When Odd Future performs at Washington’s Rock & Roll Hotel on Wednesday, the young L.A. hip-hop collective will rap about murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, torture and necrophilia. It’ll also rap about absentee fathers, puppy love crushes and how none of its absurdly violent boasts is actually true.
It’s the most hyped pop act of 2011, and the most complex: a handful of bratty, sometimes-brilliant rappers, singers and producers who have spent the past year enchanting bloggers while building a feverishly devout fan base. Their vulgar lyrics grabbed the pop world’s attention, and their reckless charisma has managed to keep it.
“Goblin,” the first official album from the group’s frontman, Tyler, the Creator, landed Tuesday and shot to No. 3 on the iTunes album chart. But perhaps the most interesting thing about Odd Future is that its rapid ascent was enabled by Tumblr, Twitter and millions of YouTube views — an attention-grabbing path that may define how today’s rebels become tomorrow’s pop-culture heroes.
It was just last summer that Odd Future’s motley 11-member crew, each of whom contribute in varying degrees, first created ripples in the blogosphere with a pair of stunning music videos they shot themselves. A clip for the song “Earl” portrayed the baby-faced coterie chugging smoothies purportedly made of prescription drugs and malt liquor, while “French” captured an afternoon of skateboarding, vandalism and other pranky mischief in cinematic black and white.
Questions multiplied like mosquitoes: Who were these kids? Why didn’t other rappers sound this intense? Where did those stark, hallucinogenic beats come from?
And they weren’t really serious about attacking Christians with chain saws, right?
The group’s music felt instantly thrilling and completely unfiltered. Its disturbing lyrics and mischievous videos spoke directly to a generation of teens raised on the “Saw” and “Jackass” franchises. And there didn’t seem to be anyone or anything guiding the group other than impish teenage id — a complete break from the highly groomed personas that dominate contemporary hip-hop and pop music writ large.
Soon, Odd Future — the group’s full name is Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, OFWGKTA for short — were standing at the epicenter of the greater pop discussion. Their faces began popping up in magazines. They gave a riotous performance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” They dove off stages during high-profile appearances at the South by Southwest and Coachella music festivals. And they recently signed a major label deal with Sony’s RED that will allow them to release albums at their pace with complete creative control.
Much of the attention focused on Tyler, the Creator, Odd Future’s lead provocateur. The 20-year-old wannabe film student, born Tyler Okonma, reportedly bounced from school to school throughout his childhood, developing an outsize personality that might have been too big for higher education. It’s Tyler’s restless energy that defines the group. He is also responsible for Odd Future’s punky graphic design, directs its music videos and produces most of its music. His shrill, skeletal beats, often grafted to queasy, jazzy piano chords, sound worlds removed from standard hip-hop radio fare.
Although Odd Future’s group dynamic is central to its appeal, Tyler consistently steers the discussion. As the group’s most visible, vocal member, he hogs the camera in practically every Odd Future-related clip on YouTube and maintains a hyperactive Twitter account that’s closing in on 200,000 followers — not a Kanye West-size following, but nothing to sniff at for a kid whose first commercial album just landed a few days ago.
On the opening couplet of “Yonkers,” the album’s first single, Tyler captures Odd Future’s slippery magnetism with efficient quirk: “I’m a [expletive] walking paradox. No, I’m not.” He performed “Yonkers” for the first time ever during an Odd Future show at Washington’s U Street Music Hall on Valentine’s Day. The song had been streaming on YouTube for only about 72 hours, but the predominantly teenage audience shouted along with every syllable.
Today, the clip has over 8 million views.
Odd Future has been masterful with its use of YouTube. But the group’s shock-centric message threatens to distract from how skillfully it has exploited every aspect of Internet culture and social connectivity.
It’s the online world that Odd Future has created that most clearly reflects its young audience — a tirelessly Facebooking, Formspringing, hyper-sharing generation of kids willing to make every last detail of their personal lives — and their fantasy lives — public.
The group feels authentic to its fans for exactly that reason. When you watch YouTube clips of the group hanging out at the Berrics skate park in Los Angeles or goofing around in a convenience store, it feels like you’re stepping directly into their world. When you hear Tyler rap about his most violent delusions and his own personal insecurities (“I’m just a teenager who admits he’s suicide prone”), it feels like you’re stepping directly into his head.
And although the response online has been enthusiastic, you can see the band’s hold on its fans most clearly at its live shows. Even when the group is performing in a city for the first time, fans greet them with a litany of catchphrases. Some are printable: Swag! Wolf Gang! Free Earl! Others are not.
Every generation expects its most rebellious artists to go marching off into forbidden turf. It’s how boundaries get stretched and reputations get made. For Odd Future, that means courting outrage and provoking listeners for a reaction. “I WANT TO SCARE THE [expletive] OUT OF OLD WHITE [expletive] PEOPLE THAT LIVE IN MIDDLE [expletive] AMERICA,” Tyler declared on Twitter in January.
But where a one-off tweet can be dismissed as juvenile humor, the group’s music probes considerably darker territory.
“Rape a pregnant [expletive] and tell my friends I had a threesome!” That’s Tyler again, this time on “Tron Cat,” perhaps the most depraved song in the Odd Future songbook. It feels like a shock tactic intended to drive a wedge between the group’s peers, who grew up on an anything-goes Internet, and an older generation that can only contextualize them with comparisons to the Sex Pistols, Slayer, Eminem and the darkest corners of the Wu-Tang Clan catalogue.
But as heinous as some of Odd Future’s lyrics can be, they still possess an exaggerated, cartoonish quality. They don’t feel like a true espousal of violence, misogyny or homophobia so much as a big joke you’re not in on. It’s just too bad it has to be such an ugly joke.
Accordingly, the media’s fascination with Odd Future has been accompanied by a healthy dose of hand-wringing. Many reviews of “Goblin” applaud its renegade spirit while chiding its most repugnant language. In February, NPR ran a story titled “Why You Should Listen to the Rap Group Odd Future, Even Though It’s Hard.” This month, music scribe Jim DeRogatis interviewed the editors of Pitchfork, asking them to defend their decision to book Odd Future at their upcoming summer music festival. (They stood by the booking but welcomed more dialogue about the group’s lyrics.)
So when the members of Odd Future step on stage Wednesday, they’ll be standing at a fork in the road. Billboard will have just announced the first week sales figures for “Goblin,” which could shed some light on whether a massive pop audience is ready for a new strand of hip-hop extremism.
But Christian Clancy, one of the group’s managers, says that Odd Future’s success “can’t be measured on SoundScan” — at least for now. But soon enough, the group’s freshly inked record deal may give Odd Future a platform for realizing Tyler’s most far-flung fantasy: winning a Grammy, the ultimate stamp of mainstream recognition.
Whether or not Odd Future ever walks up the podium to accept a Grammy feels beside the point. The group hasn’t broken into the mainstream so much as drawn mainstream fans into its meticulously curated online mini-universe. And the group did it by following a new, organic path that no one could have predicted.
What happens next is equally unpredictable.
--Chris Richards, May 15, 2011