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NPR Arts & Life

The Tyler Interview: Silly, But With A Purpose

Elliott Wilson (left) and Tyler The Creator Tuesday night at the Highline Ballroom.
Elliott Wilson (left) and Tyler The Creator Tuesday night at the Highline Ballroom.

Interviewing Odd Future visionary Tyler, the Creator is a crapshoot. His music has drawn as much praise as it has criticism, and in person he can be as candid as he is surly, as hilarious as he is annoying. It's unclear whether he considers talking to reporters a grating obligation or another among the many platforms he performs on as a multimedia artist.

So when Tyler announced last week that he'd be sitting down for a live one-on-one interview at New York City's Highline Ballroom with journalist and RapRadar founder Elliott Wilson — to whom Drake had just given a convivial and forthcoming interview — I didn't know what to expect. Would this be an intimate evening with Tyler or Jackass 4: Golf Wang?

Like most things with Tyler, it was somehow both, simultaneously. Not knowing which Tyler is going to walk through any given door is frustrating for some people, but his unpredictability and high-energy charisma has attracted a fan base that follows his every move. They make sense of his contradictions.

And they followed him to the Highline. The mostly-teenage audience peppered Tyler with questions and requests from the moment he took the stage until Wilson wrested control back with a stern, "Yo, can I interview first? HI TYLER," like a teacher rapping his ruler on a desk. They were an odd couple. Tyler's buoyancy contrasting with Wilson's laid-back style, and Wilson's high-pitched, semi-automatic titter competing for space with Tyler's hacking, baritone guffaw.

But they were compatible, and the interview flowed smoothly. Wilson imposed a loose This is Your Life structure, trotting out the usual questions — did Tyler eat the roach? (he did) — and probing deeper — where and when did Tyler lose his virginity? (age 17, in his grandmother's bed).

Tuesday night was as much an introduction to the musician for the casual listener as it was a forum for the committed fans who hung over second floor balcony banisters to yell questions, shout "I want to have your babies!", throw gifts onstage and rap every lyric off his recently-released Wolf during the hour before the 11:30 p.m. show time. The mood in the room was alternately rapturous and rapt, as often Eminem with Carson Daly as it was Dave Chappelle with James Lipton.

Tyler fed off the crowd. Though he dismissed the event as soon as he got onstage — "f---ing retarded," in his words — he was not able to resist a captive audience and an open mic. As an interviewee he rambled and went off-topic, but he's an entertainer.

Like when Wilson asked Tyler when he realized OFWGKTA member Frank Ocean is gay — Ocean's brave and much-discussed coming-out last summer further complicated the homophobic slurs in Odd Future's songs — and Tyler launched into a story about rummaging for snacks in Ocean's kitchen and finding only granola, unfrosted Pop Tarts and turkey bacon: proof positive. Silly, yeah, but not for no reason. Tyler's kneejerk reaction to heavy questions (say, about race or sexuality) is to trivialize them because he thinks the accepted wisdom and polite talking points are stale and divisive. He wanted the audience to laugh, but he also wanted to reject the import of the subject. Frank Ocean coming out of the closet has been a bigger deal for total strangers than it has been to his closest friends.

But if that seems like a shallow or sophomoric commentary on a topic that means so much to so many (and it's far from the first time he's ruffled feathers with such a flippant stance), it's worthwhile to understand how much ignoring labels assigned by others means to Tyler. Throughout the evening, he emphasized how grateful he was that his artistic idols — people like Pharrell and Erykah Badu, both of whom appear on Wolf — look past the press about him to see not Tyler the provocateur but rather Tyler the, well, creator — just that and nothing more.

"He sees me for the artist that I am," he said of Kanye West. "He sees me for the videos. He likes the fact that I still draw on my clothes when I'm bored. He actually likes the aesthetic of all that s---. For someone that I hold up here that high to, in a way, look at me the way I look at him, is sick." It would've been out of character for him to see who Frank is attracted to as anything other than a distracting footnote to the amazing music he makes; Tyler might be reflexively offensive, but he's sticking to his guns on this point.

He aims to please his audience by any means necessary, as his songs and social media presence have already made clear. Tyler showed himself to be as consumed with the media as he is savvy in manipulating it, and that's saying a lot on both fronts. He railed against every rap publication of note, criticized how he looked on the Jimmy Fallon show, conceded to badmouthing Wolf to dampen the crushing expectations of following his 2011 firestarter Goblin and, oddest of all, admitted to saving over 3,000 selfies. All this came out in a steady and strangely relatable stream as uncensored as his music.

But no topic was as riveting as the recent death of his grandmother, the woman who raised him and the topic of Wolf's heart-wrenching closing track "Lone." He gave attendees a diaristic recollection of the day he learned his grandmother's doctors had discovered her brain cancer too late to save her life — the pain of saying goodbye, and the even-greater pain of seeing his mother crying. "It wasn't the death of my grandmother, it was the drive back [from the hospital]," he said. "Seeing my mom hurt f---ed me up worse than my grandma dying." He seemed in particular to feel guilt over his inability to cry in the aftermath. "I felt no emotion. I drew a blank. To this day, it never hit me," he said. "It made me say, 'What the f--- is wrong with me?'" He opened up to his fans as if they were the handful of friends he texted when she passed.

Ending the evening with Tyler vulnerable would have been powerful, but the moment was ruined. There was a commotion offstage, Wilson and Tyler looked over and suddenly it was time to screen a Mountain Dew ad. Tyler recently conceived a set of bizarre commercials for the brand, and the one they debuted right then involves a goat named Felicia berating a woman on crutches and is voiced by him. Wilson called the interruption "awkward," and tried to wrap things up by saying, "I'm sure she [Tyler's grandmother] is very proud of you." After the commercial, Tyler effusively thanked Pepsi Co. and fielded questions from people like the guy in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt who took advantage of the opportunity to ask the tough questions. Like, "Why are you wearing a blue hat?" Before long the lights were up and Tyler was with his fans snapping more selfies.

This sounds like a crude way to end the night, but for Tyler it might have been perfect. Levity and movement matter the most to him. As he recalled being at the hospital with his grandmother, he said, "I like the color pink and yellow and baby blue, and there's too much black and grey in there. I don't like people around me sad. I like making people happy." On Tuesday night, despite all the contradictions, he did.

A previous version of this story stated that Mountain Dew halted the interview and demanded to screen a commercial. Elliott Wilson wrote to say that wasn't the case. He says the interruption was caused by a soundman's error, although that was not clear to the audience.

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