Fighting Words for OFWGKTA et al

This is how OFWGKTA feels right now…

The longer we slow to look at the flashing red and blue lights, to inspect the mangled chassis, to peek into the rear of the ambulance–the longer I dwell on all of the unsettling and disturbing and captivating issues–the more I want to take up the cause of the policeman waving cars on their merry way:

“There’s nothing to see here people. Move along.”

It’s not that easy, is it? Forgive me while I synthesize…

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Sure, their appearance on Jimmy Fallon is up there in the category of “Best Things to Happen on Television Since the Kanye Rant after Katrina.” Clearly, this moment and these firebrands caught everyone off-guard. But tell me you haven’t seen bands that wouldn’t have wilded out like that if given the opportunity to perform on late night television. Tell me you’re not a little ashamed of being sucked into the novelty: “Surprise America! Rappers aren’t always wooden thugs! Sometimes they’re crazed youth with tube socks!”

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Now, NPR is on their jock acting like naive parents who think they can convince their kids they’re cool by turning their friends onto their kids’ music:

“You know what else? They’re really good. Especially their ringleader, called Tyler The Creator. And another thing? It’s awesome to see them play live.”

Are you fucking kidding me? You couldn’t invent a better parody of NPR’s tagalong music staff. The New York Times does a little better, but they celebrate the music and describe the disturbing content while essentially giving Tyler, the Creator a pass because of hard times. Word to hard times. But hard times don’t get a pass. They get a moment, some space, a solemn acknowledgement. We do not give hard times license and we do not get to wash our hands when others fall on them.

As for Pitchfork, they’ve got me on some “Fear of an Eight Point Oh” maths: a 20-minute edit DNE a 2.0 deduction when the bulk of said edit is wretched music.
As I began working on this post last Monday, Pitchfork, reporting statements by Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara challenging the press and fans to take a stand on OFWGKTA, went all “Just the facts, Ma’am” and dropped an old Tegan and Sara video. Come on, dudes! Grow a pair! Tyler, the Creator’s “If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!” response deserves more than your “predictably fucked up” shoulder shrug!

Everyone is writing about it because it’s a spectacle, because there’s some new outlandish addition to the news cycle every time they pop up on the internet or break something on stage or bleed some member of the audience. The music media is feeding off of their network for web traffic. #OFWGKTA is great advertising.

Meanwhile, OFWGKTA are telling us we don’t get it. And they’re right. We don’t get it. We shouldn’t get it. We’re entertaining it because we want to be hip to the zeitgeist. We’ve been seduced by energy. And we’re accountable.

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At present, this movement is all about Tyler, the Creator. And, sadly, what was disarmingly charming about him in that first network television takeover is exactly what’s missing in his new album: piggy back rides. Goblin is not remotely fun music. It is dark and angry and unwelcoming, even more universally unpleasant than the “rapey” and “homophobic” descriptions would lead one to believe. Essentially a rehash of the format of the first album, Bastard, it bears only a handful of legitimately compelling tracks, one of which is the leadoff single, “Yonkers.”

Tyler, the Creator – Yonkers

Everything else is lazy production, artless vitriol, pedestrian shock schlock, incessant insults to its listeners, and songs that appear designed as an exercise to see how many times someone can use “bitch” in his lyrics. The two worst offenders simply seem like antagonistic joke tunes, one of which doesn’t even feature Tyler’s rapping:

Tyler, the Creator with Jasper the Dolphin and Taco Bennett – Bitch Suck Dick

Tyler is not without talent. He has a particular minimal production aesthetic that is occasionally quite moving. He has an incredible rap voice and great cadence and delivery. There are fascinating moments on Bastard.

Tyler, the Creator with Hodgy Beats – French!

The problem now is that he’s all id and venom for every detractor and supporter and bystander equally. While that may be captivating for the time being, it’s not something that sustains great art; it’s what alienates foes and fans alike.

