Nick and Kayla ditched school early on a Wednesday in Staten Island and caught a bus and then a train to 30 Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. They’re high school sweethearts — Nick a thick-necked senior with a football player build and Kayla a fair-skinned junior with high cheekbones and black hair pulled back into a ponytail. The couple came to 30 Rock for a February taping of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” but they weren’t there to see Donald Trump settled in on the couch to flog the latest season of “Celebrity Apprentice.” It was the musical guest, Tyler, the Creator, who is on the eve of his third album, “Wolf,” (April 2, Odd Future Records), that inspired Nick and Kayla’s trans-borough trek.
Unseen on TV, and to the surprise of those present at studio 6B, Tyler actually performed twice. The second performance was a redo of the first, and as the band got back into place and the cameras were repositioned, Nick saw the opening that he’d been waiting for. He stood up from his seat high in the auditorium.
“Tyler!” he shouted, adrenaline racing through his body. “I named my goldfish after you!”
“What?” Tyler called back from the stage, seated at a piano. “I can’t hear you, I’m nervous as fuck!”
Tyler assured Nick that if he came down after the performance, he’d talk and take a picture with the teen and his girlfriend. He kept his word. Later, Nick gushed that he’d once shaken hands with Jay-Z, but found meeting Tyler more meaningful. Kayla had never met a celebrity, and she called this the best moment of her life, hands down.
“He told me my freckles were gorgeous,” she said, beaming and breathless. “He made me feel good about my freckles.”
The first time Tyler, the Creator played “Fallon” in February 2011, it was his world that had been rocked. He was flanked by his crew of young rap rabble-rousers, Odd Future, and their electrifying performance helped catapult the collective to international stardom. Since then, he’s put out a commercial debut (“Goblin” on XL) that reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200, won an MTV Video Music Award for best new artist, launched two seasons of the Odd Future TV show “Loiter Squad” on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and brought his brand of foul-mouthed, absurdist and occasionally confrontational hip-hop to the masses through multiple world tours.
“I knew I was eventually going to be famous or something, but not so quickly,” says Tyler, 22. “There’s so much that’s gone on in three years that I can’t even comprehend it all.”
At the height of Odd Future mania in 2011, Tyler Okonma, a California skater with a penchant for knee-length socks, camp caps and colorful language, had the unusual experience of becoming a poster boy for myriad social phenomena. His DIY approach to his art (he self-produces his music and designs and directs all of his own imagery) made him a paragon of the new, independent-minded music business. But because of his dark, often misogynistic and/or violent lyrics, the upstart rapper also became a pariah in certain circles. Canadian pop duo Tegan & Sara wrote an open letter decrying homophobia in Tyler’s music. And Justin Bieber, a pop star whom Tyler legitimately respects, offered only a qualified endorsement, telling a British magazine last year that he doesn’t “get the whole, you know, demonic thing.”
These days, Tyler’s demons are relatively tame. He maintains his signature, petulant Twitter account (@fucktyler), but has taken it upon himself to eliminate the word “rape” from his live shows. He still has a fondness for juvenile pranks, but — despite bluster in his lyrics about the woes of stardom — takes time to make fans feel better about their insecurities. During an interview over a travel-size bowl of Lucky Charms, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would be afraid of him. He’s playful at times, almost vulnerable at others.
“I think that’s part of growing up a little bit,” says Christian Clancy, who manages Tyler and Odd Future along with his wife, Kelly, and runs Odd Future Records with the members themselves. “It’s part of anyone’s evolution. We’ve had conversations about [offensive lyrics] and I think Tyler’s grown a lot from that stuff.”
The thing Tyler wants most of all now is to become a producer to the stars, like his Grammy Award-winning idol Pharrell Williams. But his own star isn’t quite big enough yet, nor his image quite palatable enough, to land the kinds of artists with whom he dreams of working. He says he and Odd Future member Frank Ocean, who won two Grammys earlier this year, wrote a song for Bieber’s “Believe” album that got rejected. Tyler does have a credit on Miley Cyrus’ forthcoming album, but only as a featured rapper. Like many emerging adults, he’s confronted with the cruel gravity of his own limitations.
“I’ve got so many beats and songs, but no one’s giving me a chance yet,” he says. “I want to take Justin Bieber for a month and just lock him up in a cage where we sit and make music. He’s one of the most successful people in the world, but his music could be so much tighter.”
While that particular dream may be deferred, others continue to manifest themselves. Tyler and the Clancys’ 4 Strike management group recently started a new creative agency called Camp Flog Gnaw, which aims to lend Tyler’s brain to companies that want to engage the youth demographic. The first fruit of the new enterprise is a partnership with Mountain Dew, for whom Tyler has directed four left-of-center TV commercials starring a talking goat named Felicia.
“The agency is a way to stay true to Tyler and not do endorsements, but to allow companies to use his creative energy,” Clancy says. “There’s a demographic out there that corporate America has lost, but Tyler has managed to build a brand around it.”
Tyler hopes the commercial work, and a string of recent music videos he’s directed, might lead to more behind-the-camera opportunities. His favorite filmmaker is fellow auteur Wes Anderson, and he says in a few years he’d like to direct his own feature film that he’d also write and score.
For now, the visions in Tyler’s head come forth unabated on new album “Wolf,” which will be distributed through Sony’s RED. The project makes parents out of the mellow chords of Amel Larrieux, D’Angelo and The Neptunes, and the bleak, visceral autobiographies of early Eminem and Nas. He’s performing the new songs on his first solo tour and will graduate from “Fallon” to “Late Show With David Letterman” on April 4.
Early at a sold-out show in Brooklyn in late March, Staten Island teens Nick and Kayla fronted a line of Tyler super-fans that wrapped around the block. Supreme caps, Vans sneakers and official, Odd Future-branded socks, hoodies and beanies collectively distinguished the kids in the crowd. Clancy cited this passionate, merch-buying fan base as his measure of success, even if radio play is non-existent, or album sales modest.
“The margins on socks are better than CDs, but as long as it’s still inspired by the music, who cares?” he says.
And if the rest of the world should take its time embracing Tyler’s music, the self-styled artist can at least claim one key convert. “My advice to him is to continue to search and never become complacent,” Pharell says. “As a producer, I am still as ambitious to make the ultimate song as I was when I began. In that sense, I think he and I are the same person.”