I didn’t think much of the “Free Earl” graffiti scrawled over my friend’s fire escape… I didn’t think much of the “Free Earl” graffiti scrawled over my friend’s fire escape this summer. Then a few days ago, when I was introduced to an incredibly horrific music video and self-titled song by Earl Sweatshirt, the 17-year-old member of the LA rap conglomerate Odd Future, the message smacked of familiarity.
I spent much of my spare time in the past few days trying to figure out how I feel about Odd Future — short for the group’s official title, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. The kids — they are kids, with the oldest member being 21 — spin gruesome rap songs with intricate beats, talking about cannibalism, necrophilia, drug use and rape. In their performances, they tout anti-Christ signs and wear ski masks. Their music videos kind of terrify me, with all the (fake) blood and fish-eye camera lenses.
Despite all of this, I realize that I like them a whole lot: These kids are smart, they know what they’re doing and their futurist approach to the rap industry comes at what’s probably a highly opportune time.
Odd Future is nothing if not a paradox.
Tyler the Creator starts off the song “Yonkers” by making this clear: “I’m a f*cking walking paradox / No I’m not.” In his Twitter posts, Tyler references his love of other Internet sensations like Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black — fresh-faced innocents it seems like Odd Future would predictably hate. In interviews, when asked what rap they listen to, the group members’ automatic response is “F*ck rap.”
Tyler the Creator is adamantly straight edge, but raps about cocaine use. The video to “Earl” shows the kids mixing some kind of cocktail with soda, cough syrup, weed and what appear to be other illict drugs, and later twitching and foaming at the mouth. If you’re confused by the mixed messages, you’re on the right track. In interviews, the kids curse and sure do talk a lot about “bitches.” In videos, they spray paint and skate like punks, and their handful of shows quickly evolve into mosh pits. But beneath it all, they seem like a bunch of sweet kids, probably too smart for their own good.
The sweetness is what makes the gore appealing — Tyler the Creator is Peter Pan in tube socks, claiming that he wants his music to shock “old white people.” In an interview after their performance on the Woodie Awards, Tyler the Creator said he was going for “Kanye West’s head,” meaning he views the musical icon as competition. Tyler’s first record comes out on XL in May, but he has full creative power. The kids are taking control of a record industry domineered by flashy, egotistical rappers. Sure, Tyler the Creator’s placing a tall order by threatening Kanye, but there is something a little Captain Hook-ish about that man.
I was initially turned off by the content of Odd Future’s songs. No matter how intricate the rhyme schemes, the subject matter is inarguably deplorable — worse than old Eminem and probably more disgusting than Marilyn Manson. But an article by Bethlehem Shoals in Poetry Magazine, of all places, drew parallels between the rap group’s poetry and futurism, an artistic movement that expresses loathing of everything old in admiration of speed, technology, youth and violence.
Odd Future — I don’t think the placement of “Future” in the group’s name was an accident — seems to embrace all of those ideals in its music videos and performances, and certainly in its rap lyrics. It’s easy to write off the conglomerate’s vulgar subject matter as simply vulgar, but at the same time it holds a kind of sick appeal. When Tyler eats a cockroach in “Yonkers,” I was reminded of a kid eating a cicada in front of me on a playground in elementary school. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was probably trying to impress me. And for all their supposed “hatred” of women, the lyrics sound more like an old-school “girls-are-gross” approach to sex and love. If you can stomach it, it’s kind of funny.
There is always the risk of being taken seriously — Charles Manson read too much into “Helter Skelter,” and it is way easier to not read enough into Odd Future’s blatant violence, anarchy and nihilism. And the fact that they are kids is sensational, but still scares me — watch their performance on Jimmy Fallon or the music video “Earl” and you’ll understand why.
But I think the scare is good. Ultimately, I think Odd Future is trying to draw attention to how messed-up things are these days — I would argue that the current world situations make it easier than ever to be a nihilist, an anarchist, an atheist. Playing up their desensitization, their “dumb kids” act, taps into a new social consciousness affected by Gadhafi, Jared Lee Loughner and those damn violent video games.
An odd future is happening now, indeed.