UPDATED: March 27th, 2012, at 3:02 PM
Last Wednesday, rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All performed for a raucous sold-out crowd at the House of Blues in Boston and featured songs off of their latest album, “The OF Tape Vol. 2.” Before they could finish, however, the show was shut down by the police, and one of the members was arrested. Such occurrences are not unusual for Wolf Gang, a highly antagonistic group that has sparked many debates over its offensive lyrics. Below, Caleb J. Thompson and Indiana T. Seresin engage in their own dialogue about Odd Future’s aggressive lyrical content.
POINT: Caleb Thompson
Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All is an L.A.-based rap collective whose output is marked by the profane, the misogynistic, and the ultra-violent. The lyrical content of the group’s songs frequently rejoices in stories of homophobia, rape, murder, and cannibalism, but despite—or because—of this shock value, they are arguably the most talked-about group in contemporary hip-hop. While the originality and impact of their work is undisputed, the group’s attitudes toward police, women, and homosexuals have dismayed some and outraged others. Can we not reconcile this with the brilliance of the music, or is it, in fact, an integral part of what makes Odd Future so compelling?
We permit theatrical, cinematic, and literary violence a leeway that we do not always in popular music. Certainly Odd Future has written nothing more graphic than the rapes, murders, and mutilations that populate the poetry of Dante, the plays of Shakespeare, and the films of Quentin Tarantino, and yet we regard those works with a much more lenient eye. A close listen to Odd Future will reveal that the rappers who make up the collective very clearly assume lyrical personae that are far removed from their actual personalities. Tyler the Creator, the group’s talismanic frontman, raps about snorting cocaine and womanizing despite actually being a teetotaler with a long-term girlfriend. In the same sense, we can infer that his lyrics about rape and human flesh consumption are probably also fictitious. Odd Future is playing out fantasies of violence and sexual conquest just as artists in all media have done for centuries.
The same can be held for the group’s apparent treatment of homosexuality. Lyrics about queers and faggots are designed to shock, not offend. In fact, Odd Future member Syd Tha Kid is one of the few openly gay women in hip-hop and has said on record that she has never been made to feel in any way uncomfortable or “less than an equal.” The idea of censoring Tyler and his cohorts like some suggest is an attack not just on this specific group, but on the freedom of art in contemporary society to express itself. The lyrics may shock you—indeed, they are designed to—but they are simply the continuation of an artistic tradition that goes back to depictions of animal cruelty in cave paintings.
Moreover, the shock value is one of the reasons Odd Future is so important. Popular music has a long history of shock, from the first parents appalled at the sexual licentiousness supposedly encouraged in their children by the music of Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones (a dislike often founded on racial prejudices toward rock’s origins in African-American blues music) to today. When was the last time you were really shocked by a song and really made to sit up and take notice? The magnificent blast of hatred and evil that constitutes an Odd Future record is the child of the Stones and the Sex Pistols and Public Enemy. In a world of bland, banal Rihannas and Chris Browns, Odd Future is a raucous, primal validation of what made rap so exciting in the first place.
COUNTERPOINT: Indiana Seresin
Few critics of Odd Future actually advocate for the censorship of their music. But there is a crucial difference between fighting for censorship and generating dialogue that will make listeners think twice about the music they consume.Odd Future’s music is problematic because the rappers present rape in a way that is too close to reality.
Eminem’s “Stan” depicts a grisly suicide and murder, but the song’s letter format and “Dear Slim” introduction clearly establish the fact that Eminem is not rapping as himself but as a fictional character. In contrast, “Luper” by Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt begins with a narrative that could be a realistic account of the rapper’s 16-year-old life: “Ma said, wake up son, good morning / I rolled out of bed, greeted mamma with a yawn”. What follows is a story about an unrequited high school romance that, at the end of the song, suddenly swerves into a kidnapping, rape, and murder narrative. The implication is that Earl–ordinary, teenage Earl–would be capable of, and perhaps even justified in, raping and murdering the girl at school who rejects him.
Odd Future’s fans suggest that the collective serves as an electric charge to the music industry. But this is clearly a false dichotomy. Despite the tedious homogeny of much contemporary pop music, there are many artists whose work is both lyrically and musically thrilling. And—astonishing as it may be—most of them still manage to achieve success without any mention of the abuse of women.
My sister is the kind of hip-hop lover who has to post a new song to Facebook within an hour of it dropping; anything afterward is considered too late. Unsurprisingly, she was the one to introduce me to Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. In 2008, before the group erupted, she played me tracks from the Odd Future Tape, pausing whenever the lyrics veered into a graphic description of rape.
“They’re so good,” she said. “But I don’t know if I can listen to their music.”
Three years later, the internet is bursting at the seams with blog-based arguments about whether Odd Future is “actually” misogynistic and homophobic, whether the members rap about rape to generate publicity, or whether they are simply immature and therefore harmless. This last strand of thought is most alarming because it implies that rape is something inherent to the domain of juvenescence. But these debates are irrelevant. We should be less concerned about judging whether the artists themselves are homophobic misogynists than we should be about turning a critical eye to ourselves, the listeners, and seeing how we might be implicated in the violence and hatred that fill Odd Future’s music.