As extremist conservatives push the discourse ever rightward, a long-running conversation about hip-hop group Odd Future indicates cultural criticism might be following.
By **Julianne Escobedo Shepherd**
By arrangement with AlterNet.org.
Last summer, buzz began to swirl around a mostly teenaged Los Angeles rap collective named Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (Odd Future for short). Gradually bubbling up from the annals of the Internet, they caught the attention of bloggers and rap fans first for their precocious styles—they were cynical, depressed and extremely talented, particularly for their young ages—and second for their outrageous, often cringe-inducing collection of videos.
The first one I saw, for “Earl” by then 17-year-old Earl Sweatshirt (real name: Thebe Kgositsile, son of celebrated South African poet/activist Keorapetse Kgositsile), featured a gang of friends pouring a concoction of various disgusting liquids into a blender and then drinking enough to make them gag—teen boy mischief to the max. Barfing featured prominently in their videos and performances, as did death-defying feats of stage-diving, and I still can’t watch the part in the “Earl” video where he tears off his thumbnail. Odd Future was, in short, a group of fairly typical thrill-seeking teens, raised on Jackass and skateboarding videos and doing whatever they could to top their latest shock-value-baiting antics.
As blog buzz tends to, the hype spread quick and fierce—and after we’d all had enough time to listen to their back catalogue and go to their shows, it didn’t take long for Odd Future to become the most debated musical group of the past two years, if not in the entire history of the internet. They were incredibly prolific and had released scores of material via their Tumblr and YouTube channel, and their nihilistic ways spoke to a generation of kids born into the Internet’s middle age. They were depressed, disenfranchised and equipped with rebellious fuck-everything attitudes. (In light of the London youth riots, you could almost call their rage mantra—“Burn shit, kill people, fuck school”—prescient.)
Within that nihilism, they spat quite a few lyrics about violent rape and murder, along with epithets like “faggot” and “bitch.” Earl Sweatshirt, the aforementioned babyface in a barbershop with a bum thumbnail: “She mad as fuck/stuck in the back of a black Acura/Fed her acid now that the duct tape quacks back at her/ Hello Heather yellow feathers/now you ain’t laughin, huh.” Previously in the song, his celebrated cohort and Odd Future leader, Tyler the Creator, had rapped about raping nurses.
I am all about black men getting paper and running the world, but in this era, Watch the Throne feels particularly cut off from the rest of humanity, if not totally gauche.
I am not here to indict nor to excuse Odd Future. I was the first person to tout their talents in a national magazine, in August of 2010, and I similarly might have pushed along the discourse against their more violent lyrics (see second Twitter annotation in this great piece). As a progressive, anti-racist feminist, I have had a complicated relationship with music I appreciate for its aesthetics and disdain for its content for as long as I can remember.
Anyone with a cursory sense of language can read/listen to Odd Future lyrics and see that the syntax and cadence is exceptional—and that the content is sometimes quite gnarly. But after approximately 900,000 think pieces were written on the topic of Odd Future’s “vile” lyricism—a large chunk of them by rap dilettantes who have apparently never listened to much hip-hop beyond radio and club staples—what became more enraging to me than the detailed artistic output of a group of youths were the scores of critics, largely middle-aged white males, who not only tripped over themselves justifying the lyrics, but who also seemed to ridicule or mock those who might have a problem with them.
Odd Future’s producer and DJ, Syd tha Kid, was held up as an example of why the group simply could not be homophobic or misogynist—she was a lesbian, after all, and she said in interviews her male cohorts treated her no differently. That argument was, of course, bullshit–single-person representation does not equal diversity, and besides, Syd “slapped bitches” too. What the apologist critics were inching toward was what The Root called “black male rage as entertainment,” which got to the heart of what many (self-aware) non-black rap fans have reckoned with since hip-hop went corporate (or at least since 50 Cent got famous): Do you love this for the art, or do you love it for your ability to channel through it? Do you love listening to violence in rap because you do not have to live it?
