It’s not often the music world is shaken so vigorously that we’re practically forced to reexamine our relationship with transgressive art, but Odd Future has become such a cultural phenomenon that this negotiation felt like a pre-requisite to speaking intelligently about rap music in 2011. In the last several months, Tyler, The Creator, the de facto leader of the adolescent L.A. collective, has seized the public consciousness by appearing on Jimmy Fallon in a ski mask, having fun with record executives tripping over themselves to capitalize on Odd Future, and getting kicked out of (and then sneaking back into) Coachella. Within this frenzy, we have Mos Def yelling “SWAG!” at the top of his lungs on Fallon, Kanye calling Tyler’s “Yonkers” clip “the video of 2011,” and Diddy claiming that Odd Future is “the future of the music industry.” And this was all without having even released an ‘official’ album. Aided by a sizeable spattering of self-released ‘swag’ (eight full-lengths, four mixtapes) offered for free on their website, Odd Future’s viral rise to fame wasn’t surprising because it happened on the internet, but because its momentum hinged on the incestuous world they constructed well before their mugs were plastered on magazine covers and in newspaper spreads. And as an outsider looking in, diving into Odd Future’s autonomous, fully-formed aesthetic was like knocking on their door, asking to be invited to the party.
The problem was that stepping in meant confronting a whole lot of talk about faggots, rapists, and serial killers. If you wanted to be part of the Odd Future party, you had to somehow reconcile your values with the transgressive lyrics that animate their music. Odd Future, specifically the lyrics of Tyler and Earl Sweatshirt, forced us to rethink our valuation of music: Can one truly ‘like’ a song that is aesthetically appealing but lyrically repulsive? Should the values of artists we admire mirror our own? How does morality inform our taste profiles? Is Odd Future a reflection of or menace to society? While laying the foundation for critical analysis as they catapulted into the mainstream, these questions were clearly extensions of the liberal second-guessing of rap, by the very people who conveniently brushed aside the homophobia/misogyny/violence in critical darlings like Ghostface and Clipse, even in ‘socially conscious’ rappers like El-P and Common. But with the looming release date for Goblin, the first album from the collective released on a label and second full-length by Tyler, it felt safe to continue toe-dipping into the youthful subversion that Odd Future proffered until the cultural dissonance found some resolution, until these questions got some answers.
Instead of letting this play out itself, Tyler goes out of his way to try to answer these questions for us. Throughout Goblin, the therapy-session motif — carried over from his debut full-length, the unfuckwithable Bastard — allows Tyler to make excuses for the misogyny, to make light of rebellion, to explain that, hey, the homophobia really isn’t homophobia at all. Indeed, for all his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, Tyler sure spends a lot of time trying to justify his lyrics. On the title track, he whines, “Can’t they just be happy for me? Like, a kid with nothing, living out his dreams? Why do they gotta fuckin’ hate?” Later, he says “They want to critique everything that we Wolf Gang have ever released, but they don’t get it ‘cause it’s not made for them.” Tyler, clearly concerned with criticism, is attempting to set the agenda for his new audience — that is, anyone outside of his circle. This time it’s not about provocation and inside joking, but about forging a top-down relationship between himself and his listeners. He’s telling us it’s okay to like his music, because it’s a joke. Don’t take this seriously. It’s fantasy, simulation. It’s just youth, just entertainment. In other words, Tyler wants it all: to be taken seriously, but not be completely serious about his approach; to be successful, but successful on his own terms; to criticize everything and everyone, but to do anything he can to avoid being criticized himself.
Tyler makes this painfully clear on “Radicals”: “Hey, don’t do anything that I say in this song. Okay? It’s fucking fiction. If anything happens, don’t blame me, White America.” It’s disclaimer after disclaimer, apologetic to the point of embarrassment, a sort of postmodern poetic to meandering youth and its signifiers that keep on floating. Listening to his music is no longer about reconciling your morality with what may have seemed like an ‘authentic’ reaction to the world or, at the very least, some sort of demented representation of it. And it’s no longer about his magnification of subversive language in an attempt to castrate it. Obviously, Tyler doesn’t consider himself to be homophobic, misogynistic, or racist. Hell, he tells us as much on tracks like “Tron Cat” and “Goblin.” And yes, he uses the word ‘faggot’ as an insult, but he also calls all of his new fans on Twitter faggots. He’s even called himself a faggot. Syd, the collective’s in-house engineer, is reportedly a faggot, too. The question, regrettably, becomes whether or not their transgressive lyrics are funny, whether they’re ‘appropriate’ in a world where we’re hung up on identity politics. This difference is significant, and it’s precisely here where our reaction to Goblin becomes less weighted: if it’s all in jest, who really cares about the relationship between his lyrics and our values?
What we’re listening to then is Odd Future’s version of youth, unfiltered. But whether we interpret that as ignorant artists who otherwise have nothing to say or naïve artists who simply don’t have the linguistic ingenuity to capture the frenetic energy that radiates from words like ‘rape,’ the enthusiasm and excitement Tyler brings to tracks like “Yonkers,” “Tron Cat,” and “Sandwitches” are undeniable. The album’s slick minimalism contrasted by its aggressive experimentation feels smart and timely, and thankfully he’s not afraid to get down and dirty with the production on more abrasive tracks like “Radicals.” Sure, his flow is painful to listen to on slower tracks — “She,” “Window” — and when he’s not being overtly controversial, the songs are less impressive — “Her,” “Nightmare” — but the production is sometimes experimental (“Transylvania”), always ambitious (“Window”), and often downright penetrating (“Golden”) — and that’s not just in the context of his age.
To dismiss Tyler simply because of his political incorrectness would be a shame. His approach may or may not be your bag, but the energy in his music, his performances, his general fuck-you attitude is infectious. It’s not surprising that he’s rapping about pop culture and identity, nor is it surprising that he’s aestheticizing transgression and insanity à la his personal heroes like classic Eminem. Besides, what could reflect reality better than an uninhibited ‘deviant’ with no firm grasp or even concern for context? In fact, it’s arguably more alarming that so many mainstream rappers aren’t more regularly taken to task for their commodity-fetishizing, male-dominating, female-marginalizing narratives that reinforce the myths of the proto-capitalist on a more subconscious level. With Odd Future, there’s no politics, just implications. If the liberal humor police are finding it all beyond the ‘acceptable’ range of humor for a 20-year-old black artist from L.A., perhaps we’re really just trying to work out our own identity issues, to learn how we can possibly ignore such controversial lyrics that’s underscored by otherwise potent, incisive production. But by the end of “Golden,” Goblin’s climactic, plot-revealing closer, it’s clear that any desire for identification is futile, as Tyler’s own identity is perhaps the most fractured and dubious of all. It’s just too bad he felt the need to include footnotes.