Concert review: Tyler, the Creator at Express Live outdoors

Andy Downing
Tyler, the Creator

Tyler, the Creator was virtually nowhere to be seen during a sold-out concert at Express Live outdoors on Sunday.

Instead, Tyler’s alter ego, Igor, a creation who sports a Prince Valiant-esque blonde bob haircut and a colorful tailored suit, held court for a majority of the 80-minute set, which drew heavily from the rapper's sixth album, Igor, released earlier this year.

Tyler’s transition has been far more than physical, too. Beginning with the 2017 release of the remarkable Flower Boy, the 28-year-old California rapper has managed to bring greater context and complexity to his early career both within the Odd Future collective and as the solo provocateur behind songs with titles such as “AssMilk,” deploying homophobic slurs with such discomforting regularity in the past that Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara wrote a blog post rightly calling him out for it in 2011.

The rapper referenced this early reputation when addressing the audience on Sunday. “A lot of you wouldn't have survived the 2011-2012 me,” he said. (Tyler also talked about biking to Upper Arlington earlier in the day and seeing “a lotta nervous Caucasians,” his coy tone suggesting that maybe some of that trouble-making urge remains.)

But on Flower Boy, the rapper took strides toward adulthood, even re-framing his own sexuality by including lyrics that muddied his romantic leanings. “I been kissing white boys since 2004,” he rapped on one song. He set these confessions alongside lines about embracing the person that you’re meant to be. “Tell these black kids they could be who they are,” he offered tellingly on album track “Where This Flower Blooms.”

Even the music itself on Flower Boy felt warmer and more inviting, Tyler constructing a lush, love-struck world of woozy synths and oddball orchestration. The evolution continued with Igor, which is heavy on neo-soul samples and irregular song structures. “Don’t go into this expecting a rap album,” Tyler wrote in a statement before Igor’s release, a promise the rapper kept at Express Live, delivering most of his words in a cracked, flawed singing voice — an imperfect instrument that had an odd way of highlighting the inherent humanity in his more recent material.

“I think I’m falling in love,” the musician beamed on “I Think,” which landed early in the concert and set the stage for the inevitable unraveling. As Tyler navigated this rocky post-relationship terrain, the emotions spiked wildly, shifting between frustrated resentment and mature acknowledgments that even this hurt would pass in time. “It’s a low tide,” he recited on “Running Out of Time.” “I’ll be fine.”

These musical mood swings were frequently matched by Tyler's movements. On the buzzing, massive “Igor's Theme,” which opened the concert, the rapper stood nearly motionless — a deer caught in the emotional headlights. Other times, the music would appear to fill the musician's body, leading to seemingly spontaneous dance outbursts, some as harried and unpredictable as a cut electric cable twisting and sparking on the ground, others more graceful and liquid.

The unfolding emotional roller coaster even drew out additional context in select older songs. On “IFHY,” off of 2013's Wolf, Tyler copped to being bad at keeping his feelings in check. “I fucking hate you,” he roared. “But I love you.” Moments later, on the slow, soulful “Gone, Gone,” the rapper appeared to walk back this outburst, offering, “Maybe I'm too dramatic.” Other past hits such as “Okra” and “Yonkers” felt less at home here, dispatched more in fan service and forcing the rapper to break character for stretches, distracting from the concert’s flow.

While Tyler packed his songs with complexity, the performance unfolded on a largely stripped-down stage, which remained barren save for a white piano on a short riser set off in the corner that the musician utilized on a single song, tickling out a moody, extended intro to Igor track "Earfquake."

This kept the focus tightly on the music, and as the evening unfolded, Tyler gradually progressed from anger, jealousy and deep feelings of inadequacy — “Don't leave, it's my fault,” he repeated on the emotionally shaken “Earfquake” — to an uneasy acceptance. Following "See You Again," which played as a last-ditch effort at reigniting the failed romance, the rapper closed the show with a more platonic plea on the subtly moving, aptly titled “Are We Still Friends?”

“Can't say goodbye,” Tyler repeated, knowing full well that decision was out of his hands, and, besides, the house lights were already coming up.