In 1990, 2 Live Crew were put on trial for obscenity violations at the Ford Lauderdale Court, Florida. The charges were in connection to a local concert where the hip-hop collective played four particular songs from their album Nasty As They Wanna Be. During the show, they recited lyrics that were deemed “obscene” by prosecutors — i.e., they were “patently offensive in the mind of the audience experiencing it.” Among that audience were two undercover detectives who recorded the gig on cassette for future evidence, where lead vocalist Luke Campbell is said to have referred to women as “bitches,” propagated domestic abuse, and encouraged depraved sexual acts on stage. The case is intriguing because it sparked a debate about the content of rap music and the right to freedom of speech while highlighting a number of social issues concerning the consequences of censorship. Bruce Rogow, the official legal representative for 2 Live Crew, provided a response that is just as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, if not more so:
The group’s performance had to be understood in the context of hip hop, a form of black popular music that arose in the last few years. Some of the four-letter words, [Rogow] said, ”reflect exaggeration, parody, humor, even about delicate subjects,” like sexual practices.
”These words, as crude as some people find them,” he said, ”can have artistic value when you have an understanding, when you have them, in effect, decoded.”
– Sara Rimer, The New York Times, October 17, 1990
Of course, Rogow made that proclamation with a vested interest in defending his act, which led to a mediocre album hitting 1.2 million sales in light of its controversy. Other commentators tended to agree with Rogow, emphasizing the outfit’s tact in crafting powerful and relevant lyrics, to give themselves enhanced critical presence in their otherwise pretentious and stuffy domain — abject buffoonery that was wonderfully parodied on Chris Morris’ The Day Today program. The case was not the first of its kind, and it will certainly not be the last, for it happened a whole 10 years before Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP, where the Detroit rapper received fair cop for content on “Criminal”; “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ That’ll stab you in the head, whether you’re a fag or lez,” which he declared amid a gushing frenzy of hype and accusation. Campbell sat before his obscenity jury three years before Tupac Shakur’s well-known reversal allegation that blamed the victims in his songs for creating the environment he was depicting, while the final courtroom verdict on the 2 Live Crew case was reached three months before Tyler, The Creator was even born.
Fast forward to 2010, by which time Tyler had already dropped his debut album, Bastard, as well as a prolific batch of material through the Odd Future collective, all before releasing Goblin, his most critically acclaimed effort to date. By then, he had accumulated enough backlash and reprimand to warrant any newcomer to the scene believing that his controversial stance was something new; that misogyny, racism, and homophobia in its various transgressive forms, intended or otherwise, was a fresh factor that needed immediate attention. The reason for this upheaval was supposedly spurred by the quality of the music in which these comments were embedded, along with major props and respect from mainstream artists, such as Kanye West and Mos Def. When Goblin arrived, the offending character of the record had Mr P asking a string of fascinating questions on the subject of taste vs. moral negotiation, which are as relevant and difficult to tackle now as they were three years ago. What proved interesting about Goblin was that even despite the manic lyrics on a track like “Tron Cat” — “Sicker than the starving Nigerian kids barfing/ Odd Future Wolf Gang Nazi bar mitzvah/ With your sister at the bar playing leg and arm twister” — there remained a degree of compunctious proclamation for such absurdity and paradox. These “warnings” came either at the front or the tail end of a song and were often framed by slurred beats and monotonous rhythms that made digesting the album’s 73 minutes one hell of a slog.
In spite of these disclaimers, or perhaps as a consequence of them, there was never any real likelihood that Wolf was going to be toned down, and it’s not — Tyler has leaned heavily on simultaneous disavowal and contradiction to consider his obscenity justified. In addition to the skewed tolerance that 2 Live Crew brought to the table, they also strengthened the premise that controversy sells. Tyler uses the word “fag” to describe stuff he hates; it comes couched in the acceptance 2 Live Crew helped to proliferate, though it nevertheless makes some listeners feel understandably troubled. Even if there is a shit ton of “disclaimers” laced throughout his material, Tyler’s choice of vocabulary still packs enough punch to leave people feeling a little twisted for appreciating the music, but then he’ll get his shrink character, Dr. TC, to drop a line like “I don’t think anyone takes you seriously enough to believe you”, which works as a sick anchor to the very shock factor that will keep Odd Future’s fan base as resilient as ever. This has been discussed time and time again, but what remained of interest to me was whether or not Tyler might retain that sense of controversial appeal within the context of beats that didn’t drag on in the remnants of what should have been killer tracks (see the tail end of “Radicals” or the insufferable bore of “Her”).
I enjoyed the barebones bounce of “Yonkers” and the crass simplicity of “Sandwitches,” but the lazy sprawl bracketing tracks such as “Window” put me off more than any transgressive content. That wasn’t because Tyler instigated a dialogue about how he should or shouldn’t be taken seriously, but because on Goblin, his pseudo justification for passive-aggressive gay-bashing/racism/misogyny came as clutter that got in the way of what makes his production so tight. I’m not saying that his apologetic stance was unwarranted, but when he did make these rationalizations, it compromised his virile gangster charade, which was somehow rendered pointless. My interest therefore remained, not as to whether he would tone down the vocabulary on his latest album — counter evidence is too easy to come by — but as to how his songwriting and beat structure might be more refined as a backdrop to his brilliantly gruff vocals, typically clever rhymes, and imaginative caricatures.
