Can Rap Be Saved? Part 3: the Odd Future of Rap
I've sat down several times in the last few days and attempted to outline my thoughts for this, the final chapter in an extended rant about music. It's been a great ride, let me say, and one that I'm appreciative for editors Kelsey Brown and Heath Hyatt to let me embark upon. And yet, I feel as though I've written myself into a corner. I've done my best to cover the business/pop side of rap music, complete with insipid Modest Mouse samples (and dear god, Isaac Brock, you guys better have made a boatload of money for that one). Then, we moved on and discussed what it's like to be amongst the best players in the league, so to speak. And now, here we are at the third part of "Can Rap Be Saved?" a part that I have lovingly reserved for talking about independent artists, the up-and-comers of the business. In researching for this article, I was staggered by the number of artists that are out there, and I began to worry that no matter who I chose to write about, someone out there would inevitably have their feelings hurt that I failed to mention MC Such-and-Such or Longtime Underground Group X. But then, two days ago, Tyler the Creator's new album Goblin leaked to the internet and I had a hearty chortle and moved on with my life.
Haven't heard of him? Or rather, haven't heard of the Los-Angeles rap collective ODD FUTURE WOLF GANG KILL THEM ALL? They're probably not going to be your cup of tea. The group, which consists of names that seem to have a harmonic effect on the "blogosphere," consists of a handful of Los Angeles kids who are probably younger than you. There's Tyler the Creator, born Tyler Okonma, the lanky producer and ringleader with a reputation for being notoriously goofy in interviews. There's Earl Sweatshirt, who's not even old enough to vote yet, and for reasons that have been left utterly up for speculation, seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. There's Frank Ocean, taking on the role of crooner, and making perhaps the most accessible music in the group. The rest of the group requires a Wikipedia check to list out: Hodgey Beats, Domo Genesis, Mike G, Syd the Kid, Left Brain, Matt Martians, Jasper Dolphin, and Taco. They're not all rappers, or even musicians, mind you. Jasper Dolphin is credited as being the group's "skateboarder," Martians does graphic design, Taco makes music videos. The group records their music in a room at Taco's house, known as the Wolf Lair. And it prompts the question: why should anyone care?
Here's why. ODD FUTURE WOLF GANG KILL THEM ALL (a name it is only possible to write in bold and all-caps) are going to be huge. These are 16-21 year old kids, Los Angeles skateboarders, and for the last year and half, they've done nothing but give away music for free. It's an endeavor that grew a cult-like following, and one that ultimately prompted Sony's RED music branch to give them their own record label, Odd Future Records. They've got a TV show in the works for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, they've performed at Coachella and soon at England's Reading festival, they've been on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, they've been interviewed by the New York Times, they've been live on the BBC. And all of this in the span of less than two months.
So what's the buzz about then? It's about this. If you're squeamish, do yourself a favor and click the links in the parentheses instead. They make heavy grinding beats, they rap about rape, violence, psychiatrists, and Jesus. Their biggest break yet came with the release of the music video for "Yonkers," the first single off Tyler the Creator's new album, Goblin. (Non-Music Video) The video, shot in shaky black and white with a camera experiencing serious ADD, depicts Tyler, in order, eating a cockroach, throwing up, removing his clothes, and hanging himself. Oh, then there's the video for Earl Sweatshirt's song "Earl," which, again in order, has the whole of ODD FUTURE WOLF GANG KILL THEM ALL mixing pills, weed, malt liquor and other items into a blender, mixing it, drinking it, and then skateboarding while bleeding from their noses, nipples, mouths, and losing teeth. (Again, just the song) Okay, so now we need a new question: what on earth is going on here, and who in the right mind would give these guys a record deal?
The answer to that question could, very well, be expounded upon in a three-part blog article. But in its essence, it can be boiled down to this: It's raw. It's angry, jaded, and off-the-wall, and it's what has been missing from rap music. It's like the 1990s all over again: hardcore rap music, with questionable production values, controversial content, the whole nine yards. All that comes nicely to a head on Tyler's latest work, Goblin. Kanye West might have explored his own psyche on his most recent musical album, but it happens to be that Tyler's id, ego, and superego are a bit darker. Some sample lyrics: "I'll stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus," "I'm not gay, I just want to boogie to some Marvin," and (perhaps most worrying for me), "I'm stabbing any blogging [bad word] hipster with a Pitchfork." And those are all from the same song. Tyler and company have gotten the genre-tag of "horrorcore," which means exactly what it sounds like, but the group, fittingly, insists they're just making rap music. Maybe it boils down to a matter of taste if you appreciate what ODD FUTURE WOLF GANG KILL THEM ALL are doing here, but there's one thing that can be said: no artist with a major-label deal could even dream of saying something like this. And what's more: these punks are making the most of their creative freedom, and by god they're getting famous doing it.
So maybe that's what's in store for rap: a lack of self-censorship, and the ability to do pretty much whatever. Their business model (Goblin is the first record that the group will be charging for, and while I have the leaked version now, count me first in line to financially support them) is startlingly indie-rock, and harkens back to the days in the late 1980s when Fugazi never charged more than 5 dollars for a concert ticket when they easily could have charged $20. If ODD FUTURE WOLF GANG KILL THEM ALL isn't your scene, there's other great independent rap artists out there, too, and a lot of them are similarly giving their music away for free. Childish Gambino (who I am contractually obligated to say is Community actor Donald Glover) raps about sexual escapades that will put anything that happened at Slippery When Wet to shame. Das Racist (who recently performed at Pitzer College) raps about smoking weed, and then about smoking weed some more.
The bottom line? Perhaps rap music is about to hit its "indie" phase. There's a plethora ($10 word, check) of great independent artists that are basically giving their music away for free. So get out there on the big scary interweb, read hip blogs, and find good music. If rap can be saved (if it even needs saving), then it's going to take a team effort between you and people like Tyler the Creator, and what better friend could you ask for than this man.