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Essay

Odd Futurism

The shock poetry of LA’s newest hip-hop spectacle.
From the video for Tyler the Creator's “Yonkers”

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA, for short) probably wouldn’t describe themselves as poetry. The hip-hop wing of a Los Angeles–based teenage music/art/skateboarding collective, OFWGKTA raps gleefully about murder, rape, mutilation, necrophilia, and, in its more lucid moments, self-doubt and general disrepair. A recent Jimmy Fallon performance found their leader, Tyler the Creator, and his pal Hodgy Beats decked out in streetwear and ski masks scrawled with Manson family–like arcana, surrounded by garden gnomes and swaying female mental patients smeared with makeup. In the video for “Yonkers,” Tyler’s debut single and mission statement, the group’s ringleader vomits up a cockroach and hangs himself in lurid, gorgeous black-and-white.

All this would seem to make OFWGKTA easy to hate. Instead, they’re practically irresistible—goofy, inventive wunderkinds who make thirtysomethings like me excited about hip-hop in a way we haven’t been in years. They’re high-concept subversives whose ongoing big break has only strengthened their appeal. Fans, male and female alike, scream at their shows as though their gnarled intensity were the indie set’s Bieber Fever (note: Tyler, according to Twitter, is a huge Bieber fan). Which is odd, since it’s not as if their music is upbeat. It’s aggressive and discordant, either pushed to the brink of electropunk squall or empty of everything but a sad piano melody hanging in the air like a gas leak. The house style of rapping is both curt and ornate, dancing with internal rhyme schemes that show the influence of Eminem. Visually, it’s fresh gear first, then just about any shock signifier in the book: upside-down crosses, pentagrams, swastikas, scrawled obscenities, that sort of thing.

Is OFWGKTA offensive? Yes, but they’re also undeniably funny, sad, and, somehow, devoid of moral gravity in a way that’s both silly and nearly surreal. One friend of mine has referred to OFWGKTA’s lyrics as coming from an unformed “girls are gross” perspective, and certainly, in the YouTube videos where 16-year-old Earl Sweatshirt isn’t rapping about cannibalism and screwing corpses, he comports himself like a shy, polite kid just out to goof off with his friends. At the same time, OFWGKTA makes such doggedly creative and self-aware music that it sometimes feels as if they’ve chosen depravity not because they want to, but because they can. If there’s such a thing as meta-vile, then these kids are your pioneers.

Hip-hop has always had its demons, some more real than others. Early gangster rappers, such as N.W.A., stunned parents with their Compton tales of crack, gangs, and guns, but they could claim to be reflecting, not dictating, reality. Around the same time, Houston’s Geto Boys hit on a kind of urban gothic sensibility, a noirish dread that readily gave way to the supernatural (as in MyMindsPlayingTricksonMe”). In the early Nineties, BigLsDevilsSon” and the Gravediggazs6 FeetDeep continued in this vein, undeniably hard and yet pointedly eerie and paranoid. But OFWGKTA isn’t quite that; for what it’s worth, in interviews they bristle at the “horrorcore” label. Nor are OFWGKTA the rightful heirs to Eminem, despite his obvious influence and their tendency to compare themselves to the Detroit icon. Eminem’s mixture of aggression, dark humor, and inner torment is his version of authenticity, a persona that amplifies, and sometimes caricatures, his sense of himself and his place in the world. He is hopelessly confessional, but also defiantly so. The Odd Future bunch never mistake acting nuts for actually being nuts, and what makes their music so easy to excuse, and enjoy, is the sense of living, breathing kids underneath all the ugliness. If not by design, this is at least a convenient way to retain some sense of perspective—for artist and listener alike. Their insanity is infectious, the candor just a little too human, even relatable, to ever be fully mistaken for a twisted unconscious.

At the same time, the sophistication that informs much of OFWGKTA’s output clearly marks them as children of a particular Los Angeles scene. They are, at once, wacky skaters whose antics are solidly in the Big Brother/Jackass tradition, and aesthetic terrorists who know that filth isn’t just fun—it’s also, when employed in the most dispassionate, pastiche-driven way imaginable, its own kind of creative mischief-making. OFWGKTA isn’t looking to shock audiences—they’re out to show off their own desensitization. That explains their seeming indifference to context, or connotation. If you’re second-guessing the level of irony this requires, watch any of the skate videos in which the crew exults over a remarkably ordinary move. This use of language, and visual signs, is both provocatively naive and knowingly subversive. What makes them endlessly fascinating, at once visionary and always somewhat scrambled, is OFWGKTA’s desire to have it both ways.

Generally speaking, hip-hop is not poetry. Not all verse is poetry; not every writer eschewing prose counts as a poet. And as Kelefa Sanneh recently discussed in The New Yorker, hip-hop is always embedded in performance. Without hip-hop’s articulation, its phrasing and inflections, its lyrics are always left wanting. Rhyming all the time? Downright hokey, once you strip away the drum-driven imperative to do so. By way of analogy, a screenplay is not acting, and even the most sprawling Bob Dylan, or impeccable Tin Pan Alley product, is waiting for a voice to, well, give it voice. Insisting that rap lyrics constitute poetry bespeaks either a limited definition of musicality, a view of poetry-as-default, or some combination of the two. Plus, in this case, if you just look at the lyrics for an Odd Future track, it’s unlikely you would ever feel compelled to listen to it. In fact, you would probably be actively repulsed. Compare the Tyler-Earl collaboration “Assmilk,” on paper, with the recording:

[Earl]
Uhh, addicts arise, when I arrive
In this cracked crack fag back slap in disguise
Fat sack of knives in the passenger side, bitch
Reach for the door, get your access denied

[Tyler]
I’m not an asshole I just don’t give a fuck a lot
The only time I do is when a bitch is screamin’ “Tyler, stop!”
The big bad wolf to me you’re just a minor fox
Red ridin’ is gettin’ some of this wolfly otter cock

One is juvenile posturing (at best), while the other is expansive and maybe even profound.

