Patron Saints for the Misunderstood?
Most controversial rap group since N.W.A. drops challenging new album
Disturbing. Hilarious. Vapid. Thought-provoking. Misogynistic. Empathetic. Odd Future is all of this at once; the hip-hop version of Kris Kristofferson’s pilgrim—a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.
While scores of critics have praised the young collective’s musical and lyrical prowess and artful articulation of rage and self-loathing, Sara Keirsten Quin (of indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara) spoke for a large and, until then, mostly silent majority last year when she publicly decried OF’s apparent homophobia and hatred of women.
Listening to The OF Tape, Vol. 2, it’s not hard to see where Quin is coming from. The women in Odd Future songs are often treated as physical objects to be used for pleasure; property to be plundered from other, lesser men. Repeatedly, they are trivialized and told to “shut the fuck up.” The worst offender in the sexism category, “Real Bitch,” makes the characters on Mad Men look progressive. On this track, OF’s Taco celebrates women dropping out of college to “suck dick” and make “French toast.” And then there’s his crack about using kickboxing as birth control.
The song “P”—after making unsettlingly casual references to Jerry Sandusky and Casey Anthony—attempts to reclaim now-frowned-upon ’80s-era insults such as “faggot” and “retard.” OF leader Tyler the Creator even describes his flow as being “retarded as the sound of deaf people arguing.” All this before he grapples inside a verse with the stresses of his whiplash rise to fame—fans interrupting his lunch, hounding him for pictures, his privacy melting away like a block of ice in the depths of Hell. Looking ahead, he predicts a nervous breakdown and the unraveling of Odd Future, followed by a descent into crack addiction punctuated by a machine-gun killing spree.
If you haven’t heard Odd Future yet, you’re probably wondering who these assholes are and where they get the nerve. But even with all the damning rhetoric I’ve mentioned, when it comes to OF, things are never as black and white as they seem.
As offensive to the core as “Real Bitches” is, OF’s Frank Ocean helps the record make a temporary 180 on “White,” waxing contemplative poetic about the transitory mystery of love. “Don’t believe what this is could be given a name,” he sings. “I woke, you were there tracing planets on my forehead / But I forget 23 like I forget 17 / And I forget my first love like you forget a daydream.” Skipping back a few tracks to teen summer anthem “Analog 2,” the mood isn’t so much wistful as it is content and nostalgic. In this song, Tyler raps with relative innocence about cooling out by the lake with a special lady and a glass of lemonade. On the same track, Syd the Kid—the group’s lone female—fantasizes about a moonlight kiss giving way to a rooftop sexual encounter. But the tone is more respectful here—“If you’re not down,” she says to the imagined subject of her affection, no pressure—“we can just make out.”
Syd’s presence in Odd Future is not only a boon, artistically; it’s also problematic for all the detractors ranting about the group’s homophobia. They seem to have missed the fact that she herself is a lesbian. She came out publicly last year in the video for “Cocaine” (a track from her side project The Internet), kissing a gorgeous cocoa-skinned girl on the shadowy outskirts of a bustling carnival. Not that it gives the rest of Odd Future a free pass, but Syd being a respected member of their crew certainly makes it more difficult to accept the notion that their politically incorrect rhymes are, at their core, based in some kind of genuine hatred.
In addition to betraying a more sensitive side to Odd Future, “Analog 2” contains a revelation. At the start of the track, Tyler comes clean: “Bitches think I’m crazy, but I’m normal,” he flows, about to tear down the fourth wall. “I just come off as a psycho maniac when I’m performing / That’s an act so I won’t bore you to death / ’Cause I adore you.” Not only is this an interesting sentiment coming from a group that’s been accused of hating its audience a la pioneering punk rockers the Sex Pistols; it also forces us to ask ourselves whether we should we take a song like “Real Bitch” at face value.
That OF’s schtick is in large part a button-pushing put-on; a scathing, pot-stirring black comedy for all the now-grown-up Ritalin-kiddos of the Internet Age—it’s something I suspected as soon as I saw the video for OF Tape, Vol. 2’s first single, “Rella.”
In this 8-bit-bloop-soundtracked surrealist feast, OF’s Domo Genesis slaps a black woman, who bounces back, smiling and suddenly Asian. A controversial scene, for sure. But in the context of the video—which also features a crotch laser that turns girls into cats, and Tyler the Creator as a coke-snorting centaur—it’s hard to take it all seriously. The whole thing smacks of satire from the jump, Odd Future celebrating its independent, DIY aesthetic by hilariously lampooning Hype Williams-style commercial-rap-video excess. In the opening scene, Hodgy Beats dons a space suit, except instead of peacocking in a laser-filled wind tunnel like Biggie, Puffy & Mase, Michael & Janet, or Missy Elliott before him, he’s on the couch in what looks like his parents’ basement, detachedly watching a 300-pound stripper makin’ that ass clap. Most telling of all in the “Rella” video is the street sign that reads “Nilbog.” It’s a nod to one of the most beloved schlock-horror B movies of all time, Troll 2. Nilbog spelled backwards is, of course, goblin, which also happens to be the name of Tyler the Creator’s second solo album. And if the combination of direct confession, subtle and not-so-subtle hints isn’t enough of a clue as to where the collective stands, on “Rella” Hodgy even compares Odd Future to goth shock rockers Marilyn Manson.