The video for “Yonkers” proved a solid entry point into Tyler’s music for those who had missed the Bastard bandwagon and the free online releases that Odd Future produced before Goblin. It’s an obvious discussion area, but there are numerable references to it on Wolf. The video was a minimal, black-and-white, one-person narrative that involves eating a cockroach, vomit, spit, and suicide all in the space of three minutes. To consider that an entry point, one must already have an inclination to sacrifice a fraction of moral virtue for the sake of some sick-ass beat. The lyric “I’ll crash that fucking airplane that that faggot nigga B.o.B is in/ And stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus” would almost definitely be considered “obscene” by the Florida court, particularly as an embodiment of the rest of the album’s lyrical content. The fact that it instead operated as a springboard for Tyler’s mainstream popularity made the video for Wolf’s lead single, “Domo 23,” an interesting initiation to new material. Just how was he going to roll this time around?
Whereas the “Yonkers” clip remained slick, original, and able to retain the disgust that kept audiences so poised, the “Domo 23” video fails past instigating a giggle at Tyler with mop hair and wrestling a fat man. It has a Jackass-tinged Loiter Squad feel that achieves little beyond a brief chuckle while allowing for a deeper insight into his reactionary stance on criticism: “So, a couple fags threw a little hissfit/ Came to Pitchfork with a couple Jada Pinkett signs/ And said I was a racist homophobic/ So I grabbed Lucas and filmed us kissing.” The video doesn’t do the music any favors either; the bass has a lot more drive than anything on Tyler’s previous singles, but it feels like an obstacle as opposed to an entry point, a cash grab at the hands of stardom: “Thanks to them crackers,” he spurts, “my pockets are fatter than excess shit that’s weighting on Jasper.” However, the track comes free of the drab that weighed Goblin down; outside the context of that ridiculous video, it remains a sleek cut packed with meme and humor. It demonstrates new heights in Tyler’s lyrical velocity and, in that respect, sets the tone perfectly for the new album. The long-form bits that made chunks of Goblin so tedious have been streamlined. There are still some wearisome tracks on here (“Awkward” and “PartyIsntOver,” in particular), but the pace of each piece gives Tyler and his wildly diverse selection of co-conspirators just the right amount of space to wield their magic. He has upped the ante on this one in terms of impetus and production; although deprived of the rough-edge cuts akin to “Seven,” the refinement complements his exceptional delivery. There are moments on Wolf that sound remarkable, and I’m not merely talking about the contributions from Erykah Badu and Laetitia Sadier.
“Cowboy” runs a characteristically unwavering flow, just on the cusp of outburst, over a simplistic kick-drum rep and unsullied strings, while Tyler picks at his bemused hook. It’s a flawless set piece that meshes his slapdash obscenities with cutting licks about both the mundane and the fantastical. Elsewhere, “Rusty” clashes incessantly unambiguous and confrontational rap with samples of a baby crying and some disgruntled phone call about gay rights — it’s a hodgepodge of obscurity balanced by some technically sensational rhymes and the occasional flinch-inducing climax. It doesn’t matter that he has lessened the prevalence of the word “fuck” in his lyrics or that he works with gay artists; these are still derogatory terms that a number of fans are going to imitate, and that can only be a negative thing. Having said that, as far as he’s concerned, there is little damage left to be done by the use of such language, and Tyler clearly doesn’t care about the consequences: despite the steady swathe of disclaimers launched on Goblin, there is probably less “obscenity,” consequently less disclaim, and less of that untoned Goblin baggage here. But solely basing the album’s merit on the frequency of a specific inflammatory phrase is no way to rate an album; I’m basing my response on how well formed the production comes across, the various levels of sonic ingenuity that are achieved, particularly on Sadier’s “Campfire” and on how Tyler’s collaborators play a diligent hand in shaping the pace of the record. Frank Ocean brilliantly molds the direction of both “Bimmer” and “Slater,” where he keeps both tracks from falling into that flabby Odd Future void.
2 Live Crew were found not guilty by an exceptionally diversified jury, each of whom perceived the group’s music to be more comedic than obscene. And due to public interest in the court case, Nasty As They Wanna Be went on to be the act’s best-selling album, and that small victory is pretty much the biggest legacy the collective left behind them. Shock and controversy remain a hardline sell factor, and although that may not have been Tyler’s sole intention, it’s sure working to his advantage. “They say I’ve calmed down since the last album,” Tyler says on the opening line of the overly flamboyant “Tamale,” before following that up with his retort; “Well, lick my dick, how does that sound?” This is no walk in the park, it has to be said, but Wolf is going to be remembered as the record that sees Tyler deploying his tact as an astute beat-maker and a producer more than allowing his reputation as a Satan-worshiping neo-fascist to swell any further. Musically, it’s a step in the right direction, and it comes from one of the most exciting and anticipated rappers in the game. Whatever happens next, you are hardly going to have to look very far to find it.