The dissonance between the two poles, between puppy and wolf, altar boy and Rosemary’s baby, is the heart of Odd Future’s sound
Since Roland Barthes published his landmark 1967 essay “The Death of The Author,” critics have been loath to drag writers themselves into reviews of their work. Even when postmodern authors bring themselves into the text, well-schooled critics know they’re dealing with tricksters and take care to distinguish, say, the “Philip Roth” of Operation Shylock from the artist himself. Except, that is, in hip-hop.
From the moment the ten-member teenage rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All breached the mainstream, it was clear the intentional fallacy did not apply. Led by Tyler the Creator, and including Earl Sweatshirt, Hodgy Beats, Mike G, Left Brain, Domo Genesis, Syd the Kid, Frank Ocean, Taco Bennet, and Jasper Dolphin, the group, with their propensity for punk-inspired beats and obscene lyrics, has exploded internet-first into the public consciousness. If OFWGKTA produces the musical equivalent of a high schooler’s violent notebook doodles, then critics have eagerly donned the judgmental pose of guidance counselors, sifting through the obscene lyrics to find equal parts potential and pathology. Tyler’s plea, on his new album Goblin, that “It’s fucking fiction!” goes ignored as the “blogging faggots” search his short biography for ways to explain why Tyler called them faggots. Is it an expression of his middle-class angst? Maybe it’s his absent father.
The critical discourse that surrounds Odd Future is already internal to the lyrics. From Tyler’s constant rejection of the term “horrorcore” to calling out Pitchfork by name, Goblin is as much about its own reception as anything else. The insight that Tyler cares about how he’s received is not an interpretation, it’s the literal meaning of the lyrics; “Mr. I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck” plays both sides of his contradictions. Tyler’s critics underestimate the degree to which the art already understands the ways in which it’s misunderstood.
But more than just missing Tyler’s perceptive acuity, this kind of criticism forecloses the chance to look at Odd Future’s music as fiction, to see it as an attempt at truth, as artists’ creation rather than the simple abstraction of their selves. Taken through this lens – one afforded gratis to novelists and Lady Gaga – Odd Future’s fantasies of rape and murder belong not simply to them, but to the society in which they’re embedded. Odd Future is so threatening as art because American society has a problem drawing a distinction between violent youthful alienation as a developmental stage (witness “emo”) and the moments when it spills out as acts of death (school shootings, teenage suicides, self-mutilation). Odd Future – and none of its members more than Tyler – shatters the wall between, drawing a straight line from unrequited puppy love to rape, from compulsory schooling to suicide.
Odd Future aren’t the only artists to tackle this disturbing closeness, but as rappers and young people, critics refuse them the customary artistic distance between author and product. Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek’s 1980 novel about teenagers in post-WWII Austria, Wonderful Wonderful Times, reads just like a Wolf Gang song, but no one suggests she shares her characters’ pathologies. In her sparse, narrative style, Jelinek tells the story of Rainer, an insecure but clever youth, and his three friends as they beat and rob strangers and are tormented by a sick inherited sexual logic (“It’s supposed to hurt because what’s good is perversion, not what everybody does.”) In the novel’s last moments, Rainer slaughters his family with a gun and an ax. There’s no more redemption in Jelinek than in Wolf Gang, and no less violence either. At points the reader could switch authorship back and forth without noticing much: “I’d show you where to find God, not up in heaven, at any rate, no, in me, inside me, I’d ram it up you so it came out your mouth.” Any high school student who turned in a short story with that line would quickly find themself in a district therapist’s office. As Tyler puts it in an interview: “It’s fucking art. Why when a fucking black kid says it it’s such a big fucking deal?”
It’s out of this therapist’s office that Odd Future’s music emerges, half-joking about being half-joking. Tyler used the framing device of a self-voiced school counselor in his debut mixtape Bastard, and returns to the technique in Goblin, the first Wolf Gang album sold in stores. Even though some of Tyler’s slogans (“Kill people/Burn shit/Fuck school”) are reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s adolescent rejectionism, his adult antagonist is no authoritarian. The counselor’s attitude is more like Tyler’s critics, spouting knowing condescension with a dose of liberal tolerance. As the ‘two’ of them discuss Tyler’s fame in the album’s title track intro, he defends his colorful language: “You’re gonna have to cut down on that ‘faggot’ word, that’s very, that’s a bad word-” “I’m not homophobic” “I mean, I don’t think you are-” “Faggot.”
