I'd Be a Nihilist if I Believed In Anything
Breaking Down Our Generation's Odd FutureI'm hanging on to this pole for dear life. Five thousand people scream, sweat, slam me against the sound system's protective caging as Tyler crawls eerily towards us. The sound system sucks; Syd's been angrily commanded to start the song over twice, and now Tyler's sandpaper growl is caught behind his Cross of St.Peter ski mask. No problem, though we know the words. We scream gleefully about rape, murder, dinosaur fucking, and our absentee dads.
by Morgan Neiman
It's almost a riot already, but we want more. More violence. More anger wait, not anger. More fuck-it-all. More fuck-you-dad. More chaos. I look up the scaffolding Tyler's possessed limbs hang 20 feet above me, eyes wide and rolled back into his skull. He's decided to oblige us.
I press myself flat against the poles.
Who The Fuck is Odd Future?
In layman's terms, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (abbreviated to Odd Future) is a rap collective. Tyler, the Creator, leads the pack comprising Hodgy Beats and Left Brain (together, the two make MellowHype), Domo Genesis, Mike G, The Super 3, Syd, Frank Ocean, Jasper, Taco, and the famously absent Earl Sweatshirt. Put Earl and Tyler together and you've got the collective's second pairing, EarlWolf. They've done two group releases: The Odd Future Tape (2008), a negligible set of original songs, and Radical (2010), a "mixtape over a bunch of other peoples beats." They've released eight solo albums as well, from Tyler, Earl, Mellowhype, Mike G, and Domo Genesis.
The group has attracted an enormous amount of attention this year. From Fallon to the Fader Fort, these guys are inescapable. They've played sold out shows in Philly, New York, London, and hit up Indio's big-time Coachella festival. They've been on the cover of Billboard. And they've been the talk of innumerable articles from Pitchfork, NPR, and other blogs and magazines, enough to prompt pieces saying: "seriously guys, enough with this OF shit." The New York Times's Jon Caramanica even put Earl Sweatshirt's "Earl" in his top 10 songs of 2010.
So where do you start? Attaining even a working knowledge of the group involves wading through a stream of Tumblr posts, Twitter feeds, think pieces, and reviews that miss the point. Oh, and the music: a smorgasbord spread across the internet, made up of singles, mixtapes, and albums that alternately supply scoops of Waka-worthy crunk beats and piano riffs ready for Cool Calm Pete, both combined and complicated by Tyler's distinct aesthetics. Sprinkle this with a series of vivid, difficult lyrics (banal ones, too), and you've got the OF platter to date. Dig the fuck in.
Never Mind The Bollocks, Here Comes My Dick
Tyler, the Creator makes shitty beats.
Don't get me wrong I don't mean shitty in a Rebecca Black, Jupiter synth Logic preset playing 16th notes, MIDI karaoke versions kind of way. Nor do I mean shitty in the sense of digital distortion or overloading the master fader you know, rookie shit. Tyler's shitty is the egalitarian slop of punk rock turned hip hop by and for a youth culture whose primary instrument is a MacBook.
Take the percussion in "Blow" on Tyler's self-released album Bastard. The first two-bar loop is simple a kick on the 1 of the first bar and the and-of-2 in the second, a snare on the 2 and 4 of the first bar and the 2, and-of-3, and 4 of the second bar. Sound it out. It's boom, clap... clap... clap... boom clap clap. This part is somewhat punctual, if not perfectly quantized. But the kick and clap come plus one: a lazy percussive bubble that swings into your inner ear like a wrecking ball. Then come the stock-sound accents, unabashedly unnatural both in their groove and their congruent velocities. The parts never cohere just try to tap along.
Next comes the melody, composed entirely of single notes on a lone synth save the initial harmony or percussive buzzing accent, ascending and descending free of complex countermelody. You can almost see Tyler play the whole thing right there, lazily rolling his hand back and forth over the keys, jabbing wildly with the other at drum pads and giggling every time he hits that '80's Casio stock conga.
Far from devaluing the song, these constructed flaws bring with them a sense of democracy an affirming feeling that you could make that on your laptop too, free from the confines of theory or technical training, somewhere between Picasso and paint-by-numbers.
Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits
If we can glean anything from the myriad think pieces that show up in the casual Odd Future Google search it's that there's some substance in the group's famously rank words. Take the first lines of Tyler's new single "Yonkers."
I'm a fucking walking paradox, no I'm not Threesomes with a fucking triceratops, reptar
Never mind the raunchy part, there's some brilliant imagery here the first line's paradox collapsing infinitely into itself, the more graphic threesome-three horns connection. And sitting lightly on the surface is the sense of post-whatever hipster irony that lends the group their relevance the collective wisdom of Rapgenius.com says that the first line and title also reference Judy Grimes on Saturday Night Live who says "I love Yonkers, just kidding, I hate it." Or how the last words read like the ubiquitous "hashtag rap" fad of 2010, where jokes would be spat in single lines with a disjointed, one word punchline as if they were Tweets.
