It’s not easy being a gay hip-hop fan. For years, I’ve wrestled with my love of the music on one hand with my distaste for the homophobia embedded within it on the other, grimacing at the frustrating ease with which a rapper is able to say faggot, a hateful word that no straight person has any right to be using.

I’ve found this especially problematic with the music of Tyler, the Creator, the 26-year-old provocateur whose lyrics have often aimed to shock and repulse, whether addressing violence against women (“Punch a bitch in her mouth just for talkin’ shit”) or his apparent disgust at gay men (“Come take a stab at it, faggot, I pre-ordered your casket”). They’ve even propelled him into legal troubles after he was prevented from performing in both the UK and Australia, labelled as a threat. ”I’m getting treated like a terrorist,” he told the Guardian in 2015. “I’m bummed out because it’s like, dude, I’m not homophobic. I’ve said this since the beginning. The ‘hating women” thing – it’s so nuts. It’s based on things I made when I was super young, when no one was listening.”

I’ve followed his career and noticed a maturity develop, a softening of sorts, the decision to opt for woozy stoner romance over grim and graphic bile. This progression has come to a crescendo with his latest album, the dreamily melancholic Flower Boy, the title of which potentially acts as a clue to what might be his most controversial statement yet.

Could the rapper who used the word faggot 213 times on his debut album actually be gay or bisexual himself? Since his latest release leaked two weeks early, rumors have been circulating online, similar to those that emanated from pre-release listening parties of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange five years prior. Ocean, a longtime collaborator of Tyler’s and fellow member of the hip-hop troupe Odd Future, caused speculation when journalists noted frequent usage of male pronouns in love songs such as Bad Religion and Forrest Gump, leading to Ocean’s powerful statement on his sexuality soon after. Similarly, fans have been confounded by lyrics that seem to suggest that Tyler might have been trolling us all along.

Over the pulsating beat of I Ain’t Got Time, he breaks from a braggadocio’s list of achievements to spit: “Next line will have ’em like, ‘Whoa’ / I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004,” which, while hardly an admission, is jarring at the very least. Elsewhere in the track he talks about driving around with a River Phoenix lookalike, a line that links to previous statements about his passion for 90s-era white male pinups. In an interview, he once said he “100% would go gay for ’96 Leo”, and a recent Instagram post married a picture of DiCaprio from Romeo + Juliet with the words “yes boyfriend yes”.

On another new track, Garden Shed, there are a number of references, both oblique and obvious. Tyler tells of hiding in a “garden shed for the garçons” with feelings he is guarding from his friends who couldn’t see the signs, before adding: “Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase.”

The songs have led fans to turn detectives by delving into Tyler’s past interviews, songs and social media posts, scouring them for evidence that might support the assertion that one of rap’s most seemingly homophobic figures might have been gay all along. The clues range from the slight to the slightly blatant.

He’s quipped about indulging in gay sex on tracks like Seven and Domo 23, released a line of T-shirts that reappropriated a symbol of white supremacy with rainbow colors – oh, and tweeted this out:

But what are we really witnessing here? Is this a young man’s earnest struggle to come to terms with his sexuality in a public forum, awkwardly using humor as a defense mechanism to protect himself from a potentially unforgiving rap community? Or is this just another example of a button-pushing attention-seeker, ridiculing the gay experience for puerile effect? Without explicit clarification from Tyler himself, it’s difficult to define exactly what’s at play.

In the past, when he’s been questioned about his sexuality, his answers have been able to fit into either school of thought, although probably more easily into the latter. In a Rolling Stone profile from 2015, the journalist Ernest Baker noted the constant references to being gay amid the banter of Tyler and his entourage, causing him to wonder what exactly was at the root. When queried about it, he claimed to be “gay as fuck” and said his friends were used to him “being gay”, but when asked outright, he denied it.

There’s clearly something fetishistic for Tyler about homosexuality and the latest bout of gay references could just be a more tempered iteration of calling everyone a faggot or equating gay with stupid. It’s a different way of poking (his justification for using the word faggot was that it “hits and hurts people”) and the delivery has been formatted to make it more palatable for a wider audience. He’s made it clear in the past that more mainstream success is of high importance to him. In a recent chat with Zane Lowe, he revealed that he was keen to get Nicki Minaj on the second verse of I Ain’t Got Time to open his music up to a new audience while also tweeting that he wanted a No 1 album “sooooo bad”. I’m not pushing the cynical idea that Tyler has “gone gay” to achieve the commercial success of Ocean, but his messaging has clearly been tailored to avoid limiting breakout appeal.

If he is straight, as he has claimed on multiple occasions, then his continued obsession with all things gay strikes me as schoolyard-level, mirroring the tiresome baiting I can recall from straight teens back at school. Constantly talking about being gay or committing gay acts isn’t a reflection of comfort and acceptance. Instead, it pushes the experience further into the “other”, each escalating mention feeling like a dare (on this album he has at least progressed from “ass-fucking” to “kissing”). If by using the word faggot he was trying to express confusion and perhaps anger with his yet-to-be-defined sexuality, then it’s still problematic, inviting others to use the word in an unexplained way that shouldn’t be encouraged or normalized.

Since the album dropped on Friday, Tyler hasn’t followed in Ocean’s footsteps by releasing any sort of clarification, and his intentions might remain cryptic forever. Maybe in the current climate, he doesn’t even need to. Because what’s clear from Tyler’s lyrics, and from the general reaction from his fans, is that we’re in a far more accepting world than we were in five years ago. Earlier this year, a report indicated that 20% of millennials now identify as LGBTQ, compared to just 7% of baby boomers, a sign that sexual fluidity has become more commonplace with a new generation. Channel Orange also changed perceptions within the music industry toward a gay artist of color, and while acceptance of Ocean has co-existed with bigotry, progress has been undeniably monumental. We no longer take it as a given that homophobia is a part of hip-hop (the recent uproar over some ill-advised comments from Migos signaling this), and artists such as ILoveMakonnen and Tyler Bennett have come out early in their careers without facing as many problems as they might have before.

Tyler’s willingness to cause speculation over his sexuality shows that he’s now existing within a genre that allows him to play with labels (see also: Young Thug in a dress) and even if it turns out to be just that – a game – we can at least take it as a symbol of wider progress. Gay or straight, he’s aware of how hip-hop has changed and that means reducing those 213 (still unforgiven) uses of faggot down to zero. On Flower Boy, Tyler blooms – we just don’t know what he’s going to become yet.