Like Jelinek’s teenagers, Odd Future recognizes more than they’re supposed to about the way adults perceive them. Where Rainer and co. used the lecherous intentions of middle-age men to attract victims, Tyler raps: “Odd Future young enough to get your priest’s mouth drool.” The “innocence of youth” that Oscar Wilde famously rejected is important not for teens – from whom the world could never be hidden in the first place – but for adults. A societal fetish for youth only functions properly if the objects of attention aren’t looking back. In a country where pundits shame teen actresses for their nude bedroom pics and then go home to look at “barely legal” porn, did they think kids wouldn’t notice? Now that the sexual proclivities of American adults are visible (even unavoidable) to anyone with internet access, the most connected generation in history has discovered the dual role it plays in the national psyche.
The dissonance between the two poles, between puppy and wolf, altar boy and Rosemary’s baby, is the heart of Odd Future’s sound. The constant alternation between floating dreamy beats and hellish minor chords is unnerving, but not so much as the lyrics. In the Earl Sweatshirt (one of the group’s strongest writers, who has been in a Samoan reform school since before the group’s fame) song “Luper,” he goes from clichéd high school self-pity (“She runs shit/She’s the jock/I’m the horseshoe,” “Most want to tap and score/I want a fam of four”) to his crush’s kidnap and murder (“The basement light is darkened and the switchblade is sharpened/Her name on my arm and her face on a two-percent carton.”) To focus on the latter to the exclusion of the former is to omit their relation, ignore the music’s internal contradictions, and reduce its complexity.
Critics like to compare Tyler to Eminem, but Marshall’s maternally fixed neurotic lines always seems to flow from an analyst’s couch, whereas Tyler’s work, despite detouring to said couch, is firmly schizophrenic. His “I” includes not only himself and his counselor, but an evil self (Wolf Haley) and the mental voice that forces the transition (Tron Cat), as well as Dracula in “Transylvania,” a hilarious answer to Twilight. In this field of identities, it’s fruitless to search for a singular artist-subject in the end product.
Tyler has captured the general destructive nihilism of a constellation of figures, including school shooters, serial killers, and suicidal Joy Division front man Ian Curtis. Like killers and alienated teens before him, Tyler has a fixation on the Swastika as a signifier of ultimate evil. Black teenagers with Nazi insignia gear is both a silly picture and American society’s nightmare image; the artists seem more than aware of the dark edge of their absurdity. The Odd Future crew are the only ones still talking about Jared Lee Loughner, even if his name never appears in the lyrics. The pundits quickly lost interest when it became evident the young man’s nine-millimeter burst of violence didn’t fall along simple partisan lines, but Goblin is the artistic extension of the moment when Loughner shot holes through the official barrier between public and private pain.
Odd Future is the articulation of antagonism in a nation that swears it doesn’t have any. Against Glee’s sing-song commercial pluralism and Gaga’s tolerant biological determinism, Wolf Gang screams that a world with so much suffering must have deeper conflicts, of the existential fear that being “born this way” is the problem. This contemporary collective version of Dostoevsky’s underground man is a rebuke to Dan Savage’s state-approved historical view “it gets better.” If adulthood is free from the agonies of youth, why do adults produce such violently sad children? When Earl calls himself a “rapist in training,” asking if he hates women is the wrong question. The inventor of adolescence G. Stanley Hall wrote that “youth is prophecy,” and Odd Future is no exception, they’re the dark promise of the shape of things to come.
Wolf Gang certainly aren’t “progressive” rappers like Common or Lupe Fiasco, and Odd Future shouldn’t hold their breath for a White House invite, but in highlighting generational conflict they are the most political popular musicians working. Tyler’s music is a radical critique, justifiably blaming his elders for the murderous voices in the back of his generation’s head. The papering over of America’s social antagonisms frays at its young edge, where the contradictions are still apparent. Odd Future conveys the artistic threat that the masks might fall and the plan to produce another generations of citizens could spin out of control. The sound of youth is not the bells of dawn but a death rattle. As Tyler puts it in the song “Radicals” (also in singular form the name of the group’s first mixtape): “Fuck the fat lady/It’s over when all the kids sing.” In this potentiality, the amphetamines doctors prescribed to keep students still produce “the Ritalin regimen/Double-S shit/Swastikas on the letterman.” Teachers who claim to be “here for you” become the Schmittian enemy in “We are us/They are them/Kill them/All.”
At a time when America’s confidence in its future has reached polled lows, when, for the first time, fewer than 50 percent of Americans think the next generation will be better off, no one has figured out how to tell the kids. We measure our pessimism in terms of their lives and imagine they won’t notice. But teenagers don’t wait to have the world explained to them. It’s easier to write about what Odd Future is than what it says, and it’s easier to diagnose a group of teenager rappers than the society that produced them, but Wolf Gang’s art pulls back the curtain and in doing so forces the issue: there’s hard work to be done.