Note: As of July 12, 2011, the comments thread to this post is closed. I’m done talking about Odd Future, and frankly, unless you’ve got a constructive argument or a fresh take on them, you should be too.
Last week, Odd Future made an indelible network debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The prolific L.A.-based hip hop collective has been generating a lot of hype. I started hearing about them last fall. Music critics began latching on to their work and started following leader Tyler, the Creator’s Twitter feed, and comparisons to Kool Keith, Eminem, the Sex Pistols, N.E.R.D., Bad Brains, and the Wu-Tang Clan soon followed. Dutifully, I listened to some songs. The group is best recognized for their distinct sound and image, which features an austere production aesthetic and an obsessive focus on, among other things, all the ways people can rape each other.
I think I was supposed to be shocked and offended but frankly I was too bored to make it through more than a handful of songs. However, like many emotional states, boredom is variegated.
Primarily, I’m bored with the hype machine. Critics get duped. Occasionally I’m no different. And we all have a lot of things to reconcile before making any ruling, which informs Zach Baron’s Village Voice profile and Mehan Jayasuriya’s Thought Catalog post on the group.
But ya’ll, these Wu-Tang comparisons are lazy. The only things they share are spare beats and being a gaggle of black men (given Tyler’s recent signing to XL, I hope they also share a keen business acumen that allows them to exist as one entity for a label while allowing themselves to be free agents as solo artists). I think some music critics always find groups of black musicians as exceptional, perhaps because they never encounter more than one black person at a time. Living Colour is a black rock group?!? Even though African Americans helped invent rock music by integrating raced musical forms like country and the blues? WRITE IT DOWN. I can draw a sketchy parallel between Tyler and Method Man’s charismatic presence and conversational flow, but some other members have yet to prove themselves as singular personalities the way Wu-Tang did. Maybe Hodgy Beats is Ghostface Killah. Maybe drawing a comparison between Tyler’s cult of personality and fellow West Coast punk Darby Crash’s would wake me up. I can go a little further with the Keith comparison, though don’t think the group has yet to harness their free associative revelries with the comedic impact and verbal prowess that Keith does. Maybe drawing parallels is a stupid, baseless exercise that belittles all parties.
The second kind of boredom was informed by hipster incredulity, which is why I remain skeptical about MF Doom’s skills as an emcee. Odd Future’s iconoclastic punk spirit is exactly the kind of thing cool kids who don’t actually listen to much hip hop would champion. Odd Future may seem like a rank fart blast of fresh air if you aren’t familiar with, say, the talent on Doomtree or Rhymesayers’ rosters. Granted, their recent performance on Fallon’s show represented something of a passing of the torch. Roots’ drummer Questlove encouraged the booking, which scans as a kind professional gesture. And I agree with Tyler’s recent assertion that people who want Odd Future to stay underground aren’t real fans because they don’t want them to succeed. This tension is kind of fascinating, because it seems to me that Odd Future’s core audience is peopled with hipsters, who as a group skew white and of middle- to upper-middle class origins. In short, they can afford to drop out and stay obscure. Odd Future want mainstream success. I don’t want to make some racialist, classist assumption and say they need it, but they want the mass appeal that stretches past being a blogosphere curio. They want power. They might want endorsement deals too. Too bad they’ll lose a Super Bowl invite to Arcade Fire.
However, as a feminist I’m leery of hipster appraisal. This doesn’t necessarily stem from not wanting to be identified as part of the group. If you think I’m a hipster, fine whatever. Some of the nicest folks I know and some of the worst people I’ve encountered could be labeled hipsters. IDing them as such seems both irrelevant and relativist.
But let’s be honest: hipsters tend to carry a lot of liberal white guilt with them, especially true among the most (pseudo-)intellectual. A group like Odd Future can prompt unwarranted discussion about how their bleak world view dovetails nicely with the United States’ economic recession, which seems like a way for these people to congratulate themselves for constructing an illusion of racial sensitivity. I think this is problematic for two reasons. For one, this is a facile attempt at explaining their cultural relevance that requires greater political nuance. Steve Hyden recently argued that nü metal predicted the cynicism and maverick posturing of the Bush administration. It sounds great, but seems too easy to me. For another, isn’t it insulting to assume the economic recession and Odd Future have anything to do with one another? Doesn’t the assumption that urban-based youth of color are always associated with socioeconomic collapse seem . . . racist?
