Odd Future are one of the most buzzworthy, talented, and controversial young acts in music. Kevin Lincoln considers how their lyrical content—which includes bursts of misogyny and homophobia—should influence the way we listen.
They’re a pack of teenage skate rats from L.A. They’ve been compared to both Eminem and the Jackass clan. They’re making throngs of jaded hip-hop fans more enthusiastic than they’ve been in years.
For an outfit that provokes plenty of the tired “creatures of the blogosphere zeitgeist” talk, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All—led by producer/rapper/director Tyler, the Creator—have shown serious staying power. I first got into the group when Pitchfork posted the title track from Tyler’s debut album, Bastard, still available for free download at their treasure chest of a Tumblr. “Yonkers,” the first single off of upcoming LP Goblin, has 7 million views, and Goblin’s slated to drop May 10 on the unimpeachable XL.
“I’m a f**king walking paradox. / No I’m not.”
Spat out syllable by syllable, this boast/plea/confused mission statement is the first thing many people heard out of Tyler’s mouth. What they saw, in stark black and white, was a 20-year-old kid acting out a beautiful and insane pageant involving—well, take a second, go ahead and watch the video for “Yonkers,” the first single off of upcoming LP (NSFW).
“Yonkers”—which Tyler also directed—is gorgeous, haunting, high-concept, impressively tight and technically dazzling. It’s also undeniably horrifying and vitriolic; one of its most oft-quoted lines is “I’ll crash that f**king airplane that that f***** n***** B.o.B is in / And stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus.” Saying this, Tyler takes off his shirt, and at the end of the line he throws it at the camera.
For many others, the first encounter with OFWG came when Tyler and his more conventional teammate Hodgy Beats—half of Odd Future subgroup Mellowhype—destroyed Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night.
When Tyler jumped on Fallon’s back after his and Hodgy’s spastic agro-rap, which included both guys shedding ski masks and Tyler swapping his trademark Supreme sweatshirt for his trademark Supreme flatbrim, the world was set alight.
You can sense it in the video: crowd chanting “Wolf Gang” and “Free Earl,” Mos Def screaming “Swag” into the camera at the end of the performance. Here was a group with unmatched vivacity, making people excited for hip-hop like they hadn’t been since, I don’t know, Tha Carter III. And even then. But again, why this reaction? And were these people—was I—really taking in the lyrics of these songs?
One of the main things that makes Odd Future so incredible to critics is the preposterous concentration of talent in this loose collective of So-Cal skate rats. Even though he’s their most famous member and effective frontman, Tyler might not even be the best technical rapper—that honor goes to the exiled Earl Sweatshirt. As a producer, he’s rivaled by Left Brain, the other half of Mellowhype. And some, namely Calum Marsh over at cokemachineglow, give Hodgy the edge over Tyler because Hodgy’s a hell of a lot more palatable.
Herein lies the controversy surrounding Odd Future. Among other, more conventionally powerful topics—including their fatherless childhoods, mother-son relationships, problems with girls, and the frustrations and horror of youth—much of Tyler and Earl’s lyrics consist of brutal rape fantasies, Henry Miller–esque graphic descriptions of both straight and gay sex, the frequent use of homophobic slurs and subtext, tales of bankrobbing, kidnapping, and murder, anti-government screeds, and professed hatred toward public figures like Steve Harvey.
Adding another layer to the transgression, much of this is couched in the images and motifs of childhood: Hannah Montana, Justin Bieber, Santa Claus, Mom waking you up for school. Odd Future trades in ugliness and hate, but they do it with extreme, precocious skill and charisma, creating one of the more morally difficult aesthetics in contemporary music. And behind the seething rhymes, one can sense emotions of an entirely different vein.
This is what the devil plays before he goes to sleep / Some food for thought, this food for death, go ’head and f**king eat / My father’s dead why I don’t know we’ll never f**king meet / I cut my wrists and play piano ’cause I’m so depressed.
In a post for New York magazine’s culture blog Vulture, critic Nitsuh Abebe comes as close as anyone has to identifying the real source of some disappointment with Odd Future:
They’re staggeringly creative, gleefully antisocial, pranksterish, needling, wounded, self-lacerating, and two-steps-ahead-of-you smart. (The kind of smart that can make teenagers resentful and nihilistic, because they imagine the world is stupid.) … Doesn’t that just kind of suck, that this group would turn out a lot of fantastic music that unnecessarily dis-includes a big chunk of listeners? That there would be these terrific tracks and vital energy you might want to share in and share with others—except that sharing in it involves leaping this pointless exclusionary hurdle that doesn’t just leave out people you care about, but actively assaults their sensibilities?
I’m making a weird claim here, of course, that this exclusion is “pointless.” You might disagree with this. You might say the value of art in general, and hip-hop in particular, often lies in unfiltered human expression, and you can’t start dissecting or Bowdlerizing the work into useful, redeeming parts and pointless, hateful ones.
The Odd Future bunch never mistake acting nuts for actually being nuts, and what makes their music so easy to excuse, and enjoy, is the sense of living, breathing kids underneath all the ugliness. If not by design, this is at least a convenient way to retain some sense of perspective—for artist and listener alike. Their insanity is infectious, the candor just a little too human, even relatable, to ever be fully mistaken for a twisted unconscious.
Without intending it, this is almost a direct rebuttal to Abebe. Shoals critiques the lyrics as poetry and finds them wanting, or misidentified. But Shoals is giving Tyler and Earl too much ground. I don’t think there’s any use denying the anger and brimstone obvious in OF’s music; the better question is, why, all of a sudden, do we have so much of a problem with it.
