“Old enough to have a decent mechanical understanding of how the world works, but young enough for their judgements to remain unfogged by anything like mercy or compassion or the realization that all this will one day happen to them, the boys—his students—are machines for seeing through the apparatus of worldliness that adulthood, as figured by their teachers, surround itself with, to the grinding emptiness at its heart.” — Paul Murphy, Skippy Dies
Everything you need to know about Odd Future is already there, in their name. “Odd.” “Future.” “Odd.” “Future.” Say it with me: “Odd Future.” So we’re done here, right? Eh…
I’m not going to try to write a meta-piece, listicle, or wrap-up of the odd Internet hype around Odd Future. In fact, I already did that last year. But it’s going to be hard going without referring to a few of the more thoughtful think pieces on Odd Future, so let’s get that out of the way, first.
Nitsuh Abebe, in his entirely characteristic style, enunciated a non-moral way of looking at how Odd Future puts off the many who are not their fans. He says the sort of anti-social, teenage energy they’re putting out like a 100 megawatt power station serves to exclude lots of people—including a group of fans who were disappointed with a three song set the group did at SXSW. Basically,
“this stuff isn’t just needling sensibilities; it’s throwing up a significant roadblock that divides me from people I don’t want to be divided from. Leave aside morals: It bums me out that I can love so much about a few of these tracks, but wouldn’t put them on a mixtape for a lot of people I care about. It bothers me on the same small level it bothered me when my family toured a men-only monastery in Ethiopia and had to leave my mom standing outside for 10 minutes.”
There’s a difference between screaming, “Fuck you,” at the chief of police and screaming it at your affable, stoner roommate. The one might have it coming, but the other is just chilling out, along for the ride. But Odd Future tends to stop the bus and kick everyone off before they pull out of the depot. To put Abebe’s point another way, it’s kind of like not being in the in crowd. Odd Future has a way of dividing up its listeners (and even people who’ve just heard of them but haven’t actually heard them) the way kids kind of invisibly exclude other kids without seeming to try.
Another well-adjusted music critic, Nick Southall, is slightly (OK, signficantly) more hesitant to join up. Ina recent post on his blog, Sick Mouthy, he talks about the barriers to enjoying Odd Future range from their entirely digital existence to their “disgustingly profane and aspirationally offensive” lyrics. Southall is a writer whose opinion I admire, yet there’s something so categorically repugnant about Odd Future that he’s so far refused to even listen to them. This antipathy isn’t simply a case of the I-don’t-like-thems. There’s something deeper going on.
I hesitate to peg it as an age thing; Southall has recently married and is older, I believe, than I am. But Odd Future has a smart way of positioning themselves in opposition to everything adult. After all, there are loads of people (adults) who won’t even listen to Odd Future because their music is only on the Internet. It wouldn’t matter if they sounded like Enya; there are physical barriers around the lyrical barriers they’ve built up.
New York Times writer and hip-hop head John Caramanica has long been a champion of “offensive art.” His Village Voice review of Cam’ron’s Purple Haze is a testament to that. In talking about Purple Haze, Caramanica quips memorably, “The avant-garde need not be moral.” This little chestnut has been a lasting critical shield for Odd Future, tossed around on many a heated Tumblr exchange over the last six months.
There are a few soft spots “the avant-garde need not be moral” leaves exposed on Odd Future’s output, though. Is what they’re doing “avant-garde” art? Is it true that the avant-garde excludes moral concerns? Is it even true that Odd Future isn’t moral?
OK, strap in, because this is the last (or second-to-last) excursion into Other People’s Work. Ann Powers, one of the sharpest, best writers about music and culture in existence, has a fairly seminal essay called “In Defense of Nasty Art,” which deals with everything from queer performance art to C-movie rapesploitation films to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. She covers a lot of ground, only a bit of which I’ll step on here.
There is a need for “nasty art,” which is to uncover the Noble Lies told to us to keep society in a stable form (stable for those in power). Nasty art also, as Rilke suggested, puts a giant crack in the frozen-up insides of its viewers. Nasty art, for Powers, is also “violator art.” Odd Future certainly seems to fit into that category.
Powers talks specifically about hardcore rap, saying,
“In many ways, this music works like pornography; when it’s half-baked, it’s uninteresting and depressing, but when it’s artful, it can get you thinking about things you’d never do in your waking life-things you base your waking life around not doing.”
It’s a really interesting idea, that the appeal—the worth, even—of hardcore rap lies in its unreality, in its being situated in places that you actively avoid. This avoidance can function in a literal, physical way—You may be uncomfortable walking around alone at night, in certain neighborhoods, around certain people. It’s also heavily psychological. Part of the hardwired goodness of our brains is that we pull the hand away from the flame, we preserve our life and guard it against harm. Except for when we don’t.
