Everyone’s talking about Odd Future but most online writers keep a cool distance between themselves and the collective’s actual musical content. Details after the jump.
Cord Jefferson isn’t shy about revealing the heavy handed agenda that drives his piece “Odd Future’s Odd Fan Base,” in which he encourages readers to eschew careful listening and simply trust him when he suggests that the group’s members “always … rap about rape.” Skeptical? Jefferson assures us that anyone who has “read anything about Odd Future recently, or listened to just a few of their songs” will find that the collective “specialized in gross-out rhymes.”
This isn’t true, strictly speaking. Aside from Earl and Tyler’s albums —which both cover plenty of topical ground outside of rape and murder—- Odd Future’s material is pretty low on gore and mayhem. But Jefferson has a point to make, a story to write, and an agenda push, so it’s important that he dissuades you from embarking upon your own analysis and arriving at your own conclusions.
Jefferson is thoroughly disinterested in context. Whether lyrics are recited in an angry or tongue-in-cheek manner, included as details in a fantastic narrative, or woven into somber reflections, they all fall under the umbrella of “gross-out.” By generalizing about Odd Future’s musical content, while insisting that such generalities can serve as the foundation of valid critical claims, Jefferson prepares us for his main argument, which is that Odd Future’s popularity is attributable to white critics “fetishizing black male rage.”1
Jefferson defuses the simplest logical refutation of this claim by admitting that Odd Future have some black fans2 but quickly dismisses this curious fact because it doesn’t accord with his theory. Plus, it demands a more thorough and nuanced examination of their music than he seems willing to commit to; in the article he only mentions to listening to three albums associated with the collective.
Dom Passantino points out that Jefferson might have been on to something in claiming that “indie”-oriented3 critics have been warmly receptive to Odd Future, but also claims that Jefferson loses his way when he attempts to attribute this friendly reception to racial matters. A better explanation for any apparent disparity in coverage, Passantino notes, is that Odd Future have been essentially boycotted by popular rap-centered blogs like NahRight, for …. publicly dissing popular rap-centered blogs like NahRight.
Jefferson sells us a narrative of a tradition of cultural tourism. The story goes that white audiences strap on their safari hats and gleefully embrace figurative expressions of black male rage, but then hypocritically register disgust if the same figures move on to real life violence. Passantino feels no other urge than to mock this idea outright. Though it’s a silly notion, it isn’t without precedent; it reminds me of instances where Rick Ross’s fictional crime lyrics are treated as worse transgressions than if they were actually carried out.
In “Here Comes Some Odd Future Backlash,” Amos Barshad refutes Jefferson’s spurious claims that “Odd Future’s lyrics break new boundaries of civility.” He points out that Eminem, a white rapper lauded heavily by whites, wrote songs that were just as gruesome as anything penned by Tyler or Earl, one of which is a fantasy about slaying the real life mother of his child. He further notes that it’s difficult for rational adults to consider the most outrageous lyrics of Tyler or Earl as anything more than “winking provocation. “But like most other writers who theorize about Odd Future’s reception, Barshad doesn’t engage in close analysis of their music.4
Barshad instead defers to Nitsuh Abebe’s problematic think-piece, which attributes the press’s embrace of Odd Future to a more general “critic vs. civilian” divide. In this narrative, critics are positively smitten by the collective’s angsty, alienated, smart-ass self-expression, while non-critics run from their music, horrified and offended. Abebe penned a follow-up piece for his own blog in which he suggests that Odd Future’s gory, nihilistic side is the least interesting part of their appeal. Rather than examine other aspects of their music, however, he focuses on lyrics with misogynistic and homo-negative overtones, quietly denouncing them as divisive and alienating motifs.
In “Hip-Hop’s Great Gay Hope: Rainbow Noise” Brandon Soderberg observes that openly homosexual rap group Rainbow Noise’s employs the kind of motifs that enrage online critics when Odd Future drop them. These motifs —namely “will to power agression,” “mackin’ bitches,” references to physical and sexual abuse— position Rainbow Noise to defy both the “political correctness vortex” of rap’s detractors as well as the homo-negative attitudes of many artists and fans. In Soderberg’s estimation their transgression is constructive, even positive.
Soderberg also correctly notes that the members of Odd Future, by virtue of both their age and their affiliation with openly lesbian engineer/DJ Syd, are probably not unreconstructed homophobes. Both Odd Future —whom Soderberg notes are at least partly influenced by figures like Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West who have made public pro-homosexual statement and gestures— and Rainbow Noise, it stands to reason, are engaging in similar transgressive play to ends that are different but not opposite. This level of insight cannot be gleaned if one limits his criticism to denouncing every single usage of the word “fag.”
Andrew “Noz” Nosnitsky previously noted that the criticism directed towards Odd Future’s lyrics is never redirected at rappers who rap or speak casually about assaulting or killing other black men. I’m curious then, if the same critics who consider Odd Future to be purveyors of exclusion and even instigators of hateful violence are willing to hurl similar invectives at an openly homosexual rap group like Rainbow Noise.
If not, one has to wonder whether or not these critics are more interested in policing (heterosexual, male, black) artists whose decontextualized lyrics offend their personal sensibilities than providing the public with fair, rigorous, incisive critiques of musical content. The latter requires that writers sit down with a piece of music and listen to it, again and again,5 while the former only requires the briefest perusal of articles written by people of the exact same ideological orientation and cool distance from the music in question.6 — Thun
- g points out that the “cultural voyeurism” argument is nearly as old as rap itself. [↩]
- Conveniently, he doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Odd Future has been lauded by black critics. [↩]
- “Indie” of course being synonymous with “white.” [↩]
- Even B Michael Payne’s objective if overthought analysis of Odd Future is more focused on their controversial appeal than their music. [↩]
- Abortatron insists quite sensibly that his readers take the time to listen to carefully Odd Future’s music before denouncing their content; I cannot understand why this position seems to be so unpopular. [↩]
- Nick Southall opines confidently at length about Odd Future’s allegedly objectionable content despite admitting to not having listened to one second of their music. [↩]