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Tyler, the Creator gets ACL Fest in its feelings in closing set love fest

Ramon Ramirez
Special to the American-Statesman

Gosh, it seems like just yesterday that Tyler, the Creator was crashing South by Southwest as a reckless, skateboarding leader of the new school. In 2011, as his combative and controversial raps made his Odd Future crew a driven-by-curiosity Tumblr sensation, Tyler infamously dove off the speakers at the Scoot Inn and broke a kid’s nose. 

Ten years later, the 30-year-old rap visionary has cooled on violent imagery and was in loverman mode Sunday at Zilker Park as an unlikely Austin City Limits Music Festival headliner. Wearing khaki shorts, long and white grandpa socks, black dress shoes, and a Hawaiian shirt, the rapper born Tyler Gregory Okonma played tourist during his downright sweet one-man show.

Tyler, the Creator performs Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. He was the Sunday night headliner for the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

He remembers his history with Austin, though.

“Based on my skin color, I don’t feel safe in most of the places in this state. … But we are in my favorite city in Texas,” Tyler told a sea of rowdy young people with their phones out.

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Before the second verse of 10-year-old, career-making single “Yonkers,” he was apparently hit with a fit of nostalgia and noted mid-song: “I first performed this song in Austin, too.”

That song came with a hedge from Tyler: Admitting he didn’t quite remember the words and that if he flubbed the lyrics, well, he’d just start yelling “Jump! Jump!” and try to rile up his fans to cover-up. He did just that shortly after during throwback singles “Tamales” and “IFHY.”

As a performer, Tyler is meta and self-aware. He riffs on live hip-hop tropes and undercuts their expectations by, say, randomly turning off the bravado to get real. 

“I can’t lie. I’m already tired,” he said early on. “It’s been four minutes.”

That outsider’s edge is what’s made him a powerful, winking sage for so many of his very-online followers. But he’s evolved with them: Early in his career, Tyler’s punk-rock energy and fatalist rhymes made him highly appealing to angry, young men as their deeply misogynist and homophobic lyrics were played up for theatrics — and largely excused. But Sunday, just the opposite.

Tyler, the Creator performs Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. He was the Sunday night headliner for the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

Tyler’s set highs were in-my-feelings ballads that a swarm of young women sang back with passion: “Sweet/I Thought You Wanted to Dance,” “Wusyaname,” “See You Again” and “911/Mr. Lonely” each anchored the set as big, beloved singalongs. Yet when the feelings got too real, he’d pull back and banter onstage.

“I don’t want these soggy-ass M&Ms,” he said to a fan. (Someone threw a bra at him. Someone apparently threw candy at him, too.)

He walked onstage holding two suitcases and his setup featured a giant, rocking-on-hydraulics boat. Later, a storm cloud platform that looked like a parade float lifted Tyler above the stage. No DJ or hype man accompanied him at the Ladybird stage. As such the solo journey through Tyler’s iPhone Notes app’s innermost takes was a warped, spiritual follow-up to Kanye West’s 2008 “Glow In the Dark '' tour, also a one-man rap show lifted by oddball stage props and relentless charisma.

Tyler, the Creator performs Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. He was the Sunday night headliner for the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

There was plenty of booming, traditional rap music too. For all of his fashion-forward ideas (Tyler’s Golf clothing label had its own Zilker Park pop-up shop during ACL), he’s a student of rap architects like Pharrell and DJ Drama who are known for loud drums and stylized ad-libs. “Corso,” from 2021’s “Call Me If You Get Lost” album, offered the mosh-pit energy that Tyler, the Creator built his whole deal on.

Despite being a late addition to the lineup (Tyler the Creator replaced Da Baby after the latter’s anti-LGBTQ comments sparked a cancellation from the festival), the Los Angeles rapper proved he belong at the top of the bill, enjoying the fruits of a media empire built the old-fashioned way: one YouTube click at a time.