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The stories of Bastard and Goblin are apparently two of three sessions with Tyler’s pitch-dropped therapist character. He’s clearly troubled and aware of it. He’s ironic about treatment while admitting its importance. His sudden rise to fame gives him more fuel for the fire. No matter how much we’d like to see him harness his talent and forego the upsetting content, I don’t know how a fan base can possibly facilitate rehabilitation. For him, the music is therapeutic. And thankfully, most of these intense songs are among Tyler’s most memorable performances.

Tyler, the Creator – Bastard
Tyler, the Creator – Nightmare

But when does therapy go too far? Where do we draw the line when outlets for angst and rage force themselves upon others? It’s not a tenable relationship for listeners to give such leeway or for artists to expect so much.

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At the end of Goblin Tyler reveals that his pitch-dropped therapist character is actually his conscience. The irony is that OFWGKTA’s conscience really is built into itself. Their lone R&B croon slinger (who should keep singing and stop rapping), Frank Ocean, manages to be consistently on the surprising side of all the talking points. Take, for example, the track “We All Try”, in which Ocean actually lists principles instead of making ruins:

Frank Ocean – We All Try

“I believe a woman’s temple gives her the right to choose.
But, baby, don’t abort.
I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman
But between love and love…
You must believe in something.
You’ve gotta believe in something.
I still believe in man…
I just don’t believe we’re wicked.
I know that we sin.
But I do believe we try.
We all try.”

The moral is precisely what makes us sympathize with Tyler. Look at that big, goofy smile. Most of us are Platonists: everyone starts out good and is merely corrupted. There has to be some good reason for Tyler to behave that way. There is, of course, his troubled relationship with his father, the anger from which is entirely legitimate. But here the comparison continues. Consider Frank Ocean’s take on being fatherless:

Frank Ocean – There Will Be Tears

Frank clearly has a different relationship with his feelings than his cohorts, of whom we imagine him singing: “These boys had no fathers neither. And they ain’t crying.” Instead of Tyler’s oft-quoted “I just want my father’s email so I can tell him how much I fucking hate him in detail,” Frank cries for his loss, even in the company of guarded friends.

Beyond these comparisons, the real dividing line between the two artists is Tyler’s absolutely abhorrent language regarding women. In Frank Ocean’s music, sexuality can be difficult and complicated without being abusive or misogynistic. The highlight of nostalgia, ultra, “Songs for Women,” shows the kind of vulnerability one can be found in where romantic feelings are involved.

Frank Ocean – Songs for Women

So we’re presented with the paradox of membership. In this celebrated and maligned collective are two individuals who appear to profess very different world views who create very different music. Yet they work and operate together quite intimately. How does Frank Ocean sit and where does he stand with all of this? Or Tyler, for that matter?

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There is something deep and primal about the appeal of OFWGKTA. By the time they surfaced, the gun raps of pop gangsters (as well as their club lives and sexual escapades, which OFWGKTA similarly mock) had grown utterly tiresome, mundane, unmoving, unthreatening. Yet a large part of what is attractive in rap music is its threatening character. We love to feel equally dangerous and endangered. We cannot ignore the success of OFWGKTA as evidence of an extensive desire for violent content (musical or lyrical) that isn’t so bored and commonplace that it’s dismissed outright as fantasy. What we’re seeing here is a fan base that is exhilarated by merely wondering whether Tyler, the Creator is really a rapist. The adrenaline of violence, the passion for conquest, the simultaneous desire for both survival and extinction–these are triggered by the music, which resonates on a level of instinct beyond both morals and aesthetics.

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But the violence is clearly generational too. I revisit a quote from Blood Meridian that’s been inspiring a good deal of my next album:

“For it is the death of the father to which the son is entitled and to which he is heir, more so than his goods. He will not hear of the small mean ways that tempered the man in life. He will not see him struggling in follies of his own devising. No. The world which he inherits bears him false witness. He is broken before a frozen god and he will never find his way.”