Compare "My Chick Bad" by Ludacris:
Coming down the street like a parade #macy's I fill her up #balloons!
Threesomes with a fucking triceratops #reptar!
Though they operate within the same confines, there's not a chance in hell you'd take the latter for Ludacris. But that's really the point, isn't it?
Injecting scraps of modern culture with sarcastic wit and using them as platforms on which to play. And when Tyler plays, he brings such a shockingly mature lyrical sensibility that all of the content he aggregates turns into a sort of self-mockery. Hashtag rap was bland at its best, but how foolish it looks when Tyler shows us it could have been cool!
And then there's the group's calling card, a slew of notoriously offensive lyrics in which I hear various degrees of darkness. On top we've got the blithe but insincere:
I'm openin' a church to sell coke and Led ZeppelinAnd fuck Mary in her ass... ha-ha... yo
Were I religious I might take more offense, but though I see its bite I can't help but find it funny, like South Park's portrayal of Jesus taking it in the ass. Most of their violent fantasies fall within this space. Earl tells us he "puts the pieces of decomposing bodies in plastic" the same way he puts "ass in assassin." The lines are devoid of emotion, just cool apathy. It's graphic, but there's no truth behind it, which makes it relatively harmless. Bethelehem Shoals called them "meta-vile," and I think that's right.
In the next stratum are their rape fantasies. When I first wrote this piece I filled this space with a contrived interpretation of their misogynist lyrics as oddly Oedipal, which I unfortunately had to scrap because it was bullshit. I'm not going to ascribe depth to shallow misogyny. I'm not going to get all Tiger Beatdown on your asses, either rape is a relatively common theme in hip hop, and to critique that unfortunate fact opens up a larger discussion I just don't have time for. The group's glib talk of female mutilation is gross, worse than "fucking Mary in her ass" because there's nothing redeeming about it. There's nothing clever about cutting a clit with glass, nothing cute, nothing snarky and relevant. It's like a B-horror flick without the endearing cult kitsch. Not just bloody, but boring.
When we find some serious substance, it's at rock bottom: a thick layer of determined self-destruction. I can think of several reasons why critics have been utterly unable to engage what I consider to be one of, if not the most crucial parts to their music:
I give a lot of credit to Odd Future, so I think we can move safely past the first. Much of what the listener can interpret as multi-layered meaning is subconscious for any artist, not likely flushed out in full by a pack of 19-year-olds, so the next is out, too. Amos Barshad has done the work of discrediting the third for me (see "Here Comes Some Odd Future Backlash" in New York Magazine) so I'll leave it at that. Number four wins. Let's move past the sensationalism.
- The deepest part of Odd Future is, in fact, the sophomoric gore they spout. I am reading too deeply into glorified horrorcore.
- Odd Future has duped us, thrown the wool knit of dense carnage over our eyes to obscure their vulnerability and pain.
- White music critics really are "fetishizing black male rage," ignoring the group's honest thoughts of suicide and instead satisfying their nostalgie de la boue with horror-flick violence they mistake for outcries "against an unfair world."
- The music criticism world, like every other vein of media, has fallen prey to sensationalism and overlooked substance in the process.
Are you afraid of the dark?
My wrist is all red from the cutter
Dripping cold blood like the winter, the summer
Here lies Tyler no CGI, just bleak bright light. Black and white like the video for "French." Pained. Self-injuring. And really fucking mad.
My father's dead. Why? I don't know we'll never fucking meet
"Bastard" sums this up neatly with its title and the above line. Whether his father is really dead is beside the point he's been abandoned.
My father didn't give a fuck so it's something I inherit
Blam! Here's real meaning behind OF's overanalyzed gore: Tyler is using his father's disinterest to validate acting out. Not a grand revelation, to be sure any kid with internet access could tell you that Tyler has daddy issues. And the longer "Bastard" lives on my iPod, the lamer his whines become. But at least it's real, more real than the supposed "depth" in the callow carnage he spits for shock value.
In a way, it makes the whole thing sad seeing Tyler as this left-behind latchkey kid, breaking things and screaming until his parents come home, knowing they never will. It adds a layer of hopelessness to every time one of OF bites it when skating, and undercuts the detached outlandishness of the "Earl" video. It sucks to see this side because it takes all the fun out of their gross sophomoric behavior. I'm a sucker for depth, but the fun of Odd Future is that they lack it they use all the fucked up shit in their lives as one glorious, juvenile excuse to have fun and be assholes. Like, "Yeah, Dad's a dick, let's go tagging." Ignorance is bliss.
Who The Fuck Is Taco?
If you paid attention at the start, you may be wondering where the rest of Odd Future fits in to this piece you know, those other seven dudes and a chick that I rattled off? Jasper? Taco? Left Brain? Or maybe you're wondering why I use Tyler and Odd Future interchangeably, or how careless my editing could have been to let that slide.