My surreptitious attitude toward hipsters extends well past my generation. It’s old news that hippies and beatniks sublimated chauvinism and misogyny because straight white guys set the terms. This hasn’t changed radically despite an influential feminist blogogensia. In fact, sometimes I think we haggle over progressive or subversive readings of this stuff when we should probably set all of it on fire. Anyway, I knew some hipsters would rationalize or justify Odd Future’s hate speech, because in this regard we are no different from the suburban smug marrieds we assume we have cultural capital over. I recently overheard one guy describe Tyler’s proclivity for rapping about holding women hostage in basements as a “motif” at a Marnie Stern show. Hooray, your liberal arts education allows you to justify rape in the same way generations of men have before you. I gave him the biggest scowl I could summon, but I wasn’t surprised. How can you be disappointed when you’re already disappointed?
I also share this boredom with my mother. When I was seven, I read Ramona the Brave. The first grade is stressful for Ms. Quimby, as is her mother’s new job and her family’s inattention toward her. At one point, she flies off the handle and starts swearing at her family, who allow her vitriol. Her blue word of choice: “guts.” What I gleaned from this book, as a wiser second grader to parents who then strove to keep a fledgling print shop afloat, is that I would like to start swearing too. Since I absorbed vocabulary from after-dinner conversations and stints in day care, I knew the right words.
My mom bargained with me, perhaps because she shares my belief that swearing children are comedy gold (for a contemporary example, watch Bobb’e J. Thompson steal Role Models from Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott). I was allowed to curse a blue streak, but only at home and never at anyone. I could only apply swear words as descriptors. But after a week of me employing “fuckin'” as an adjective, mom flipped the script! She told me that smart people know how to use curse words sparingly and draw from a larger vocabulary. “Fuckin'” remains one of my favorite words, especially when I’m angry and therefore southern. But she’s right. And that’s how I feel about Odd Future’s rhymes. It’s clear they play with complex language, but a lot of times those S.A.T. words, humorous observational asides, and left-field cultural references are obscured by swear words. And rape jokes. And homophobic epithets. I really don’t want to compare this group to the Family Guy writing staff but both should try harder.
This brings me to the major source of my boredom, which emanates from being too grown for this nonsense. I don’t think Odd Future are subversive. I think they need to grow up. I would like them to broaden their scope, hone their skills, and diversify their lyrical content. I don’t necessarily think they should get into message rapping or “elevate their people” or any of the other things white liberals ascribe to young black people who make them uncomfortable. I also think that some folks’ objection to the group’s rape narratives stem from the racist myth of the black sexual predator, which the group may be responding to. However, I think I’m meeting people more than half-way on that one. Because I never, under any circumstance, find rape funny. I also cannot abide by any of their casual homophobia and jokes about ass rape.
To me, there’s little difference between the intent of many of their rhymes and what the kid who sat next to me in the first grade was trying to accomplish by flipping his eyelids. Or what a high school acquaintance was after when he said that girls who get raped should just lay back and enjoy it. Or why young men (Tyler among them) develop obsessions with A Clockwork Orange (I recommend they read Gary Mairs’ critique of its legacy before donning bowler hats). Or what a group of homophobes are up to when they wail on a couple of gay men leaving a bar. It’s supposed to seem bad and cool, but it’s just childish and frequently awful. And please don’t tell me that as a feminist I have no sense of humor. I do. I’m also really funny when I go off on a rant or spill queso on my shirt. I’m just not laughing because you aren’t funny. You can do better. Odd Future can do better, but I’m not willing to give them the mantle of the new big thing until they do.
However, I have some learning to do myself. Recently Molly Lambert Tweeted about how Syd tha Kyd’s involvement challenges racist notions of the group’s preoccupation with rape (apparently her mom also mentored her in a high school music program–yay, cool moms!). Frankly, I’m somewhat unclear how a female producer accomplishes this outright but I do think Lambert is right to identify Syd’s role. Music producers tend to be men, both within and outside of hip hop. I’m curious about how Syd conceptualizes her role, but I’d imagine asking her what it’s like to be a female producer within a predominantly male group is insulting to her for both personal and professional reasons.
Syd’s participation is particularly exceptional to me because her beats are what I respond to most favorably. Her production aesthetic is minimal to the point of inducing claustrophobia but prone to disorienting passages. The beats bring the ultraviolence to a horror movie where the black kids aren’t always the victims (though I can’t celebrate their ugly tendency to victimize). This is what really gives Odd Future its sense of sonic terrorism, as Syd foregrounds their rhymes by having the voices dominate the mix while giving the listener grooves too slippery and slight to hold onto. It also makes the group distinctive, as they don’t use samples. For this reason Syd is as important as the group’s breakout star, and why I also hope she gets her own contract.
