On Odd Future, Rape and Murder, And Why We Sometimes Like the Things That Repel Us
By now you've heard about Odd Future, the polarizing Los Angeles rap collective that got a lot of New York-based critics and labels pretty excited the other night in the basement of Webster Hall. And if you've listened to the music or read some of the better criticism written about the group so far you'll know that a good portion of their lyrics describe what are more or less abominable acts of murder, kidnapping, blasphemy, and rape: "I'm opening a church to sell coke and Led Zeppelin/To fuck Mary in her ass [giggling]"; "Odd Future some Nazis"; "We go skate, rape sluts, and eat donuts from Randy's"; etc. Yesterday, as Odd Future briefly became a trending topic in New York and pretty much every working music writer tried their hand at reviewing Monday night's show, a handful of critics pushed back. "'I will critically engage (not just report) teen boy musicians and their arty emo rape fantasies.' -Imaginary Music Critic Who Doesn't Exist," wrote one. Said another: "When is the next time someone's going to twit about odd future and talk about their rape lyric problem." Both were being a bit tongue in cheek. But they had a point.
Odd Future and Mos Def in New York, circa two days ago. Photo by Brook Bobbins.
Because it bothered me too. And though no one is taking any of this particularly seriously, I don't think, it seemed worth investigating, especially after personally writing a few hundred words about the group the other day that barely touched on their "arty emo rape fantasies" at all. Twenty or thirty people who I really respect adore Odd Future and so do I. How do we square how evil their stuff can be with the mainstream exposure we are all even now organizing to provide them? In a Pitchfork piece about the group, SOTC pal Sean Fennessey noted the obvious precedent--Eminem--and quoted Odd Future figurehead Tyler the Creator: "It's the first shit that comes to our heads, seriously. I'm interested in serial killers' minds and shit, so I rap about it at the moment."
There are two rationales at work here. The first is that, like Eminem, who once slapped a dude in ICP and another time hit a bouncer but has never otherwise been accused of an actual serious crime--though god knows he's rapped about committing plenty of them--they don't really mean it. The second is that artists need to be able to say absolutely anything in order to properly function. Tyler again: "Now that we have a little fan base and cult following coming along, I don't even want any of the opinions and reviews to jeopardize my natural way of doing music." That, he said, "would just fuck everything up."
We've been here before. To condemn Odd Future for their lyrics we'd have to talk about Eminem, Cam'ron (unspeakable misogynist in rhyme), and Clipse (drug dealers who know what they do is wrong but do it anyway, at least in song)--all rappers who have long since made it into the pantheon of most working critics and music fans. "The avant-garde need not be moral," Jon Caramanica once wrote in these pages about Cam'ron's Purple Haze, a sentence that has been pretty influential in sorting out how me and my friends process music with reprehensible content. And it's true. It's also true, however, that the real line of defense most listeners have for stuff like this is they didn't actually do it. As Jay-Z writes in his new book, Decoded, "The rapper's character is essentially a conceit, a first-person literary creation." He would know. And after all, Jay writes, it's not like we actually think Matt Damon is out "assassinating rogue CIA agents between movies."
But this doesn't quite explain why we want to listen to people talk about rape and murder, either. In fact, the very use of the word "want" there probably makes some people--me included--uncomfortable. If you asked me why I liked Odd Future, I'd tell you it was for Tyler the Creator, whose charisma is undeniable, and for the way the group seems like a genuinely chaotic, energetic new movement--half Bad Brains, half Wu-Tang Clan. I would not tell you I enjoy listening to Tyler rap about raping a woman in an old folks' home, as he does on "Splatter," because I don't.
And yet it's disingenuous to separate Odd Future from their lyrical content, dishonest to say you can enthusiastically listen to the group without constantly encountering and processing the incredibly dark stuff they're talking about. Why does art like this appeal? In Decoded, Jay-Z talks about how he's heard that executives and businessmen listen to his songs about shooting people and slinging crack and use them for motivation before big meetings, PowerPoint presentations, and job interviews. The point he then makes is that with art like this you never identify with the victim, the proverbial "you"; you identify with the person speaking, and that person is a bad motherfucker, and thus so is the listener. Through this type of identification, art allows us to explore the weird frisson between reality and fantasy, the gulf between who we are and who we'd like to be.
But let's not let ourselves off the hook that easily--we don't actually want to ponder rape, say, nor identify with those who perpetrate it. (I don't think, anyway; torture porn perplexes me for this exact reason.) There's something else at work here. Odd Future and the acts from which they've descended make us confront a kind of disgust that is mercifully absent from our everyday lives. The discomfort and foreignness of the elaborately awful scenarios that Odd Future concoct is part of the point: it takes us out of our comfort zones, makes us feel weird and awful. Because nobody talks about this stuff. Nobody wants to talk about this stuff, nobody feels comfortable talking about this stuff, because this stuff is awful.
What artists like Odd Future--or Dennis Cooper, or Jean Genet--do, maybe, is venture where other people won't and there start considering all sorts of human behavior we would prefer not to think of as possible. But it is possible. And more to the point, it reads as novelty, to the ear and to the critical mind--at last, something new, something that is not an indie-rocker strumming an electric guitar or an unimaginative rapper talking about a Maybach he doesn't actually own. It's not so much how it's different--although that does matter, too--but that it's different. We sort the ethics out, after the fact.
And when we do? Well, I don't know, exactly. Odd Future's lyrics are offensive to moral people however you slice it--whether you defend their creative imperative, note they don't actually do this stuff, or give them credit for making their audience confront a whole range of things about the way humans are that they'd rather not contemplate. A critic friend was asked recently how he was able to listen and recommend to others the music of Burzum, a black metal group fronted by an actual convicted murderer and unrepentant racist. "It's complex," he told the interviewer. "It's also dangerous for me to simplify it like this, but it basically comes down to my ability (or disability?) to disassociate, to enjoy the music even if I don't believe in the philosophy behind it." We've all gotten very good at disassociating, as critics. This is necessary. But it's worth remembering that we're always doing it, too--that to appreciate a lot of the art we love, we're turning a blind eye to some of its essential aspects and to those of the people that made it. It's a necessary lie that we tell ourselves, but a lie all the same.