As the Tea Party pushes the political discourse ever rightward, shifting the center, it’s easy to see the way cultural criticism and discourse is fracturing with it. The criticism around Odd Future, now both cartoonish and tiresome in its breadth, broke down into a binary, of apologists versus activists. There seemed to be no gray area, only one voice from each end, and really, that’s no fault of Odd Future’s. Though their lyrics were what they were, it was their rabid fans and protectors who perpetrated some of the worst attacks, to the point where Earl’s mother, in a recent New Yorker profile, refused to give her real name for fear of retaliation for putting her teenaged son in a Samoan boarding school.
As a hip-hop feminist, I’ve often felt like I had to defend hip-hop from non-rap fans, explaining that the misogyny within was a reflection of misogyny in the larger culture (and it is). It’s also true that hip-hop has been called out quite a lot more than other genres of misogynist music (i.e. the majority of rock and emo) thanks to institutional and intellectual racism against black men, who comprise the majority demographic of rappers. But at what point does a rigorous defense of freedom of speech crawl up into itself until it is shaming the victim? In the realm of music criticism, the voices with the biggest national platforms remain white males, most of them straight (typical of media nerds, we all know one another). In an oft-cited (in hip-hop), still-relevant 2005 article on the rapper Cam’ron (whose nihilism is possibly grosser than Odd Future’s), the prominent music writer Jon Caramanica wrote, “the avant-garde need not be moral.” Perhaps not, but as self-appointed minders of the discourse, shouldn’t critics?
Take another, less controversial example: Watch the Throne, the mega-album by rap superheroes Jay-Z and Kanye West, released to infinite fanfare this week. With the exception of a few introspective songs and nuances (the lack of super-rich black folks at the top), the album is dripping with wealth; released the day the stock market crashed after the S&P downgrade, it feels something like the lavish parties stockbrokers threw on the Upper East Side right before the Great Depression had the country standing in a soup line. Hip-hop cultural critic and professor Hua Hsu has a brilliant take on Watch the Throne here:
“What makes hip-hop such a durable form is its capacity to scramble fiction and fact; the artifice and the realities that art conceals or amplifies become one. In this way, Watch the Throne feels astonishingly different. It captures two artists who no longer need dreams; art cannot possibly prophesy a better future for either of them. All of this—the luxury goods, the art collection, private compounds, the Oprah-level American Dream—is their reality. This isn’t to discount all the personal travails or the fantastic demons unimaginable to the nonfamous. But to speak passionately about contradiction offers narrative cover for the truth that one simply knows better, and the album’s anxieties feel like an hour-long quest for the authority to rule from above, a justification to luxuriate.”
Though the general jury’s still out on Watch the Throne (hey, it only came out this week), Hsu’s is so far one of the only voices expressing discontent with the album from both an aesthetic and sociocultural standpoint, and almost certainly will be the only person to voice it so eloquently. But watching my Twitter timeline gush over Watch the Throne (while listening to it and feeling quite grossed out by its untimely excess), it’s clear that it’s going to be a 2011 hit. Jay-Z and Kanye West have long transcended out of hip-hop as a genre into the pop-star/celebrity category, and are generally worshipped without question among their fans. I am all about black men getting paper and running the world, but in this era, Watch the Throne feels particularly cut off from the rest of humanity, if not totally gauche.
Still, I expect to see quite a few exaltations of the record in most major national outlets, both because of their talent and audacity, and because this is a capitalist album in a nation that has pushed capitalism to its brink. But then, maybe it will fall victim to the austerity line. But if music criticism indeed further dips into mediocrity and flagging rigor—or its “yearning for the mud,” as the Root put it—we can only look forward to more cyclical Odd Future-style debates, chasing our tails like Mobius strips, flipping hyperbole and reaction where nuance once was. At which point, I might have to opt out entirely.
This post originally appeared at AlterNet.org.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.