Last Saturday, I made the trek many fellow Austinites forged (including some folks I know, including my dear friend Curran, who came with local queer royalty). Some folks (including a work friend) were staying warm at Central Presbyterian watching Shearwater perform. I went to the Mohawk to see Kool Keith, who was recording the performance for a forthcoming release. And frankly, people, he was boring. The sound quality was a little muffled, but the overall performance was lacking. Very “do you accept the charges?” Now, he was only 15 minutes late, which seems pretty reasonable given the emcee’s characteristic disregard for punctuality (one friend saw him in the late 90s and he was over an hour late, but he did pass out individual baggies that contained chicken wings and juice boxes, which I think is a fair trade). But the Mohawk is an outdoor venue and, due to noise ordinances, the concert had to be over by midnight. And while I think people who live in apartment complexes across from venues on Red River need to accept concert noise as part of the neighborhood charm, it also meant Keith did a 45-minute medley cherry-picking cuts from his prolific, personality-traversing career.
More to the point, I had to confront something I knew I’d have to deal with at a Kool Keith show: feminist discomfort. As a hip hop fan, I’ve had to do a lot of negotiating. I like Kanye pointing out social injustice, but I cock my head and raise my eyebrows when he says he’d do anything for a blonde dyke (or when he festoons his videos with model corpses). I like it when Murs empathizes with young women who have to reconcile their blended heritages in a racist world but cross my arms and scowl when he brags about inserting a glow stick inside a rave attendee. I’ve liked Keith since Black Elvis (and then went back for Dr. Octagonocologist) largely for the same reasons I maintain that Tracy Morgan is in many ways the strongest player on 30 Rock: his surreal, destabilizing flow possesses a stunningly elliptical rhythm and wordplay that seems to bump into ugly truths about how black men are perceived and misunderstood in white society. And they’re both funny as hell. After all, Keith penned “You Live At Home With Your Mom” and, in doing so, probably influenced every writing staff currently employed by Adult Swim.
But as the self-professed originator of pornocore, Keith often trades in graphic depictions of sexuality which tend to be unsettling, bizarre, and hyper-focused on the abject. In other words, Keith doesn’t use the long-form player to conduct quiet storms. And even with smoother efforts like Sex Style and portions of Black Elvis, he isn’t so much embodying a loverman persona so much as exaggerating its inherent ridiculousness from the inside (well, he might be embodying it too). However, intent is always vulnerable to interpretation and, in a crowd where an audience heavy in straight-reading white dudes were cheering on dancers shimmying to “Girl Let Me Touch You There,” the weirdness of the message may have gotten lost.
Though I’m glad that I finally saw hir, I didn’t think Big Freedia was that great either. To echo my friend Curran, Freedia is very one-note and the live performance really demonstrated this. I know Freedia was the toast of Fun Fun Fun Fest and it’s great that ze’s getting a larger audience. Again, sound may have been an issue. And I’m not one to complain about seeing ladies shake it and don’t want to be the politically correct police but for a black, queer artist, there was a lot of skinny white girl ass up on stage. But maybe that’s how Freedia likes it. As a petite white woman who attended the show with her male partner, I have no room to play culture police. After all, a fat black woman I can guarantee is queer dropping it on stage assures a whole other set of problems with reception and representation.
What you might be gathering from the proceedings is that its sexual and racial politics were . . . complicated. This is where the opening act stole the show in my estimation. Shane Shane is based in Madison, Wisconsin and recalls Gravy Train!!!! instead of Brother Ali. Shane hurled his burly frame (bedecked in a sailor suit) across the stage. He bellowed, crooned, and minced his way through a set that swiped from MC Luscious’ “Boom! I Got Your Boyfriend” and boasted a posterboard headdress for each song in his set (except the ballad, of course). He was novel, irritating, and pretty damn thrilling. Not a lot of Midwestern bears would have the courage to perform such a confrontational, anarchic, unquestionably gay set for this Southern crowd. It may have been too much for some people (a deejay friend headed for the bar during the set because he didn’t like Shane’s voice). And frankly, I’m not sure if Shane Shane’s limited charms can be distilled on record or will outlive this particular moment. Based on this interview with the A.V. Club, I hope he does. If he’s playing in your town, you should see him. Whether you’re annoyed, elated, or a giddy combination of the two, Shane Shane will deliver. Last Saturday, he gave the headliners a lesson in spectacle, stage presence, and subversion.