One of the easiest ways to fuck up your life is with drugs. (It’s true kids. And stay in school, too.) There’s a seductive asymmetry inherent with drugs: Take these pills, snort that powder, chew on this little strip of paper… Blammo! Everything you’ve ever learned about cause and effect, the conservation of energy, and just plain common sense—it’s all destroyed in a few minutes. How can something so small have such a powerful effect. Indeed. But that’s just the beginning of the effect, the flaming comet head you ride into infinity, the godhead you don’t quite notice you’ve slipped off of until you find it hard gripping your fingers into its fast-diminishing long tail.
We go our whole lives trying to avoid the desperation and vertiginous fall, but it’s almost impossible to even know where the edge is until you’re standing a few feet past it. Those Wile. E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons weren’t just absurdist masterpieces; they were public service announcements, too.
In reality, we fuck up our lives in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s this territory that’s (perhaps just for me, though I doubt it) the most interesting that Odd Future stakes out.
I’m not sure what exactly a 17 year old hears when he hears Odd Future; I have an only tenuous grasp of what this 27 year old hears. But I’m sure it’s something closer to what puts off Abebe and Southall, above. It’s something dark and strange. It’s inviting in the way a gram of cocaine artfully arranged on a mirror is. I know damn straight I should not partake, but it would be a waste of a night not to, right?
In this way, Odd Future does not make transgressive, avant-garde art. In this way, their fine-spun rape fantasies do not beckon to previously unexplored, unlit environs of the social deviant’s mind. Because the reality they exposit exists. Horrific gang rapes exist, and the Paper of Record fucks up reporting it. Odd Future does not hold up a cracked looking glass to society, because society is already cracked. Rape, kidnapping, drug addiction, violence—these things all exist, and in visceral ways that Odd Future’s lyrics actually make more palatable because they’re aesthetically inviting. What they do is craft a beautiful frame to go around the sick mirror held up to society.
Odd Future is situated somewhere between worthwhile “nasty art” and stylized pornography (like a rap version of Sucker Punch, say).
The aforementioned Ann Powers made a brief riff of Odd Future thoughts on Twitter, the best of which may have been, “Could be that rape — a haunting accusation, historically, for African-American men — seems like an inevitable burden. #Oddfuture” It’s entirely possible that Odd Future perpetrates “nasty art” on the world to remind us of the real bleakness that confronts people of color, men and women. Their pseudo-horrorcore rap is “pseudo” only as far as it’s a flashy version of the fucking terrible life people throughout America (and the world) inhabit; the typical Odd Future song is only slightly less depressing than a real news report, but it’s a million times more interesting to listen to.
On the other hand, it also seems unlikely that this is the effect Odd Future intends, though I’m practically cringing and throwing up tons of air quotes around the word “intends” because it’s such a notoriously thorny concept. Let’s look at what we know, though.
Odd Future is comprised mainly of teenagers, which, while generally autonomous and even intelligent creatures, are not the fully-formed human beings we’d want running the joint. Or even being assistant manager of on the weekends. Like when the snot nosed simp behind the counter fucks up your order, and you demand to speak to the manager, only to hear that the manager is him? That’s not a good feeling.
Another way Odd Future is at odds with the avant-garde artist is, perhaps, the sheer spontaneous energy of the enterprise. In a piece at (fittingly) Poetry Foundation, Bethlehem Shoals tries to get to their poetic analog, starting with the Wordsworthian dictum about poetry being the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility (summarily rejected; nothing tranquil about them) and ending improbably with the modernist poet Mayakovsky. On the way there, he says,
“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.”
It’s the duality—these kids act unhinged, but they’re clearly highly-functioning, globe-trotting musicians so they couldn’t be that unhinged—that underlies a lot of the thinking on Odd Future. That they’re just kids goes a long way toward excusing them from owning the amoral vicissitudes contained in their songs.
As any self-styled literary philosopher type will tell you, where there are dualities, historically constituted meanings, and irony, there’s a healthy amount of play involved. And it’s pretty widely held that at the end of the day, Odd Future is just playing—with us, with their lyrics, with the public perception of the entire group. The play—read: “slippage”—in their actions and lyrics is a part of it, as well.
Play is what kids do. Kids play. It’s an intrinsic part of being a kid. Watching Odd Future’s videos, listening to the music, the idea is forced upon you: They’re a group of people saying words because they like the feeling of words in their mouths; they’re moving muscles to move them. Acting out with no prescribed rules and agenda, friction and glide for the sake of really feeling it, Odd Future just is play.
This is not to say that play isn’t a part of transgressive art—it’s actually a large part of it—but I still fall for that Nietzschean gag: Where there’s a text, I still look for an author. The author I find behind the Odd Future oeuvre is not a think-piece writer, not a philosopher, not a critic. It’s a group of kids spraying the walls with, well, the lyrics are suggest with what. In any case, it seems to me that they’re practicing a staunchly anti-art type of artifice. As people—especially kids, especially the immature, especially people who’ve never really been destroyed—as they are wont to be, they’re outright destructive. Liable to call their mom a bitch in the midst of staging an imagined social revolution, just before kidnapping Taylor Swift and gagging her with one of those ridiculous princess dresses she likes to wear.