There has been a lot of overheated discussion of OFWGKTA, but if they do represent something truly new in hip-hop, there’s a chance we might have to go outside of rap—outside of music, even—to really find a precedent for OFWGKTA’s marriage of violence and ecstasy. They may not be poetic in the usual, evocative sense of the word, but Odd Future’s broad appeal really makes sense only when you try to see the poetry in what they do.

One of the first things I thought of when I initially paid serious attention to Odd Future was Dennis Cooper’s diabolical Guide. Cooper, while technically a novelist, weaves together scenes of senseless violence, brain-wrecking drug use, and brutal sex to create something impressionistic and almost certainly lyrical. Here’s a sample [NB: squeamish readers, if they haven’t already, should close their eyes here]:

The dwarf fucked Chris’s ass with the knife. “What are you hiding in here?” he said. The point had just bumped into something.

Chris’s ass: kkyphtsllmb

“Nothing,” Chris said. Or maybe he just thought it. It might not have made it as far as a word.

The dwarf buried one hand inside Chris, felt around, and returned to the world . . . well, a handful of gore to be blunt. But there was something peculiar inside it.

Difficult reading, to be sure, but Cooper has a punk rock elan to his writing, a vitality that pushes along this excess as an end in itself. And yet, over time, a numbness sets in, a cool, easy kind of horror that’s close in spirit to the doped-up gore and lethargy he depicts. For those of you who bothered to read the second chunk of Bolaño’s 2666, it’s a similar concept, just realized as something hypnotic and transfigurative—not merely exhausting.

But Cooper, for all his charred sublimation, hits you hard without ever seeming excited in the same way that OFWGKTA is. And excitement of some sort helps you feel as though you’re not simply being put on by a conceptual joker. Maybe it’s the benefit of performance that lends OFWGKTA their sense of joy, though I have trouble imagining that a book on tape is the missing ingredient in Cooper’s artistic supremacy.

When I listen to Odd Future, the closest parallel I can come up with is Futurism. The early-20th-century Futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s high-energy verses about the beauty of warfare are (in nearly tragic ways, today) pumped up for all the wrong reasons, and similarly out to force the modern world on us in ways that turn the new and uncomfortable into something ordinary. If you can’t adjust, Marinetti and OFWGKTA imply, it’s your own problem. Certainly, his role is to do nothing more than hammer away with the best modernity has to offer, love his job, and spit at anyone who ends up with his feelings hurt. Yet Marinetti is, to say the least, problematic, as Walter Benjamin obliquely noted in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and countless others have since. Spectacle, as stimulant and necessary assimilation, puts volume and aesthetic at the forefront—with nothing bringing up the rear. This was the popular and intellectual rationale for fascism, both in one place. So it’s not as though we want a new hip-hop Marinetti in the world.

Maybe, then, the answer is Russian modernist Vladimir Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky has Marinetti’s love of spectacle, but he’s also a hopeless egoist; before he fell under the sway of the Revolution, the energy and irony of the Modern spectacle were meant to be enjoyed, not only by the reader, but by the individual, who, in his poetry, is always to varying degrees present. There’s no blustery detachment in Mayakovsky or in Tyler the Creator. The celebration and assimilation of spectacle plays itself out on a purely personal level in his best-known poem, “Cloud in Trousers.”  For example:

I feel
my ‘I’
is much too small for me.
Stubbornly a body pushes out of me.

Hello!
Who’s speaking?
Mamma?
Mamma!
Your son is gloriously ill!
Mamma!
His heart is on fire.
Tell his sisters, Lyuda and Olya,
he has no nook to hide in.

Each word,
each joke,
which his scorching mouth spews,
jumps like a naked prostitute

from a burning brothel.

This particular mixture of brutality and levity has always appealed to me. When I first started FreeDarko.com, ostensibly a website about professional basketball, I used an alarming number of Al Qaeda and Hamas photos, stills from Takashi Miike films, and gutted animals. I took sports too seriously; death and destruction, perhaps not seriously enough. I probably owe someone an apology, and am not entirely sure what this achieved in terms of integrity. Yet this duality, however puzzling, is more alive than slapping on a Halloween costume and pretending it's your face, or presuming that ripping off every face in sight is a statement in and of itself. There needs to be a beating heart underneath the one freshly yanked out of someone else's chest, Mortal Kombat-style. Otherwise, the language of shock repulses, no matter how complex its ends, or thoughtful the response.  OFWGKTA draw us in because, despite their youth, sub-cultural niche, and deliberate obscurity, their act isn’t insular. There is a universal here, one that goes beyond hip-hop, or language, and touches a nerve that many of us may have never known we had in the first place.

  • Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of the basketball writers’ collective FreeDarko.com and co-author of the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. His writing has appeared in GQ, Sports Illustrated, the Nation, The Awl, and McSweeney’s.

Essay

Odd Futurism

The shock poetry of LA’s newest hip-hop spectacle.
  • Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of the basketball writers’ collective FreeDarko.com and co-author of the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. His writing has appeared in GQ, Sports Illustrated, the Nation, The Awl, and McSweeney’s.

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