Last week at Santo’s Party House, a tiny club in Chinatown, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All played their second New York show yet, itself the second show on Odd Future’s first ever “tour,” comprised of three East Coast shows and one in San Francisco. Odd Future is a rap ensemble from Los Angeles. All eleven of their members are under twenty years old. Over the past few years they have been making music and releasing it for free on their Tumblr blog; only recently have they met with something akin to success, and their star is certainly rising.
I decided to find Santo’s early so I would know how to get there when the doors opened for the show. Had there not been a line already forming to purchase the 30 tickets that had been reserved for the door, I wouldn’t have found the place. Three hours before the doors were set to open, a line of about 20 people had already formed to get in to the show.
Moments after I showed up, Tyler stepped out of the building to check out the nascent crowd. Tyler is the 19-year-old de facto leader of Odd Future. My neighbors in the crowd mumbled, “There’s Tyler,” and I waved to him from across the street. He responded, predictably, with a one-fingered salute.
That middle finger says something about the Odd Future ethos. They are nihilists in the extreme, almost whimsical in their dismissal of everything related to decorum. Indeed, dismemberment, graphic rape fantasies and ultra-violence in general (Tyler likes “A Clockwork Orange”) are common themes for Odd Future raps. Upon first hearing their music, I was embarrassed to tell my friends about them for fear of being judged; the lyrical content, looked at in the most obvious light, is reprehensible, inexcusable. That such violence, misogyny and homophobia are common themes in their lyrics has led certain critics to categorize Odd Future as horrorcore. Oh, no: “We don’t make fucking horrorcore you fucking idiots, listen deeper to the music before you put it in a box,” says Tyler at the end of his song “Sandwitches” (sic).
It means something that Tyler so vehemently disregards such a label for his music. While I’m not familiar with much music that could accurately be labeled as horrorcore, I doubt it has the emotional clarity and sympathy of Odd Future’s best albums. Tyler’s record “BASTARD,” for instance, is framed as a therapy session between Tyler and his school counselor. Tyler raps with bitterness toward his absent father, proclaiming at the end of the first track “I just want my father’s e-mail/ so I can tell him how much I fucking hate him in detail.” At any given song’s most ludicrous and perverse moment, such a rhyme pops up, inviting empathy and understanding; and yet, getting the audience to identify is something of a trap. Now that we are on Tyler’s side, all the other horrors in his rhymes are a little more horrific, a little too close for comfort.
For an upper-middle-class suburban white kid from Kentucky’s best excuse for a city rap always had a specific appeal. It offered me the chance to glimpse a world to which I would otherwise have had no access. Urban horror stories from B.I.G., Wu-Tang or Tupac were so effective because they were purportedly based on truth, the rappers narrating the details of their street life. The music had a sharp edge precisely because it was so real. Odd Future is different. Their stories of rape and dismemberment and shameful coke-snorting and cop-murder couldn’t possibly be true, so their edge must come from elsewhere.
On “EARL”, Earl Sweatshirt’s (Tyler’s 16-year-old brother and comrade in Odd Future, who is currently AWOL) only album to date, Earl raps about getting pulled over (in the midst of a joyride from hell, full of, you guessed it, rape and dismemberment) not for any serious crime, but for being too young to drive. He proceeds to kill the cop with a knife and throw him in the trunk of the car. Another song by Earl, “Luper,” tells the story of Earl’s heartbreak in the most metaphorically appropriate terms possible, all prefaced by an argument Earl has with his mom about getting up to go to school. All these reminders of the narrators’ adolescence (both regarding their age and their emotional development) play a calculated role; they invite the audience’s sympathy or empathy—whatever—and then make us complicit in the stories being told. The fact that the audience is sympathetic to the narrators of such depraved stories gives the music an even edgier edge than any preceding hip-hop.
I think it’s really important to analyze the nature of my admiration for this group; at least, I want to be able to justify liking a group that seems like it ought to be so disconcerting. Here goes: Odd Future’s music is worthy of your listening for two important reasons. They validate the most trite problems that everyone goes through (parents, girls/boys, adolescence in general) by making these subjects operatic and exaggerated and grandiose, and they validate our worst, perverted thoughts by giving someone else (the rapper in question) such horrid thoughts who obviously is like us on a basic level (adolescence).
When the doors finally opened for the show, I rushed in and got as close to the stage as possible. After an hour-long DJ set from Syd (Odd Future’s lone female member, whose presence frustratingly complicates the violent misogyny of their lyrics), she queued up the opener, “Sandwitches” and Tyler and company rushed onto the stage. For the next hour-and-a-half the crowd was yelling, moshing, sweating, and reveling in the presence of such a strangely charismatic group.
The show was wonderfully reminiscent of a high school punk show where you know some people in the band and can sing all the words to their songs. Everything about the show was sloppy and energetic. Instead of rapping over the beats from their albums, the members would actually rap over the song. It was a sing—along to the song that was evidently playing off Syd’s laptop. Tyler and Hodgy Beats, another rapper in the group, spent a lot of time stage diving. After “Sandwitches,” Domo Genesis, the stoner-rapper of the group, played a set of material off his first album, “Rolling Papers.” Next came MellowHype, the duo of Hodgy Beats and Left Brain, whose latest album “BLACKENEDWHITE” has been Odd Future’s most acclaimed release after “BASTARD” and “EARL”. The audience knew more and more of the lyrics to sing along as the sets progressed. In the background, Tyler either joined in the lyrics or hunched over his BlackBerry, tweeting throughout the show.
Tyler’s twitter feed is notorious. It is the only twitter I follow, but I do so religiously. He tweets about how much he loves Justin Bieber and how rarely he wipes his ass. Recently he has been updating the world on his new friend Byrese. Byrese is a pigeon. The tweets about Byrese narrate his life, how he dances in the street or has a new car, and are linked to pictures of various pigeons in the street, by a new car, et cetera. The silliness and uncertain sarcasm (does he really like Da Biebz?) are accompanied by instances of weird empathy; Tyler tweets about how much he wishes he were 6’3”, or how he wants chest hair. Other tweets remind me of the fine line Tyler walks between sincerity and sarcasm. He sometimes mentions how he can’t wait to sell out and forget all his old friends. He says he wants to get a Grammy and a VMA.
Something that may not have been adequately articulated in this article so far is just how good Odd Future is. They make the best rap in the world right now. Their rhymes and beats are unique and interesting. They have an immediacy that no one else does. “BASTARD” and “EARL” were the best rap albums of last year, far better than Kanye’s putative masterstroke.
Tyler’s set was the last of the night. Like everyone else, he rapped along with his songs as they played from the DJ’s laptop’s iTunes. A large constituency of the audience knew every word and could rap along with Tyler. Tyler taught the crowd the chorus of a new song from his forthcoming album. He was obviously pleased with his newest opus, whose chorus is a concise distillation of Odd Future’s worldview: “Kill People! Burn Shit! Fuck School!” Tyler’s was the set during which a mosh pit spontaneously formed, a fistfight broke out, and the bouncers threw out three people; one for stage diving and two for fighting. Tyler introduced a song off of his unreleased album by saying he wanted to use it to get on Bill O’Reilly and make white moms think he’s dangerous.
The only thing missing from the show was Earl. Earl has been missing for a while now. Rumors as to his whereabouts abound. Some think that, upon hearing the music he made, Earl’s grandmother sent him away to boarding school, or maybe military school. Regardless of the reasons, Earl is gone for now, but his presence was felt at the show; as one of the last three songs, Tyler and company, along with most of the audience, performed the first track from Earl’s album.
During the last song, a new track from Tyler’s upcoming album “GOBLIN,” Tyler jumped into the crowd and rapped amid the throng of people front and center. Jumping back onstage, he lost one of his shoes in the crowd. When the song was over the whole Odd Future crew took a last bow. Tyler came out front, in his socks, and grabbed the microphone. He sincerely thanked everyone in the crowd for their support of Odd Future, his gratitude punctuated by extreme profanity. Panting, sweating, and smiling, he said, “You can be anything you want to be!” and took a shoeless bow.