Also worth noting are the effeminate, drag-queen-style wigs these rappers are unapologetically sporting in the video. No hard, macho gangsta front here. Not to mention that the cover Tyler designed for the new album features a bright pink glazed donut with rainbow sprinkles.
Picking up where the winking, esoteric excess of the “Rella” video leaves off, OF Tape, Vol. 2’s utterly dumb penultimate track “We Got Bitches” skewers rap trope braggadocio like a shish-kabob. “We got bitches, we got diamonds, we got cars, we got jacuzzis,” the OF crew shouts over and over, before adding for good measure, “and yo’ bitch be on my dick!” Even the music on this track is box-of-rocks dumb, as if it were produced by an unimaginative fourth grader on Garageband. But it works in context, driving home the point Odd Future is making about mainstream club-banger rap at its worst. “Goddamn, nigga / This shit ignorant as fuck!” OF’s L Boy says as “We Got Bitches” kicks off, and he is not kidding—about the song he’s introducing or the feeble dead-horse-beat garbage it’s taking the piss out of.
When the sound isn’t purposefully low brow, OF Tape, Vol. 2 trades heavily in lackadaisical yet satisfying beats, the song structures waxing proggy at times. The collective’s video-game-synth-anchored raps are as whimsical as MF Doom (whom Tyler name checks in “Hcapd”) and as hypnotic and dream-dark as Wu-Tang, the latter channeled most deeply on “NY (Ned Flander)”—with its stark, repetitive piano line—and also the trip-hoppy album closer “Oldie.”
Just about every member of Odd Future gets a turn on this last track, a 10-minute masterpiece that wraps with a poignant mission statement from ringleader Tyler the Creator. Halfway through the final verse, the beat vanishes, leaving Tyler’s voice naked, vulnerable—empathetic. “I was 15 when I first drew that donut / Five years later for our label yeah we own it / I started an empire / I ain’t even old enough to drink a fucking beer / I’m tipsy off this soda pop / This is for the niggers in the suburbs / And the white kids with nigger friends that say the N-word / And the ones who got called weird fag bitch nerd / ’Cause you was into jazz, kitty cats and Steven Spielberg / They say we ain’t actin’ right / Always try to turn our color into black and white / But they’ll never change ’em, never understand ’em / Radical’s my anthem, turn my fuckin’ amps up.”
Any vitriol toward women or gays or suburban white kids seems to wash away with these words (an extended hand to all the misunderstood outsiders, minorities, misfits and underdogs out there), the balance of Odd Future’s angst and anger constructively redirected at the antiquated societal norms holding us back. Part of Tyler’s verse here (“They say we ain’t actin’ right / Always try to turn our color into black and white”) lends itself to the idea of transcending establishment views on race and breaking free of the limitations and expectations associated with them. The crowd at the Odd Future show at The Tabernacle in Atlanta last month seemed to reflect this, with its near even mix of black and white fans—almost all teenagers, as many of them coming from the suburbs as the city.
While Odd Future’s critics try hard to frame them as such, it’s difficult to accept Tyler and the OF crew as mere shock artists, flippantly tossing off incendiary slurs for attention—the music is too tongue-in-cheek clever, too brainy and self-aware, too anything-goes eccentric. And it’s even harder to accept that OF is a gang of hatemongers spouting their poisonous beliefs to an impressionable audience.
I think it’s more likely that they are—onstage and in song—inhabiting problematic personas in order to hold a magnifying glass up to their ugliness, partly inspired by righteous indignation, partly for art’s sake, partly to battle their own demons and partly for kicks. And whether it offends, the group’s music is getting people talking about these issues—forcing listeners to engage rather than ignore them, which is never a bad thing.
Perhaps the members of Odd Future see themselves as pioneers in a bold new post-PC era, one in which our culture has made strides to the point where we don’t have to be so eggshell-tip-toeing careful about what we say. The generation coming of age now is far more open-minded than its predecessors when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual orientation, so it might see the safeguards of political correctness as stifling and unnecessary baggage rooted in a backward time beyond their recollection. And, having spent the entirety of their young-adult existence awash in social media, Odd Future and their generation are much more comfortable bluntly sharing their opinions, haters be damned.
“Instead of critiquing and bitching, being mad as fuck,” Tyler rants, finally bringing home The OF Tape, Vol. 2, “Just admit, not only are we talented, we’re rad as fuck.”
No argument here.