I was introduced to the Los Angeles-based hip-hop group Odd Future (full name: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) over craft beers at a friend's house several months ago. This friend, a white guy in his late 20s, was in the midst of writing a feature about them for a major music magazine — one of the first features to be written about the band, in fact.
For his research, he'd collected literally every song Odd Future had recorded — the group gives away all of its music for free on its multiple websites — and he played them for me one after the other, prefacing each with, "This one is greaaaaaaat."
After listening to what must have been three whole albums of music, my friend turned to me, his head nodding, and asked, "So what do you think?"
"I like it a lot," I said, my head nodding in unison. "But do they always rap this much about rape?"
Turns out that they do. If you've read anything about Odd Future recently, or listened to just a few of their songs, you know that the group, led by a charismatic teenager who calls himself Tyler the Creator, specializes in gross-out rhymes. To be sure, many of their raps have nothing to do with rape, murder, torture or general mayhem — but many others do.
On the song "Splatter," Tyler raps, "F—- Tyler, I'mma change my name to Uncle Phil, 'cause every girl I … f—-, it's always against her Will." He then says he's going to go into a retirement home and have sex with an old woman. On another song, "Seven," Tyler says he and Odd Future "go skate, rape sluts and eat donuts from Randy's."
The darkness neither begins nor ends with Tyler. On Odd Future team member Earl Sweatshirt's eponymous solo track, "Earl," Tyler's right-hand man boasts, "Earl puts the ass in assassin, puts the pieces of decomposing bodies in plastic." And on "Couch," Earl fantasizes about feeding a woman acid, binding her in duct tape and putting her in the trunk of his car. "Now you ain't laughing, huh?" he asks his victim at the end of the gruesome verse.
It's a White Thing
The thing is, a lot of people are laughing — laughing and fawning. One thing that jumps out at you when you look at much of the criticism of Odd Future is that hardly any of it is very critical. Indeed, most of America's revered music-news outlets — and many of the British outlets — love Odd Future. Another thing that jumps out at you is that most of these critics are white.
As I've followed Odd Future for nearly half a year now, it's been strange to watch hip white America wholly embrace a bunch of African-American punks whose leader once tweeted, "I want to scare the f—- out of old white people that live in middle f—-ing America."
Not that Odd Future doesn't have any black fans, of course — hip-hop heavyweights Questlove and Mos Def are both major supporters — but the disparity of buzz for Tyler et al. between the black press and the white press has been interesting, to say the least.
In its write-up on Odd Future, Pitchfork noted that the rap blogs Nah Right and 2dopeboyz have never given the group much coverage, a decision that has resulted in Odd Future's trashing of both blogs in their songs. And on its most recent "Freshman Class" list, a rundown of all the best up-and-coming talent in hip-hop, XXL magazine found no room for Odd Future. In other words, where hype is concerned, the all-black Odd Future has been a largely white phenomenon, a ship of talented kiddie pirates riding on a wave put into motion by the white middle Americans to whom they're giving the finger.
Black Male Rage as Entertainment
For their part, it's not that white music critics and fans are self-loathing (at least, not all of them are); what it comes down to mostly is that whites have fetishized black male rage for years now, and Odd Future is just the latest testament to that interest.
In his lengthy Village Voice piece on Odd Future, critic Zach Baron writes, "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."
And going back to Frannie Kelley's NPR article, Kelley theorizes, "I think that, for years, Tyler thought he'd never met anyone as smart as him. I think that enrages him. Makes him feel trapped and unheard. I think Tyler feels bad about some of the things he says, but it feels so good to say them out loud. To scream them. To make some people feel bad, and other people feel good." (Kelley may be partially right here, but in fact, Tyler himself notes throughout many of his songs that a lot of his anger stems from his absent father, a source of pain much bigger than feeling smarter than his peers.)
In his earlier years, Eminem had some of the most violent lyrics around, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan have occasionally dabbled in rape talk. But neither of those entities —both of whom Odd Future have been compared to — ever really dealt in the kind of sustained, traumatic murder music that's made Odd Future so big.
And as you can tell from the passages above, it's not in spite of this darkness that these white people like Tyler and his crew; it's because of it. It's because they're intrigued by this seething rage that, as Baron writes from his point of privilege, they don't normally get to see. It's grotesque, but more than that, it's exciting.
At a recent show at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, Odd Future played for about 15 minutes before Tyler, angry at the lackadaisical, giggling crowd, swore at some of the audience, derided the soundman and stormed away, his group in tow. "Ain't s—- funny," said a member of the band before leaving the stage.
The mostly white audience's response to the actual black frustration before them? They laughed it off. So much so that Phoenix New Times music writer Martin Cizmar called the experience a "turnoff." "[I was] unsettled by how the mostly white crowd related to Odd Future's angry music," Cizmar wrote in his review of the show. "Something about wealthy white yuppies laughing and smiling as black teenagers pour out their rage at an unfair world through hip-hop didn't sit well with me … [T]here's something unseemly about white people getting a big kick out of it."
The French call it nostalgie de la boue, or "yearning for the mud." It's a great phrase for describing what these white writers mean when they say they like the way Odd Future's music makes them "feel weird and awful."
It's the same charge people got from listening to Biggie's robbery schemes on "Gimme the Loot," and the visceral thrill that made audiences get to their feet when Mike Tyson used to manhandle opponents in the ring. Consider it a kind of cultural tourism in which spectators get to feel dangerous without ever really approaching danger.
Because the real key to Odd Future's success is that, for all their scary talk, they're still just a bunch of teenagers who can't even drink at the clubs in which they perform. Some of them are still in high school, and rumor has it that Earl Sweatshirt got in trouble with his mom for his foulmouthed exploits and was sent off to a military academy.
It's this overarching sense of youthful whimsy, this idea that they don't mean most of what they say, that keeps Odd Future in white fans' good graces. Because history has shown that white critics have a very low tolerance for actual, tangible black rage.
Ike Turner, Mike Tyson, Chris Brown — all black men whose anger went from latent to gruesome, and whose reputations were shattered irrevocably in the process. Because the fetishization of black aggression has its limits. And while white people love to hear you say you're going to beat and rape some women, God help you if you ever actually do it.
Cord Jefferson is a contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.