For everything our educational system provides us, there are certain gaps within it that create a number of problems for us later on in life. For one, while we go through painstaking detail to memorize specific facts, there is no emphasis on being told why these facts are important. Though we practice sitting for long periods of time while pretending to be interested in what we’re learning, there is nothing that teaches us how to relax and to enjoy our time outside of school. And while a blueprint to get good grades is encoded in our minds, there is nothing to be said about feeling overwhelmed by expectations and deadlines.
In a word, it seems the specific goal-oriented way of thinking which is gained through a traditional education prevents us from knowing anything that goes beyond it, leading to some strange results later on in life: we might be great at marketing a distorted self-image but feel completely out of touch with our authentic selves; we might be experts at knowing how to keep ourselves busy but know nothing about enjoying our time away from these pursuits; we might be admirably persistent in following rules to reach a specific kind of success but have no clue how to handle the inevitable failures that are faced along the way.
For most of our lives these gaps don’t really present much of an issue to us, as we’re well prepared to navigate through the predictable aspects of our lives: things like getting through the drudgery of a typical workday, keeping up with small talk, or complying with the demands of any other widely accepted social norm. But just when we think we have it all figured out, our “common sense” runs short in times of unpredictability, especially when it comes to the end of a relationship.
Whether it be physically removing oneself from an unhealthy friendship or emotionally moving on from a childlike dependency, the experience of an ended relationship occupies a weird space in our cultural landscape. While these experiences may be touched on in passing, there’s something particularly awkward about how they’re handled publicly. On the one hand, the abrupt end of a relationship can be an earth-shattering experience in which those who endure it feel as though they lost a part of themselves. Yet, although everyone knows this, there is nevertheless a social pressure to remain nonchalant about the fact of the matter externally, leading to the obvious question: If everyone experiences this kind of loss in one way or another, what compels us to conceal that part of ourselves from others?
When reflecting on our goal-oriented upbringing, this pressure seems to indicate that the kind of vulnerability that accompanies loss of any kind is at odds with the guise of confident indifference that our social structure operates under. In this way, to admit that side of ourselves would contradict the way of thinking we’ve become so accustomed to. And though the process of getting through a failed relationship is a central theme within the world of music, few artists have made the bold effort to go beyond this façade authentically. In light of this repression, Tyler, the Creator’s nuanced take on heartbreak on his new album, Igor, is really like a breath of fresh air.
Although Igor is a fictional narrative, what separates it from the plethora of breakup albums that have preceded it lies in its unabashedly introspective take on the psychological effects that surround the experience, whether it be desperately hanging on to something that isn’t there or having to make sense of what is. The album itself follows a wide-eyed protagonist as he limps through the different phases of heartbreak and drastically changes in the process. Tyler manages to distinguish these phases to a dramatic effect both through channeling their different energies with a diverse range of sounds and also by using soft-spoken conversational interludes that provide wise insights amidst the seemingly hopeless experiences the protagonist goes through.
What becomes immediately noticeable to listeners as the album progresses is the power imbalance that exists between the protagonist and his soon-to-be ex. Whether it be the desperate attempt to blame all that went wrong between them on himself just to salvage an already dying relationship on the catchy “EARFQUAKE” (“Don’t leave it’s my fault!”) or the self-destructive urge to torture himself just to avoid feeling alone that is displayed on “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” (“I found peace in drowning”), this character reveals himself to be what anyone would dread to become: the “loser” of the breakup.
It is the shame of seeing oneself in this role which propels the story-line from there, changing the protagonist from an innocent bystander of his own life into a demonic figure, as the album’s sound morphs from a wistful pop into an abrasive griminess accordingly. Bouncing from the uncontrollable jealousy of wanting to violently interfere with his ex’s budding relationship with someone else on “NEW MAGIC WAND” to the demeaning subservience that is displayed on “PUPPET,” Tyler explores at this stage of the album the cyclical nature of improperly confronting a traumatic experience. While the incomprehensible rage of trying to make sense of a former partner’s abandonment may appear to drive you away from them more than anything, Tyler depicts the irony here that the more you forcibly try push someone out of your life, the faster they will collide with it.
But just when the production and Tyler’s lyrics reach their apex of thoughtless aggression on “WHAT’S GOOD,” a strange thing happens. After the mood of the track abruptly comes to a tranquil calm, the protagonist notices that the anger he was holding on towards his ex for so long just doesn’t feel the same anymore, leading to the startling realization that “[His] love’s gone.” The initial stage of getting over a breakup at this point of the album is not so much portrayed as the joyous affair it is often associated with, but instead as a kind of awkward confusion: as the protagonist tries to make sense of what the hell happened to him, the shock leaves him vowing to never fall in love again to repeat such a mess. In spite of the initial hesitance, however, it is this acceptance of personal accountability that allows the protagonist to process his heartbreak and finally move on.
The final sentiments of the project seem to be foreshadowed by what might be the most profound narration of the album as a whole: Sometimes you gotta close a door to open a window. While initially a failure through the lens of our goal-oriented perception, the protagonist’s wholehearted integration into his painful life is exactly what makes him triumphant in the end. What at first seemed to be a loss that he couldn’t bear to live with turned out to be the stepping stone towards a whole new existence and an opportunity to apply the wisdom gained through heartbreak to strengthen new relationships. In the face of the endless possible ways to get over personal loss, perhaps the most valuable thing to do is to not try to get over it at all.