The Power of a Rap Album
In 2018, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize with his album DAMN, shocking the world - the first time music outside of classical or jazz did so, and a rap album on top of that, a genre with a long-lasting stigma of meaningless lyrics. This marked a huge moment in hip-hop history, stamping it with an official seal of approval from an established and prestigious organization. Kendrick Lamar proved that rap could be meaningful, and it's important to note that this wasn’t a single - this piece was an album. Alongside Kendrick’s recognition for this album at this time, this was roughly the same time period that albums started to make a scene again in the music world. 00’s rap albums were rarely as cohesive as many hip-hop albums started to become at this time, with The Life of Pablo, Because the Internet, Flower Boy, Yeezus, and To Pimp a Butterfly, to name a few that told a story to the listener. The 2010’s gave birth to the cohesive, storytelling style of albums, as opposed to albums built around a couple of hit singles.
There is only one contemporary that elevates rap to the same level, if not better, as Kendrick Lamar. With powerful commentaries on the structure of society, genre-bending tones, and almost Shakespearean levels of timeless themes, Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR transcends past the stigma against rap and connects to the listener on a visceral and emotional level. What’s even more impressive is the visual profoundness of the album - music artists generally have two ways of communicating visually - album covers and music videos - both of which Tyler has seemingly perfected with IGOR.
On a surface level, IGOR is a love story exploring themes of control and anger in romance; however, I believe that looking deeper into IGOR, it is a kafkaesque commentary on fate. Immediately, listening to this album through an analytical lens, the listener sees that IGOR is not comparable to a single where a rapper mindlessly repeats the same lyrics about designer clothing. The first listen through of this album presents the listener with a protagonist (Igor) who navigates his love with a boy who is in a relationship with a girl. Tyler begins the album with soft, upbeat songs, but slowly, it descends into chaos when Igor starts to plot about how to get rid of the girl. As the love interest begins to toy with Igor’s feelings romantically, Igor gets upset till he comes to his senses, and leaves the love interest as a friend. With seemingly a happy ending, the last song, “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS,” teases the listener with an ending chord sequence that is incomplete. Going back to the first song, “IGOR’S THEME,” the opening note resolves that chord sequence. Tragically, it seems to be that this album is a looping sequence for our protagonist, and he falls back into the same romantic situation.
This love story doesn’t mean anything unique or profound, as there are millions of love songs in the world about twisted relationships. I think that looking at IGOR as just a love story neglects its true meaning. IGOR explores love’s intimacy and lack of logic and reasoning, yet the narrative is left universal enough that it allows the listener to consider the dynamic between fate and agency on a more general level than in the case of love. Tyler, the Creator’s lyrical ability comes into play here, with lines like “I'll just buy up some new sh*t, never down with a lease // you never lived in your truth, I'm just happy I lived in it // but I finally found peace, so peace" (GONE, GONE / THANK YOU) and “Waste of bread, I need (knead) your attention (Skate) // I'm off balance, I need some fixin' (Four) // I’m your puppet, you are Jim Henson” (I THINK). Metaphors are Tyler’s forte in this album, whether it be a house of love, referencing being puppeteered by Jim Henson or “kneading” the concept of attention. These metaphors simultaneously drive home intimate and personal feelings of romance while commenting on free will, or lack thereof. Furthermore, Tyler’s self claimed genre-bending traits on the album universalize it past the genre of a rap album, allowing it to show these messages to a wider audience.
IGOR causes you to question your fate, just by hearing this character struggle. Whether you are witnessing him devolve into insanity in “NEW MAGIC WAND” or come to his logical and intellectual senses in “PUPPET,” you truly feel present with this character. You hear and watch him struggle as he is unwillingly manipulated by forces out of his control, a metaphorical puppeteer moving him around on stage. This intimacy with a fictional story through a medium that is generally considered entertainment has been seen before - in the theater. Great playwrights from centuries ago and skilled 21st century rappers have something in common indeed: the ability to connect with their audience viscerally to deliver a meaningful message. I tried to hold myself back from saying the following, but I couldn’t resist it. IGOR is extremely similar to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with characters doing devious things for their romantic benefit, only for it all to be trivial and meaningless on the scale of fate.
So whether you are thinking about listening to this album in particular is not as important as you valuing the power of rap albums for what they can really be, given a great mind behind it. Between Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN and Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR, the case for rap music as a form of literature has never been as solid as it is in the modern day.
Tracklist` (Listeners be aware that some of these songs contain profanity and explicit content)