Why You Should Listen To The Rap Group Odd Future, Even Though It's Hard
Advisory: Links and videos in this post contain language and subject matter some may find objectionable.
The last thing you'd say about the prolific young rap collective Odd Future is that they're boring. You could say a lot of things about them, but you can't say that they're just like everyone else. Over the past few months, the group has been covered in the New York Times and LA Weekly; on web sites like Pitchfork and GrandGood; and debated by people using Twitter, formspring and tumblr.
The music makes a lot of people uncomfortable and thrills others. They're funny. They're loud. They're lewd, nihilistic and disrespectful. The group raps about rape frequently. They give all of their music away for free. They curse constantly and use every slur you can think of. The beats they make and rhyme over are painfully aggressive, chest-rattling, undeniable. It's not easy to tell when the group is being serious, and when they're mocking you. Their music is alive — it punches you in the face. If you're over forty; have kids and are white, they don't like you.
You know what else? They're really good. Especially their ringleader, called Tyler The Creator. And another thing? It's awesome to see them play live.
I've been listening to Odd Future since someone sent me a link to the group's tumblr blog last summer, and almost all the criticism I've read of their music and their shows bothers me. Especially after seeing them play last Tuesday in New York, I think the coverage misses the point.
Zach Baron wrote about the group's November New York date in the Village Voice and pointed out the preponderance of industry types in the crowd and the inexperience of the performers. The very next day he published another, entirely different piece about the group — one that dealt with the critical reaction to the lyrical content of Odd Future's songs. It's true, what he wrote, that "a good portion of their lyrics describe what are more or less abominable acts of murder, kidnapping, blasphemy, and rape."
He wrote about how he felt listening to those lyrics, and his (and his fellow music writers') responsibility when it came to writing about them. "Twenty or thirty people who I really respect adore Odd Future and so do I," he wrote. "How do we square how evil their stuff can be with the mainstream exposure we are all even now organizing to provide them?"
"How evil their stuff can be," is far and away, to me, the least interesting aspect of Odd Future. I am fascinated by their aggression, their flamboyant freedom and the raw potential in their ideas, words and sounds.
I spoke to Andrew Nosnitsky, who was one of the first people to write about Odd Future (in the British magazine The Wire early last year), about the ways the attention the group is enjoying — and the criticism its members probably aren't — might say more about the people talking about them than it does about who they are and what they sound like.
"Either critics are using Odd Future as a playing field for their own sociological theories, i.e. 'How do I as a 28-year-old white male process this music made for and by black teenagers?' Or they are hedging their bets on THE NEXT BIG THING," wrote Nosnitsky in a chat we had back in November. "Either way nobody is really engaging the music."
I asked Andrew to explain what makes their songs good. "'Stapleton,'" he says, "is probably the tightest rap writing I've heard in a long time." That's a song by the most mysterious member of the group, who's called Earl Sweatshirt.
"For one thing — and this is a really simple technique that not a lot of rappers use — the structure of the verses mirror[s] each other. The first verse opens: 'It's Earl Mr. Early Bird...' and the second is 'It's Earl Mr. Late Shift...' And then he has a really great penchant for sort of elastic word play. He goes on this whole rant about how fans would stand in hail and snow for his music, or how they'd stand in hell with coats. And then he twists it back around to 'They'd probably wear more layers... but there's only one sweatshirt,'" Nosnitsky says. "The imagery is so refined: 'Mr. Deer Skin Moccasins is on the f---ing stalk again.'"
That imagery is often put to service rendering ideas and feelings more complex than the group is given credit for. "Oh, oh! And, 'Product of popped rubbers and pops who did not love us / so when I leave home keep my heart in the top cupboard'!!" he says. "How is that not more interesting than a thousand rape jokes?"
Odd Future is more wolf pack than outlaw gang. To me it sometimes sounds like this whole creation was cooked up in a treehouse, complete with a 'No Girls Allowed' sign on the door (even though Odd Future's DJ, Syd, is a woman). Nosnitsky says it's like the group has built its own universe, complete with recurring characters and inside jokes. One of the members, Earl, has not been present at any of the group's shows or interviews. He appears in videos, but the group chants "Free Earl" regularly. Where is he? Grounded? Reform school? Juvie? Or is he another finger in our eye?
Odd Future, as a group, expresses its brave new world with superior rap skills — "their storytelling ability and song writing concepts," as Nosnitsky says. "A lot of the rap that's being made right now is just rapping for the sake of rapping. Three unrelated sixteens with a hook attached. Just about every Odd Future song has some sort of unifying theme."
Often it's a theme — however rough — made by and for teenagers. The two most prominent members of the group, Tyler and Hodgy Beats, are both 19 years old. Their youth has been a refrain in the criticism of them published thus far, but it's overstated.