The key, I think, to unlocking Odd Future’s music is to consider the usually ignored possibility that these rappers are creating fictions in their music. (Exhibit A: despite the constant allusions to drug use and abuse, Tyler spent 4/20 complaining on Twitter that he couldn’t find anyone to hang with because he doesn’t so much as smoke weed. He also doesn’t drink.)
Verisimilitude had never been much of a priority in rap criticism prior to Eminem, because at the very least, Nas and Biggie’s, Jay-Z and Wu-Tang’s narratives of slinging coke or urban gunplay, even if not true to the letter, probably didn’t stray too far from the plausible. When Eminem started rapping about the exploits of Slim Shady, people were shocked—how could he be saying these things? (Important: Earl rapping on “Assmilk,” “The reincarnation of ’98 Eminem.”)
There is a visceral reaction to rap music that doesn’t exist in film and literature. When reading, you have to pick the words off the page and visualize them in your own mind, in your own voice. You have control. In a film, everything is structured and abstract from your persona; the film is a physical artifact, being considered from a distance, and though you can get absorbed into cinema there’s still that omnipresent fourth wall.
But with hip-hop, you’re listening, and the artist’s voice is in your head. There’s no interface. It’s just you and the musician.
Tyler and Earl, obviously, can’t have carried out the acts they rap about. And, due to their extremism, I don’t believe they sincerely want to, either, though the individual listener can decide that on his or her own.
What freaks everyone out so much is the fact that these are kids saying these things, and, by the nature of hip-hop, they are saying them to you. But they aren’t real. These are fictions, and they need to be considered as such, like you’d approach the delusions of Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) or the protagonist in Fight Club.
At least for me, I have a much harder time listening to the casual, pragmatic misogyny of Raekwon and Ghostface—even though I love the album, I still can’t listen to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Part II from start to finish in one go—than the extremism of Odd Future. On tracks like “Luper” from Earl’s eponymous debut album, the lyricists allow you to see the reality of their obsessions and compulsions and then trace their psychological movement. There is no smokescreen here; they aren’t hiding anything. And if we want to consider the most ethically problematic trends or efforts in contemporary entertainment, I’m going to accuse the mainstream contempt and mistreatment of women, gussied up as masculinity, that courses through Michael Bay films and grade-F comedy and a half-assed Ludacris dance track, before talking about Odd Future.
This isn’t just due to exposure or popularity; those former items provide a potential blueprint for real life, whereas Odd Future clearly does not. When Earl and Tyler—here masquerading as one of his alter-egos, Wolf Haley (i.e., another fiction)—chant, “Kill people burn shit f**k school” on Earl’s “Pigeons,” you can interpret it as you will, but if you take it as compulsion to go do those three things then that’s your prerogative, not OF’s.
On the other hand, I empathize with Abebe. As a straight white male who considers himself both a feminist and a friend of the LGBT community, Tyler and Earl’s vicious words toward both groups does bother me. So maybe the way I deal with this caveat is a bit of a cop-out, but to me, the slurs and rape fantasies seem to fit into a metanarrative that both rappers have worked hard to establish.
Some listeners of OF assume a stark ambivalence as their defense against this moral issue, but I think the intelligent critical ear needs to go a step farther. Odd Future have an established history of fashioning personae based on the responses elicited by their music, and the continued use of rape and homophobia appears to coincide with the ebb and flow of their desire to be raconteurs. They feed on controversy. This language helps their case. Does that make it right? No. And I have an ongoing hope that, as the group becomes more secure in the fact that people aren’t just going to forget about them, their use of such exclusionary tactics will decrease.
Again, as a straight white male, it’s easier for me to separate my taking offense from my enjoyment of the music, and to rationalize this reaction. But like Tyler’s and Earl’s repeated entreaties to murder, their other indiscretions seem silly and at least in part designed to highlight the absurdities of such attitudes and their veiled presences in more innocuous mainstream rap. It’s just that, unlike cartoonish serial killings and kids throwing bodies in trunks, rape and homophobia are real, daily problems. Their visceral depiction in music is a trigger for the enormous numbers of men and women who’ve been on the receiving end of gay-bashing and sexual assault. And if Odd Future’s buzz heralds the resurgence of hip-hop, they’ve made it clear who’s not invited to participate.
Such content is a “roadblock,” says Abebe:
It … divides me from people I don’t want to be divided from. Leave aside morals: It bums me out that I can love so much about a few of these tracks, but wouldn’t put them on a mixtape for a lot of people I care about. It bothers me on the same small level it bothered me when my family toured a men-only monastery in Ethiopia and had to leave my mom standing outside for 10 minutes.
The problem is, Bastard, Earl, and Mellowhype’s album Blackenedwhite all drip sincerity. Underneath the layers of imaginary violence and refracted cultural transgression there is serious critique and engagement with the problems of youth and fatherless childhood and the moral ambiguity of most of today’s art. I’m not saying these guys went into the studio saying, “We’re going to engage with the hard issues of youth today”—in fact, I’m saying they didn’t—but by making the most serious attempt they could at laying bare emotion and depression and vulnerability atop beats they crafted themselves, Odd Future, intentionally or inadvertently, provide a glimpse of humanity (good parts and bad) in their increasingly influential body of work.
We’re quick to give credit to older artists for satirizing and illuminating today’s insanities through their art, often by using vicious and exaggerated examples; just because Tyler and Earl are kids shouldn’t outlaw them as commentators. In fact, their youth and talent might make them the most qualified commentators of all. They ought to be held to higher scrutiny, because perhaps the silver lining to such exclusionary content is that fewer listeners will settle for ambivalence. Listeners will ask: By being fans, are we complicit in the exclusion? And room may emerge in the galaxy of talent that is underground hip-hop for artists who can engage an audience while challenging our conception of who that audience is.
(Photo via Po’Jay)