Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR and Art as an Act of Service

Chad Ashby

Tyler, the Creator took the 2020 Grammys stage last month like a man possessed.

Sporting a platinum bowl cut, pink-and-white color-block suit, and shades, the artist vibed to the sultry harmonies of Boyz II Men and Charlie Wilson as they crooned the hook to “Earfquake.” Suddenly, things devolved into a series of seizure-inducing strobes and husky breathing. With relentless intensity, the Creator squawked and flailed, surrounded by a mosh pit of identically bobbed and suited dancers, pausing sporadically to plead, “Please don’t leave me now,” and to make the wild-eyed avowal, “I want 100 of your time. You’re mine!” (“New Magic Wand”). After setting the stage ablaze with his performance, he returned a few minutes later to collect a Best Rap Album Grammy for his latest record, IGOR.

Tyler’s performance was a perfect microcosm of the album itself. Stage, performers, lighting, sound, costumes, dance moves, even facial expressions were all carefully choreographed to create a visually and aurally provocative display. Tyler’s actual lyrics were nearly indistinguishable because his mic was pushed through distortion that mimicked a blown speaker. Ultimately, IGOR succeeds because Tyler, the Creator has submitted to his creation. This is what art sounds like when the artist becomes a servant.

IGOR opens with an abrupt, 25-second phaser. “Igor’s Theme” buzzes until it’s created enough mental and sonic space for listeners to engage with his project. A sudden splash of drums and a bass kick promise that undivided attention will be rewarded: “Ridin’ round town, they gon’ feel this one!”

Clear from the start is the artist’s slavish attention to his listeners. Tyler, the Creator serves as writer, producer, and arranger of the entire album, and his manic control over the project is particularly for our benefit. The artist tweeted instructions the night the album dropped: “Just go, jump into it. I believe the first listen works best all the way through, no skips. Front to back. No distractions either. No checking your phone, no watching TV, no holding convo; full attention towards the sounds … fully indulge. With volume.”

In an interview for Rick Rubin’s podcast Broken Record, Tyler riffed on his creative process for IGOR. Whereas other rap artists might select beats that underline the words in their rhyme-book, Tyler explains, “I like beat first, then melody, then lyrics.” The primary concern for the Creator is “making a good song with cool structure.” Lyrics and delivery must serve the overall aesthetic until everything clicks in a moment of genius—“This is how my vocal instrument can mesh on this perfectly.”

Recording artists produce music for a thousand different reasons: ego, money, romance, persuasion, threat, political action, fame. Tyler comes to serve. His every artistic decision is engineered around the listener’s experience. Like a three-star Michelin chef, he has carefully curated tracks equally provocative and strangely relatable, complex yet irresistibly catchy, foreign and still familiar.

Tyler surprises, delights, and provokes his listeners using an astounding array of disparate elements, yet somehow no cut feels bloated or clunky. “I Think” is a perfect example. The song crackles with the warmth of an old turntable while skipping to a lively 808. A jazzy synth supports vocals in fore and background—some blown out, some silky smooth. The track sports a Michael Jackson-esque melody and an infectious hook, “I think I’m fallin’ in love / This time I think it’s for real.” A gentle grand piano brings soothing resolution, paving the way to enjoying the next song. It’s an earworm because the artist has done everything to maximize listener pleasure.

No featured artists are listed on any tracks, although the album is chock full of powerhouses, including Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange Knowles, and Charlie Wilson. While many rap artists would use featured artists to boost an album’s cred, Tyler, the Creator asks his contributors to share his own artistic ethic: every sample, feature, beat, blip, and voice must submit humbly to the success of the whole—and ultimately to the joy of the listener.

This is what art sounds like when the artist becomes a servant.

Beauty blooms among artists who are willing to take up the microphone, the brush, and the pen not to preach, preen, or profit—but to serve. The psalmists of the Bible write intensely personal poetry, but it is always art as service: Songs written to put into words the complexity of emotions, fears, and prayers most of us cannot express. When an artist hits the studio not as an exercise in narcissism or capitalist opportunism but to truly serve others, they give us a glimpse of what it looks like to be fruitful and multiply. Beautiful art is blessed service to God’s created order. It’s the dominion we were meant by God to exercise all along.

Tyler, the Creator has manufactured a persona—Igor—as a gift to us. As Igor, the artist wails from the heart words that remain stuck behind the big lump in our throats: “Don’t leave … it’s my fault!” (“Earfquake”). He captures the anxiety of a humanity working hard to earn affection from our fathers, friends, and lovers: “Runnin’ out of time / Runnin’ out of time / To make you love me” (“Running Out of Time”). He gives life to the insecurities that enslave us: “I’m your puppet, you control me / I’m your puppet, I don’t know me” (“Puppet”).

Writer Paul McCusker captures the heart behind IGOR when he explains his own sense of artistic duty: “I admit that artists may be many things, but the best artists are servants. A servant to whom—or what? There’s a good question. Speaking as a Catholic, I believe artists must be servants of God and his work of redemption in the world… I also believe an artist is a servant to art. It sounds pretentious, even absurd, to write such a line… I mean the strange phenomenon in which the Creator yields to the Created.”

Tyler, the Creator’s humble service to IGOR as a work of art mirrors McCusker’s own mystical creativity. “It’s a profound mystery to me,” McCusker writes. “It’s a wondrous thing to create anything because artists usually disappear into their creations.” Tyler as an individual has been swallowed by his project, always appearing in music videos and public performances as Igor. His recent Grammy performance was mesmerizing for this very reason: We witnessed not Tyler, the Creator, but Igor, the creation, in all his fiery intensity.

This gives us a new perspective when we read commands about church life like this one from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The service we are summoned to is not merely practical and necessary—it is beautiful. Service, when done creatively as a blessing to others and to bring glory to God, is an aesthetic wonder.

The cross itself, the icon of humble service, is no mere instrument of pragmatism. The ugliest display in the history of the world became the divine flourish of the brush because in that moment Christ offered up his life as a service to his sisters and brothers, to the glory of the Father. IGOR reminds us how beautiful it is when a servant loses himself in his service—when an artist comes to the studio, the stage, the screen not to be served, but to serve.

Topics: Music