I discovered Frank Ocean one night a few months ago when I was up late, avoiding sleep for one reason or the other, and ended up on YouTube. The young R&B crooner's unconventional structure and vocals pulled me in. His song "We All Try" became heavy rotation in my headphones as I worked. Then came "Thinking About You" and just recently "Novocane." He is also responsible for writing one of the most mature and haunting songs — "I Miss You" — I've ever heard from the usually safe Beyoncé. In "Made in America," on Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne, he sings arguably the best, soul-dragging chorus of any song in recent years.
When I took to Google to find out more about him — and if he was any relation to Billy (he's not) — I was shocked to discover he's only 24 and that he's part of the controversial collective, Odd Future. How in the world was the amazing, prolific Ocean part of that motley crew, which includes Tyler, the Creator; Hodgy Beats; Syd the Kyd; Left Brain; and a few others, including the mysterious Earl Sweatshirt?
But after more research, I realized that, more than just a foulmouthed rap group known for violently misogynistic and homophobic lyrics, Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All (their full name) is a legitimate artistic collective. Made up of producers, directors, writers, singers and rappers, the group's oldest member is Ocean — the youngest is 17-year-old Earl, whose mother sent him to a boarding school in Samoa just as the group gained notoriety. Based on their lyrics, I should hate them. I should be writing a missive denouncing their hate speech and inappropriate behavior. But the truth is that I kind of love these kids.
It should be known, emphatically and without confusion, that I do not support misogynistic or homophobic dialogue in any way, shape or form. But I do support this particular collective's right to exist. I expect to be bombarded with derisive comments accusing me of supporting rape rap and the "boys will be boys" cliché, and that is absolutely not what this is. I don't support the subject matter. But as a friend asked recently, do we allow black children to just be without the weight of the race or society on them? Are they allowed to just act their age and nothing more?
If it weren't for one of my younger brothers, Jesam, I might not have given them a chance. I asked him about the group, admitting that I'd only heard a few things here and there. He said, "Listen to the music. Really, listen to it." I did, and I was impressed. I cannot defend the lyrics, but I'm aware that they're not written for me. Harsh language beyond the casual curse word makes me uncomfortable. Graphic language and depictions of violence make me squeamish. So I won't be downloading Odd Future onto my iPod any time soon. But I do like perusing the lyrics — especially after hearing Tyler, the group's 20-year-old breakout star, who won the 2011 MTV VMA for Best New Artist, explain the motives behind his music and abrasive language.
He has said that each song is like a movie in his head. One song, he said, he wrote in the persona of Ted Bundy; another, the controversial "Yonkers," is a battle between his "good side" and his "evil side" (his alter ego, Wolf Haley). And some songs are just purely to make himself and his friends laugh. The humor is juvenile, but I don't think it's dangerous. I mean, the kid loves Justin Bieber and unicorns; how big of a threat can he be?
Many of his songs mention his absentee Nigerian father, whom he says he hates and doesn't need, but he mentions him so often that you know the reverse is true. These are the songs where he drops the mask and just becomes who he is — a kid who wears his heart on his sleeve, then covers that sleeve with homemade tattoos and rough language. Because of this, he's been likened to Eminem; however, Tyler pushes even further. Eminem rhymes for validation, and Tyler is doing what he does with or without our approval. He's telling his story. His way.
Odd Future was making music before anyone noticed, and they will continue to make music (and movies and TV shows) long after the buzz and hype have died down. Because of that, they have control over their product that most artists don't experience. They don't need the industry; the industry needs them. They only agree to pose for covers of magazines they read. And in an age where artists such as Nicki Minaj exhaust themselves and flood the airwaves before they've recorded their own albums, Odd Future refuses to hop on tracks with artists unless they respected and loved the music before the fame. They also have a TV show in production on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and a self-titled clothing line.
Not bad for some jerky kids from L.A.
I'm not saying listen to their music right now. As a matter of fact, I'm not saying listen to their music at all. What I am saying is listen to them — who they are, where they come from, what motivates them. What moves them. This is the so-called lost generation. We've begged them to speak; we can't silence them just because we don't like what they're saying. They have the right to grow.
Who would have known that the outcast punk outfit Green Day would go from mosh pits to Broadway shows? Or that the Beastie Boys, who urged us to fight for the right to party in 1986, would be the same Beastie Boys asking us to help Free Tibet in 2011? They were given the space to progress and evolve. I'm not sure why the same opportunity can't be extended to Odd Future.
It would be easy to dismiss these kids as troublemakers, but I think that would be doing a disservice to the generation they represent. Just because we don't like what they're saying doesn't mean they don't deserve to be heard.
Well, Tyler and Frank, anyway.
Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-born poet-writer and mental health advocate. She is currently working on a memoir documenting her life living with bipolar II disorder. Follow her on Twitter.