You get the sense that, rather than trying to shock you, they’re just embodying the flat world, Web 3.0 sensibility that sees bombing Libya, gang rape, new kinds of chicken sandwiches, and American Idol finalists all occupy the same approximate importance in our collective headspace. It’s not to say that rape and murder aren’t fairly immediate, game-changing events in people’s lives; but for, again, a bunch of kids, it’s kind of all the same for now.
My point, if I do have one, is that Odd Future often colors so far outside the lines that there may as well not be lines. What they’re doing is better. Fuck the lines.
Odd Future has presented the world with this almost monolithic slab (I picture it as a thousand MP3s stacked end on end like the ridiculous computer scenes in Hackers), a slab that us critical monkeys are doing our best to understand. Maybe we get lucky and hit bone on bone, sending up an arc of critical mastery. But if history is any guide (it is), we’re more likely to start shitting all over the place, flinging on the walls.
Similar to how Odd Future splatters words on the walls, painting there a warped picture of reality, critics look at their Pollack-like juvenelia and try to infer something, anything.
To digress slightly (for the last time, really), John Warner of The Morning News seems to have run against a similar conclusion facing up to a similarly impenetrable work, Roberto Bolano’s 2666. 2666 is such a shaggy, opaque work that there was a whole, missing sixth part of the book that wasn’t even known when it was originally published. No one noticed that the novel was missing more than 16% of itself when they crowned it The Book of 2008, which is both kind of hilarious and a testament to its impenetrability. Warner’s commentary on 2666 reflects my thinking on the thinking on Odd Future,
“even if we decide that the whole thing is an ultra-meta in-joke designed to see how far critics will stretch themselves in order to rationalize a masterpiece, you’ve got us covered because you can always say, “well, that was the point.” You have become a vessel into which we can pour just about anything, which I suppose is something.”
The very impenetrable-yet-vivid prurience and vitality of Odd Future’s music makes it almost anything to anyone. To some, they’re even Wu-Tang (which they’re decidedly not). Odd Future is what’s known as a “cypher.” They’re cryptic. They mean almost anything to almost everybody. How else to explain why some well-respected music critics refuse to even listen to the most exciting hip-hop band working today, while others—like, improbably, Foster Kamer—wave the #Swag Flag proudly?
We can also come around again to the idea that Odd Future is a bogey man. The “Scary Negro” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s words. (The irony of his formulating that concept only dawning on us all as he was arrested for occupying his own Cambridge residence…) But they’re not exactly that, either. They’re “scary teenagers.” Even as many of their songs reflect on race, it comes from such a childish point of view that it’s subsumed into the category of pre-theoretical youth experience rather than cultural theory. They’re pure, unfettered potentiality. (“Potency” is what Aristotle would appropriately call it.)
The most compelling thing about Odd Future (or second-most, second to their symphonic-and-screwed production, a sound Stravinsky would die for) is that they’re so damn young. They’re not young in that annoying indie wunderkind way. They’re young in that, you-have-your-whole-life-ahead-of-you sort of way. And they sound like it.
Unlike the notoriously self-destructive child stars who star in Disney joints when they’re twelve and check into rehab by eighteen, these kids are like real, actually normal teenagers. Teenagers are gross and nasty. They suck. They’re terrible. Have you ever—I’ll betray my age again, here—have you ever tried to teach or tutor a group of sixteen year olds? It’s not fun.
Just take a look at Earl. Supposedly spirited away by his right-thinking mother after hearing the Earltape, he’s inspired a new round of Free [Whoever] chants. As Brandon Soderberg artfully outlined in The Village Voice, there’s a rich and varied tradition there. But there’s one thing that sets “Free Earl” apart from all the others: Earl isn’t in fucking jail. He’s probably at boarding school. Can you think of a more juvenile concern than getting sprung from boarding school? Earl’s life is like a scene out of Rushmore.
Does being young excuse them from being gross? It doesn’t, but it kind of does. With, say, Eminem, you know what you’re getting: A 30 year old guy (who’s now pushing 40) rapping about rape, super-violence, and drug abuse. The die is cast; the mold is set; the bed’s shit. Whatever. Odd Future, being the embodiment as it were, of youth, can explode in a million directions. Some people (me, included) think Tyler will clean up his act as he grows up. Maybe he won’t. This interview with Narduwar suggests the light’s on and somebodies home, though.
The greatest thing about Odd Future is that they’re a bunch of stupid-smart kids, and they act like it. They’re not a bunch of Disney-bot Biebers. They possess a level of eloquence and a facility for sonic expression that makes them more than your average kids, but ultimately, they embody youth like few other things I can think of. Far be it from me (and you, hopefully) to sap that vitality for our own critical wonkery.
Of course, I say that after spending about 3,000 words doing that. But sometimes you have to climb the ladder before you can pull it up.
No Jumper March 30, 2011