Pitchfork’s Odd Future Problem
Tyler, the Creator
There's probably not much to be said about Odd Future, the hip-hop/skating/general weirdness collective out of L.A. that's become the flashpoint of the Pitchfork Music Festival, that hasn't been said by better writers than me. WBEZ's Jim DeRogatis has been leading the conversation, beginning with his piece "Pitchfork & Odd Future: Endorsing rape or showcasing art?"
But if you're new to the story, here's the deal. The controversy stems from their horror-show lyrics, like those from Tyler, the Creator's B**** S*** D**** (annotated lyrics; NSFW, where W means world). Thanks to DeRogatis's work—the group has come in for criticism before, but DeRogatis has been particularly tireless in raising the important questions about them—Pitchfork has invited anti-violence advocates to the festival, even if they're being frustratingly coy about it.
Why is Pitchfork even bothering? If you haven't heard of Odd Future (full name: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), they're something of a phenomenon, and a fascinating story in their own right, best told by Kelefa Sanneh in his lengthy true-hip-hop-mystery story "Where's Earl?" (subscribers only, unfortunately, but it's great reading). They're a bunch of very young folks from LA, the oldest and most musically mature of whom is 23-year-old soul prodigy Frank Ocean, who's an exception to the collective's shock rap, and just as comfortable doing acoustic soul like the AC-friendly, exquisite "Pyrite" as he his backing the younger MC and ostensible leader Tyler.
Odd Future's story is part of the appeal; in and of itself, it's unlikely and fascinating. But some people respond to the lyrics, and that has to be grappled with. Zach Baron tried in the Village Voice:
Odd Future and the acts from which they've descended make us confront a kind of disgust that is mercifully absent from our everyday lives. The discomfort and foreignness of the elaborately awful scenarios that Odd Future concoct is part of the point: it takes us out of our comfort zones, makes us feel weird and awful. Because nobody talks about this stuff. Nobody wants to talk about this stuff, nobody feels comfortable talking about this stuff, because this stuff is awful.
Broadly speaking, I think he's right, but I don't think it applies to Odd Future. They've compared themselves to Eminem, but they haven't done anything that takes us out of our comfort zone in, say, the way that "Kim" does. "Kim" is actually about domestic violence, and it's actually awful and terrifying. Most of Odd Future's stuff isn't about anything other than one-upping each other's shock tactics, like... forget it, I can't type it... here are more lyrics, if you must. When Tyler actually lets his feelings flow in a narrative, on "Her," it's just emo with bad words. After listening Goblin a lot today, I think Baron is confusing "discomfort" with "exhaustion." I don't find their obsession with violence scary so much as numbing.
The main reason I think Baron is wrong is that Odd Future is explicitly determined to separate the words they use—the violence, the homophobic taunts—from their gravity. It's been tried before; it's not a very interesting project; and it doesn't work. As Nitsuh Abebe writes:
What’s surprising is that some of these people were less than receptive, months and months ago, when a whole lot of other women and men gave a listen to music from Tyler and Earl and felt excluded by the end of the first verse—because all the ghoulish taunting about raping, kidnapping, or assaulting women wound up disinviting them from the get-go. In fall, Jon Caramanica asked Syd—the woman whose production and DJing underpin a lot of the group’s music—about that. Her answer: “Actions speak louder than words, and they treat me as an equal.” This isn’t exactly a full endorsement of those lyrics; it’s more like a way of saying she feels fully invited within the circle of energy. She’s included.
But all the audience has is the words. When you're down to trust me, it's fine, you've failed. In the Awl, Emma Carmichael described what it's like to not be included:
Their trick is deciding who gets to be in on the joke; for listeners sensitive to lyrics about rape or homophobia, the trick is deciding if you really want to be in on the joke in the first place. Young white men, Tyler masks strapped on, were clamoring for that right on Friday, while the women tried to find a place for themselves. That meant either dancing awkwardly onstage, because that’s what seems true to the form, or retreating to the back, amongst the stripper-b****-f****t-asses, and watching passively from a distance.
So that's why you shouldn't like Odd Future. So why does anyone bother?
That's the one thing I think DeRogatis gives short shrift, and what's so damn frustrating about them. Musically, they're wildly talented, far beyond their years, and it's even more mindblowing when paired with their juvenile, slasher-flick lyrics. Take "Yonkers," the first single off Goblin, and just pay attention to the music. To me, it's just as compelling and difficult as the stuff Portishead is doing 17 years into their career (who, by the way, are playing a rare Chicago show this fall). For a 20-year-old, who also directed the video—and is responsible for the impressive art direction for his albums—it's extraordinarily promising, and the product of a genuine musical curiosity:
Tyler's production appears on several of the songs on Earl's Earl, a brief, often mesmerizing album. In a recent interview with cool'eh magazine Tyler cited Stereolab, James Pants, Liars, British composer Alan Tew, and Erykah Badu as musical influences. He also noted, perhaps playfully, "Grizzly Bear swags their s*** out."
Tyler's productions do have flecks of those artists in his sound-- highly musical chord changes, slithering funk lines-- but they're mostly dank, claustrophobic, synth-driven constructions. Think MF DOOM meets Mobb Deep meets Eno. He produces them with Apple's Logic Studio and Fruity Loops software. They're uncomplicated, but surprisingly sophisticated for a home studio-dwelling teenager.
If you're into hip-hop instrumentals in and of themselves, and some of the related instrumental artists who've come in the genre's wake (Prefuse 73*, DJ Shadow, RJD2, Lotus, Burial, etc), it's wonderfully portentious. And has a lot to do, I think, with why reasonable people like Abebe really want to pull for them, even when their lyrical content makes it impossible:
This, in the end, is the hopelessly selfish complaint I’m making: I wish I could embrace the pleasure I get from this music without feeling like a scab, without knowing I can bracket things and include myself in a way that’s not so possible for others around me.
You don't have to cross that picket line, but it's worth understanding why it exists—it's a shame to see a foundation that profound support something so shallow, a painful one if you like the kind of music they make.
They're polarizing because they deserve both the extreme praise and criticism. Musically, they have the gifts to change the way people hear things; lyrically they're trapped in the same tired tautologies that are the defining trait of every terrible band that's come before them: "do what the f*** you want / stand up for what the f*** you believe in." OK, sure—hopefully this weekend there will be plenty of people doing just that in response.
* My favorite artist in that broad, somewhat ill-defined genre. If there's such a thing as "urban pastoral music," he makes it: