9:54 am Mar. 21, 2012
Since Odd Future's debut, the Odd Future Tape, was posted on the group's website back in April 2010, it seems most of us have become a little desensitized to their trademark antics—if not downright tired of them. The shtick just doesn’t rattle the psyche like it used to.
These are the wages of maturity, one supposes. The group, whose second official team effort, The OF Tape, Vol. 2 is out today, has cleaned up its act (particularly when it comes to homophobic slurs and extended fantasies of horrific sexual debasement and cartoon violence), and even grown up, in a way.
Two years ago, the group’s leader, Tyler the Creator, would spin a yarn about drowning a woman in a tub of semen; now he’s content simply to screw the old-fashioned way—albeit possibly with someone else's girlfriend.
But the issue confronting the group—several members of which are no longer teenagers—on the release of Vol. 2 is whether the advancement is artistic or simply developmental.
The Odd Future hype started in the fall of 2010, a few months after that debut dropped, with a report out of L.A. touting an exciting, young, 10-member rap collective with the memorable name of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Soon such cool-barometers as The Wire, Pitchfork, and The Fader were championing the group. Odd Future were called “the vanguard of modern hip-hop” and "really, really talented." Critics positively swooned over the ill-mannered teen rappers with their dirty mouths and skateboarding and strangely compelling beats.
When Odd Future first broke, the group made available a huge and seemingly neverending cache of mixtapes and experiments for fans to devour and analyze, but now that the group's releases are coming out in real time, they’re easier to digest and situate. Vol. 2 is more mature than anything else they’ve done, but that may not be a good thing. You could read their best stuff—Earl's tape, Bastard, and Radical—as pure dadaist teen emoting. Even though it was about terrible, terrible stuff, the effect was like some genius-level outsider art rap. Where you stood on it might be just about the ick factor: all those rhymes about rape, kidnapping, and torture; homophobia; misogyny; blasphemy; and plenty of underage drinking and drugging.
The next chapter in Odd Future's story was the record-industry bidding war, won by Sony; and then the interlude in which the group seemed to be languishing in the glare, some seemingly more invested in their spinoff projects (MellowHype, The Internet, and Frank Ocean with particular success), while other members released bland efforts that failed to live up to either the sonic or lyrical fury of the collective's early work. The irritating, offensive, and frankly hypocritical public beefs didn’t help.
After a while it seemed like Odd Future’s fan base had been winnowed down to its natural order: teenagers, youthful malcontents, and those with gigantic ironic streaks. The critical establishment championing the group faded away, and everyone wondered if they'd ever get over their adolescent mischief.
Those former fans might re-emerge with Vol. 2. The first major-label Odd Future album washes away the bad taste of the past few mediocre affiliate releases; it's an opportunity for Odd Future to regroup and get back to their strength, the chaotic swirl of teen angst and aggression premised on an almost creepy lack of adult supervision and piled atop productions alternately slackly woozy and skitteringly anxious.
The question is what's left after you start to throw off the critiques, and lose the courage not to care? There are obvious shock lines sprinkled through Vol. 2, like “Riding around town in Seattle/ With the same shotgun that Kurt used to 'Click-Clack-Boom-Pow.'” But plenty more of the lyrical content to be found—particularly coming from Tyler—tries to parse the decidedly odd present he's encountered with newfound fame. It's more interesting than the straight navel-gazing he slipped into on his 2011 solo album, Goblin, but it's leagues away from the sick, twisted wit of days past. Tyler moans about it being “really awkward to know, that a bunch of kids do adore me/ It’s like I fathered these fuckers, so you will find me on Maury.” And elsewhere, “Now I have have famous friends who like coke and them drugs/ Dancing with me, Jerry Sandusky, and the Pope in the club.” This sort of jaded maundering hardly ever works, even when it's done by someone who's twice Tyler's age (and level of fame). Tyler's turned more toward narrative than rapid-fire raunch, but often his stories seem bored, frustrated, directionless.
Hodgy Beats tries to get up to Tyler's level at points, saying, “I’m Zeus to a Kronos,” but even though he's far more of a presence on the album than Tyler, he remains the less-talented sidekick. He drops some unintentionally funny lines like “Money in my pockets like I’m 45,” but his verses aren't even as concentrated as Tyler's soft-focus grousing. The real lyrical star of the album is Earl Sweatshirt, and that's saying something, as he only gets one verse. Earl went “missing” last year only to turn up in Samoa and then, presumably, made his way back stateside for a recording session. His one verse, on the album’s ten minute closer “Oldie,” is the high point, a straight minute of free-association and intricate imagery that makes one wonder how much better the band would be if Earl were present and some of the weaker links were abandoned. On the other hand, Domo Genesis and Frank Ocean's contributions are certainly welcome. As last year's solo releases by Tyler and Hodgy show, even if they're not all grade-A rappers, having the whole posse together brings more energy to Odd Future's work, more focus where these young artists, left alone, seem often to spin out into messy abstraction.
Where there's real strength and freshness still on Vol. 2 is in Tyler and Left Brain’s production (split about 50/50 on the album). There’s a unity of sonic structure at work here that’s even more impressive and ferocious than on the group’s debut. Even though early comparisons to Wu-Tang Clan were as lazy as they were wrong, the analogy is valuable insofar as the production here is, similarly, creating a sonic atmosphere that is unique to Odd Future. In their case it's built from angry buzzing-bee bass lines, melted-sounding horns and strings, and intentionally corny 808 drum sequences. They managed to take the avant-pop sound of the Neptunes, dress it down, muss it up, and turn it into a powerful engine of nihilistic glee.
But not even that can save this album from offering the worst of both worlds. The album is still often offensively nihilistic, almost moreso because its more believable than the pure, captivating malevolence, without a whit of remorse or affect, the group started out with; they're still sacrificing sacred cows, but it's somehow become a joyless destruction, and hence more excruciating.
More by this author:
- Online anonymity advocate Cole Stryker on why namelessness gets a bad rap
- Waka Flocka Flame and the wages of fame