Well, no disrespect to the wolf pack, but they just don't pack the substance Tyler and Earl spit. Mellowhype is dope, and I keep Mike G's "Everything That's Yours" on repeat. I think there's something enriching about Syd's presence in the group, and she's been credited as an integral producer. They just don't have the same earth-shattering charisma as Tyler or the finessed wordplay of 16-year-old Earl.
(I should make a quick note here about Frank Ocean, since it's not at all my intention to diss him. He is an incredibly talented musician. He simply doesn't fit as part of Odd Future his production is different, he doesn't rap, he writes for other people, he doesn't tour with the gang. My apologies to the outlier whose inclusion would skew my study).
But they're certainly not there for nothing. Bleach Tyler and stand him alone, and you've got Eminem dark, disturbed, and deeply confessional. The sense of community the others' presence brings softens Tyler's wrist-cutting rage and their violent content as a whole. It's the difference between a deranged man and a punk-ass pack of profane kids, which is a big one. Consider that my props to the crew at large.
Oh, and I still don't know who the fuck Taco is.
The Sky Is Falling
We've yet to cover one crucial piece of the Odd Future spectrum: believe it or don't, it's the motherfucking hype. Hype is what made them; hip-hop blogs 2dopeboyz and Nah Right brushed them off, but when their first teenaged fans saw the demented video for "Earl" they spread that shit like wildfire. My boyfriend, a deranged fan, was one of these first. He showed me, and I got to watch it all happen: from a Facebook post or two to a Tumblr to a little blog attention to trending on Twitter to magazine features to Prefix's "Okay, Enough With The Odd-Future Think Pieces Already," the crew blew up in a rapid mess. They feel like the culmination of digital DIY, proving studios, engineers, and industry execs expendable. The beats they've made on their MacBooks have reached millions. They garnered a following with Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube, all available gratis to the general public. They've even broken the label mold by signing a distribution deal for the group where they keep their rights. It's no wonder that children of the internet age got wrapped up in their steady ascent. For us, their success means that all we need to make it is a laptop and wi-fi.
But there's something more that we relate to: their fuck-it-all antics engage a scared and restless and violent 2012 sort of activism cum nihilism. It reminds me of Mitchell Heisman's Suicide Note, a manifesto just shy of 2000 pages that made good on its name when the author took his life in Harvard Yard last year.
The following is an experiment in Nihilism . . . if there is no extant God, no extant gods, no good and no evil, no right and no wrong, no meaning and no purpose; if there are no values that are inherently valuable; no justice that is ultimately justifiable; no reasoning that is fundamentally rational, then there is no sane way to choose between science, religion, racism, philosophy, nationalism, art, conservatism, nihilism, liberalism, surrealism, fascism, asceticism, egalitarianism, subjectivism, elitism, ismism.
Suicide Note sits somewhere between the ramblings of a mentally ill man and a powerful expression of a growing 21st century sentiment (hey, not far from Tyler). It engages the overwhelming deification of technology, the frightening grasp of religion, the life-determining power of economic strain, and the shocking persistence of terrorism, concluding with the "elimination of self-preservation" as the logical answer: death. I'm hesitant to engage the text as a whole. Heisman's dissection of religious symbolism, for one, stinks of conspiracy theory. But in his most lucid moments he touches on the desperate nihilism I feel coursing through this generation my generation.
Can we speak with freedom about the things that demonstrate the limits of freedom of speech?
Each day, I click the "Latest Headlines" button on my browser and watch, from the safety of my home, as Libyan rebels battle Qaddafi's troops for Tripoli. I page through Italian students protesting budget cuts through clouds of tear gas. I read with fear of the Ivory Coast's power cuts, of terrorist plots, of Muslim lovers texting, of suicide rates at home. It feels the same each time, a sense of hopeless-hopeful urgency overwhelms the logic of self-preservation. Just living in New York has made me confront my mortality. I have sat through two bomb scares, stuck behind yellow tape on empty blocks, escorted out before the bomb squad came. The first time, I called my dad in tears. The second time, I laughed.
In his gross, unripe way, Tyler fits right into this scene. He's not so much an activist as one more 2012 kid who reads these headlines during class like me. He's a caricature of the sheltered American boy who's got the nihilism but nowhere to go, so he channels that fuck-it-all urgency into swear words and reckless skating, yelling at the church and touting death just like Heisman. It's less mature, to be sure, and Tyler never takes that plunge and pulls the trigger. But for a generation that kicked off middle school with 9/11 and half-expects the world to end before we graduate college, there's freedom in his nihilistic freefall. We all want to jump.
Fuck everything man, that's what my conscience said Then it bunny-hopped off my shoulder, now my conscience dead Now the only guidance that I had is splattered on cement Actions speak louder than words, let me try this shit, dead
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