Odd Future kingpin Tyler, the Creator seemed to have the rap world at his fingertips in 2011. Riding a DIY zeitgeist, the Los Angeles MC’s rhymes, beats, and flair for the controversial helped launch the horror-rap collective into larger venues and prime festival slots. With somewhat creepy appearances on Fallon and even creepier music videos, the group repudiated popular hip-hop’s streamlined aesthetic. The future, it appeared, would be odd.
A$AP Rocky, the Harlem rapper who co-headlined the Theater at Madison Square Garden with Tyler Tuesday night, felt like an afterthought back then. The de facto frontman of the A$AP Mob released his debut mixtape on Halloween that year to fanfare that, while positive, paled in comparison to the hype surrounding Odd Future. The production was subtly innovative—Live.Love.A$AP was the first many heard from drugged-out beatsmith Clams Casino, after all—but even at its best, the mixtape felt destined for Jamboxes on coffee tables littered with half-smoked blunts and red Solo cups.
So, Tuesday’s show was a peculiar culmination point for anyone who has kept tabs on these young rappers—Rocky is 26, Tyler is 24—over their careers. In 2015, both have new albums featuring guest spots from Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne. Both have continued to hold their own despite departing the larger hip-hop collectives. But that’s about where the similarities end. On April’s Cherry Bomb, Tyler finally achieved the lo-fi, Pharrell-inspired aesthetic he’s claimed to have wanted all along. Meanwhile, Rocky’s wide-ranging May release At.Long.Last.A$AP marked an artistic peak that even in a year stacked with solid hip-hop releases seems like a feasible contender for the top spot.
The Rocky and Tyler Tour, as the rappers are billing it, places the two on footing that’s even only nominally. Slotted third on the concert’s billing—after talented youngster Vince Staples and eternal weirdo Danny Brown—Tyler felt more like a glorified opener than a co-headliner. Even at a venue like the Theater (not to be confused with the larger, more famous arena located in the same complex) that seats about 5,000, Tyler’s audience still appeared to consist solely of the rabid superfans, decked out in neon Odd Future garb, that enabled his ascent.
Surrounded onstage by oversized building blocks and toy chests, Tyler’s continued embrace of youth came off as a desperate attempt to differentiate himself from similarly-aged rappers like Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, and Vince Staples who now regularly make Statements with a capital S. Tyler only dug deep in his catalog twice, for 2011’s still-tasteless “Tron Cat” and still-magnificent “Yonkers.” But, Tyler couldn’t even keep it together for his performance of the latter, tweaking its sinister opening line—“I’m a f—king walking paradox”—to “I’m a f—king homosexual.” Accompanied by longtime cronies Taco and Jasper—the jokers who helped bring the 2011 cut “Bitch Suck Dick” to life—Tyler’s set felt closer in ilk to the jaded high school student who commandeers the microphone at an assembly, cheered on for his daring but not for any discernible skill.
Where Tyler willfully exaggerated his juvenile qualities, Rocky contextualized himself with the politically-minded rappers who’ve made 2015 a banner year for the genre. “I see blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians,” Rocky commented before closing with “Canal St.” “This is beautiful to me.” Long lauded for his beats and aesthetic, the rapper had the substance to match Tuesday night, going full-bore a cappella on the topical verses of “Holy Ghost,” before dropping the beat and performing the standout cut in its normal format. Rocky brought the party too, convincing the crowd to turn up for his Skrillex-collab “Wild For The Night” and bangers including “Goldie” and “Electric Body.” When Rocky invited Staples out to perform his Summertime ’06 highlight “Señorita,” the moment resonated in the way high-profile guests at festivals like Coachella do. Rocky’s tiered, industrial set also stood in stark contrast to Tyler’s stage, and as he gleefully skipped up and down its stairs, confetti raining down just three songs in, he seemed every bit the headliner that few would’ve expected a couple short years ago.