The Poetry Foundation:
The shock poetry of LA's newest hip-hop spectacle.
BY BETHLEHEM SHOALS
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 "My Mind's Playing Tricks on Me"). In the early Nineties, Big L's "Devil's Son" and the Gravediggaz's 6 Feet Deep 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.