"Rap's always been a young man's game. Tyler is roughly the same age as Biggie used to rap about rape, Nas went to hell for snuffin' Jesus. DMX opened his second album with the line 'I got blood on my d--k because I f---ed a corpse.' Just about every rapper in the '90s threw around the word 'f----t' liberally."
And Odd Future doesn't only pull from hip-hop. If "bollocks" was a word that scared anybody anymore, they'd remind more people of The Sex Pistols. Led Zeppelin reading Aleister Crowley used to be a real problem. Marilyn Manson was perfectly free to show his videos on MTV and make tons of money playing arena tours.
I think Tyler knows all this. He uses the word "rebel" over and over again. He also expresses a desire for mainstream recognition, even a Grammy (though it's impossible to know how serious he's being when he says that).
On "Sandwiches" he says, "What the f---- you think I created Odd Future for? To wear f----ing suits and make good decisions?" His rage is that of someone exasperated by how slow and shallow other people think. Conformity and acceptance of the status quo clearly ticks him off. He's vividly charismatic. It seems clear that people have not been able to stop him from saying things they don't want to hear for quite some time.
In his songs Tyler is preoccupied by his frustration — enough that he's not really painting a clear picture of what's going on in his head; enough that he can't quite figure out the best way to point out hypocrisy and lazy thinking. So he says a lot of bad words and paints a lot of hideous pictures. "I didn't mean to offend anyone," he says on "Seven." "Oh, wait, I'm lying." He's deeply hurt that his father isn't around.
He feels different from other people, and he's drawing hard lines between himself and people he thinks are stupid, or wack. Between the group that he thinks of as family and other musicians.
He knows whose buttons to push and how far. He knows which of our national repressed memories sting the most. As Nosnitsky points out, "Some of these guys [writing about Odd Future] take a casual interest in black men killing other black men on record on a regular basis with nary a cry of morality. But as soon as women or homosexuals become the target it's a talking point." What does it mean for black teenagers to talk about rape?
Odd Future bashes us over the head sonically too. It's no wonder Tyler uses Decepticons as a metaphor — the group's beats often sound like giant alien machines in a cage match. The bombardment is like the weaponry dubstep hurls at you, and it's not far off from sounds other rappers new to the scene employ, like Waka Flocka Flame.
I think that, for years, Tyler thought he'd never met anyone as smart as him. I think that enrages him, makes him feel trapped and unheard. I think Tyler feels bad about some of the things he says, but it feels so good to say them out loud. To scream them. To make some people feel bad, and other people feel good.
Just now — now that he's signed a record deal (announced last week, with XL Records), played big cities on the East Coast a couple times, been on Jimmy Fallon's show and received several very public co-signs from rapper Mos Def — now he might be realizing two things: he might be able to use his smarts for good and, if he's not the smartest guy in the room, the smarter guy (more powerful, with more money) might be able to hurt him (hurt any slim chance that he'll be able to support himself from his music or damage the authenticity of his image).
If he's able to make music about the waters he's navigating now, if he remains creative as he speaks to his fans and if he doesn't get swallowed up the industry machine, he could do something new.
"I think Odd Future is really healthy for young people," Nosnitsky says, "that there is an underground rap group that speaks to creativity and is the same age as their (target) audience. I mean, when I was in high school the underground rappers were dudes like Mos Def who were ten years older than I was and pushing a very conservative hip-hop agenda. Now you have guys like Tyler and Lil B interacting with their fans directly and in so many words saying, "Just be yourself," and not coming off corny at all."
That's how Tyler closed Odd Future's show in New York last week. After all the chant-leading ("Kill People! Bird S---! F--- School!") and reveling in chaos ("That's what the f--- I'm talking about! That dude just got clocked in the face!") and shock and awe (utterly fearless stage-diving, screaming at photographers to get off his stage), his face changed, his eyes relaxed and he said, to an enraptured sold-out crowd, "You can be anything you want."
It's scary how powerful — and reckless — really believing that feels. It could be that what Tyler wants is to scream really loud and force people to pay attention to him. It also could be that what he wants is to entertain and provoke by making some people (grownups) feel foolish and other people (teenagers like him) feel elated. It could also be that he isn't totally sure where he's going with this — what it all means to him and what he should do next.
It's thrilling to hear him, to witness him teetering on the line between an insular tribe of hardcore fans and the rest of the world. It's been a long time since rap has had someone this unknowable at center stage. It's been a long time since rap fans have been encouraged, even activated, to be weird. And it's been even longer since rap fans have felt part of the process.
There is potential in Tyler and in Odd Future's fans to embrace new sounds and ideas that don't resolve. It's exciting because, with them, I don't know what's next.