, and intellect were never in question in previous releases, Tyler dared listeners to take him seriously. Here, Tyler dares to do the same. In the past, he has been content to play archetypal Trickster, offering his weird alchemy of irreverence and precise rhyme. Flower Boy reaches for much more and thankfully comes back with a heavy handful.
Flower Boy opens with Tyler questioning his existence, the future and his place within it. He is more concerned with finding his soul than feigning backbone. Posturing secedes to philosophy as Tyler quickly establishes the lanes in the deceptively expansive “Intro” and “Where This Flower Blooms”; the latter of which serves something as a origin story for the uninitiated with lock-tight lyricism that delivers as elegant and precise as well-folded origami- “Rooted from the bottom, bloomed into a tree / took while nigga making leaves / keep it in my branches, family can eat / favorite color green, energy is grown / giving niggas life like birdies and the bees / Droppin them seeds, not what you want / you don’t know what I keep in the trunk… tree”
Having Frank Ocean deliver the hook doesn’t hurt either.
Speaking of Tyler novices, one would be forgiven if they are reminded of Childish Gambino’s similar coming out album, Because the Internet, which saw Donald Glover extend past freestyle raps to broader compositions. Both Gambino and Tyler are able to transcend their genres for their efforts with arrangements on Flower Boy that likewise dips its toes in jazz, pop, soul, and alternative rock.
The careful and delicately rich “Garden Shed” makes the most of Tyler’s creativity with a patient and soulful electric guitar opening, reminiscent of Band of Gypsies era Hendrix. The track is objectively the most musically ambitious on the album and is able to capture a mélange of styles and time signatures without ever appearing muddied or meandering. The only detraction could be that it is not long enough. While 3:43 is as average a track length as you could ask for, the expansive exploration throughout “Garden Shed” really deserves twice as much runtime to adequately capture its wingspan.
There is some wonderful full minute build-up in “Who Dat Boy” before Tyler comes out swinging with the album’s fiercest track before segueing seamlessly into the much more reflective “Pothole”. The latter captures an ambitious artist looking out into the world ready to take it whole but unsure of where to step next due to the many potholes that are all the ready to trip him up.
Flower Boy’s only slight happens between its songs. Contrived radio DJ and phone operator interstitials were passé in the ‘90s and have gained no such innovation in the interim. Overbooked, they disserved Tyler by drawing attention to a redundant gimmick on an album that is an otherwise top to bottom showcase.
Equally impressive was Tyler’s confidence and maturity in closing with the bucolic “Enjoy Right Now, Today”, all but instrumental, only broken up by intermittent babies cooing. Somewhat meditative, the closer refuses to go out with any self-serving flourish. Instead “Enjoy Right Now” stays true to the rest rest of Flower Boy in its quiet reflection.
Standout Track: “Garden Shed” – Just a great musical exploration that captures an artist not afraid to try new things
Rating: 4 out of 5
Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails is a curious beast to track. Sometime double albums drop with little forewarning, sometimes there is a deluge of subversive marketing that comes off cloying by the time anything listenable arrives. In other instances, Reznor will drop tracks with no warning, sometimes after great length or immediately following another release. His unpredictability serves his artistry and has remained one of his greater strengths. Short of reinvention, it is a means to remain vital, unpredictable in a market where expectation is sure death.
There is something of a trend arising as of late, however. Nine Inch Nails has seen several releases debut with a significantly lean track listing that remain just outside of classification. Too long for EP, too short for LP, too artistically masterful to be considered a last minute spasm of disposable content, too ephemeral to adequately ascribe thematic presence to. This “yes but also no” formula carries on in middling fashion in Added Violence
The follow-up to last year’s Not the Actual Events, Added Violence debuts in similar fashion with its own brief runtime and cryptic presence. The difference being that the previous entry had teeth (and no, not their 2005 release of the same name). Added Violence is simply there, never really pushing the envelope as far as Reznor has proven himself capable. Perhaps most frustrating are the glimmers of genius just beneath the surface that are never allowed up for air.
The ‘80s synthwave “Less Than” jumpstarts Added Violence with little flourish, opting for a surprisingly traditional composition following the verse-chorus-hook-repeat blueprint that serve the album opener well. Reznor doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, for the better. Even the lyrical arrangement is straight forward without being sparse. “What are you waiting for? You done what was asked for- did it fix what was wrong with? Are you less than?” captures the biting cynicism Nine Inch Nails is best at while stopping short at self-indulgent misanthropy.
Nine Inch Nails has always been best served when Reznor leans into his delivery and likewise the slim five tracks benefit from all the adrenaline it can muster. “Less Than” is timeless Nine Inch Nails and can stand shoulder to shoulder with any other greatest hits. Mean, sharp and fast enough to never catch its own reflection, the snarling “Not Anymore” also captures this youthful energy sometimes lost in an oft-introspective Reznor.
And then the other side of the coin follows with “The Lovers”. Reznor possesses a proclivity to mumble whisper through his more brooding numbers, honing in on the disaffecting alienation often on display. This works as much as it doesn’t, such is the cost of art. While the electronic blips that served the backbone of the steady backing track were expertly crafted to evoke suffocating anxiousness, the “beep-boop” meditation never got off the runway without any fuel from Reznor.
Added Violence offers a rewarding alchemy of Reznor’s signature electronic artistry with straightforward and readily accessible singles without either aspect betraying the other. The melancholy on display throughout “This isn’t the Place” and the detuned piano plunking sporadically out of place in the background make for an incredibly immersive track that displays Reznor’s ability to craft expansive worlds with a minimum of extemporaneous flourish that would other put the focus on the artist rather than the art. “This isn’t the Place” adds a gravity to Added Violence that the remaining tracks can anchor themselves from. With any other track in its place such a brief album would appear fleeting.
“The Background World” is the album’s only extended play track but Reznor maps the near twelve minutes runtime down to the last second. Its buzzsaw thick opening steadily gains strength, redoubling before falling in on itself a third of the way through the track. This heavy riff plays on a loop, gaining more and more distortion with every iteration while inversely losing more and more of its identity at the same rate. This is a clear artistic statement that can applied to the nature of man or to mankind, to relationships, to life and death, to anything the listener currently experiences dissonance with in their life.
This is a wildly successful artistic statement. Its vision is so precise and engaging it could easily hold its own space in any gallery. However, and this is a big however, considering we’re talking about music- halfway through, the progression of decay is so profound, the “added violence” so all-consuming, that the track is completely unlistenable and nothing more than cacophony of gnarled trash compactor static. This was a brave decision that Reznor has the skill to accomplish and his art prospered for it. We, however are left to suffer for his art with the album closing without much to remember it fondly for.
Standout Track: “Less Than” is a phenomenal showcase song for Nine Inch Nails that hits all of their distinctive flair with a vitality that pays no heed to the decades Reznor has toiled.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Winner of the Week: Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
If only based on his back catalogue, there was little reason to not expect something great from Tyler, the Creator. What pushes Flower Boy the next level and keeps Tyler at the head of wildly talented and competitive field is his willingness to step out of his comfort zone.
His past works were nothing to sneeze and also incorporated innovative compositions, but where once a young artist was content to dabble and experiment, he now offers a focused and complete vision carried throughout thematically present tracks that carry the same skilled irreverence buoyed by surprisingly candid and nuanced glimpses into the performer.