OFWGKTA are bastards in a more fundamental way than by just a lack of a father. Each new generation scrapes and claws for its footing in the world, against the world as it is, a world that is against its young, Saturn devouring his children. Generation Z have transformed the very nature of identity in a sociopsychological transmutation that suffers the physical world as a platform to explorations of a boundless cyberspace. It is too much science fiction for us. And too real to absorb. We are alien to the future. And so, we are to be destroyed.

The repeated acts of rape and the frequent use of the term “faggot” that are employed in this campaign are indeed disgusting and reprehensible. They are also circumstantial. Nothing menaces femininity and masculinity, respectively, in a more potent manner than this act and this insult. We are to be shaken from our foundations. Our false witness is to be purged.

Still, these kids aren’t anything like the gang in Graham Greene’s The Destructors, who would coldly and methodically dismantle the teetering edifice of the tired, old world. These are teenagers. I can remember how I felt being a teenager and I didn’t have much wrong with my life. We were “fuck all” too. OFWGKTA aren’t entirely far off. By which I mean, I don’t think they even get it. They’re too much blindly flailing about at the spectre of adulthood. Whatever intelligence these kids employ (and there is intelligence) is still not developed enough to give them all the credit for meta-commentary they’ve been showered with.

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Lesser members like Hodgy Beats and Left Brain may continue to play with firearms. But it’s no mere coincidence that OFWGKTA’s most talented rapper traffics in the menace of hands-on violence unmediated by guns, in mortal combat at close distances with knives and blunt instruments, in unsettlingly painterly visions: Earl Sweatshirt.

In Earl’s instance, NPR’s directive is indeed worthwhile, though you shouldn’t be listening to the words themselves at all. Take but a few moments to hear the sound of Earl’s language and encounter a surpassingly smooth, round wordplay, easily gliding through vocabulary with an understanding of the palatable feeling of language, refreshing and textured, like chewing a wet sponge on a liquid-free diet. Consider what I believe to be the finest moment of the entire OFWGKTA ouvre:

Earl Sweatshirt – Stapleton

This track encompasses the highest highs and the lowest lows of the collective. The lurching beat is both incredibly disorienting and transcendently moving. The verses are disciplined, thematic, formalized. The chorus is vivid and utterly terrifying, the words of a deranged screen villain delivered with a jarring, cinematic effect:

“Tell your boyfriend that’s a bat and it’s a migraine.
Don’t ask why my jean’s splattered with these white stains.
Wait! Where you going? What you doing tonight?
Stop running. I just want to know what you’re doing.
Come back. Please?”

It’s chilling. Meanwhile, Earl proclaims himself a “rapist-in-training” and promises to “smack a faggot in his shirley temple.” From the heights to the depths: hateful, malicious, terrible language compromises what could be such a unique contribution to the musical landscape.

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Beware when the Free Earl movement is delivered its messiah. The prodigal son will return bearing equally the promise of legitimizing the talent of OFWGKTA and of either confirming its intent to remain steeped in vile content or refining and elevating its content. With regard to Earl’s disappearance, his narrative is quickly becoming more complex by the news cycle. His talent runs in the family: he is apparently the son of South Africa’s most beloved poet. He has sought refuge of his own volition, contrary to initial reports claiming his mother sent him away to a boot camp. And he demands his space to reflect in a way that tempts us to reconcile his and his crew’s content with some higher moral inclinations.

When we meet Earl again, we may very well meet a grown man in command of his abilities, with a voice to temper the tide. We also might well not. Regardless, for now, while Earl is on his mysterious sojourn, we’ll have to weather the fearsome affirmation of his truest premonition, as mobs of reckless journalists, gold-rushing artists, salivating businessmen, and misguided listeners kneel at the OFWGKTA altar:

“Fans’ll stand in sleet season with their fucking feet bleeding,
In hail and fucking snow, in Hell with fucking coats.”

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Which is all to say…

If OFWGKTA actually has any capacity to make truly lasting, moving, edifying music, I firmly throw my gauntlet:

Let’s see how compelling your content can be when you quit resorting to your tired, crass mainstays. Let’s see what you can do to menace me artfully. Let’s see what you can make when you spend more than ten minutes on a beat. Let’s see what happens when you choose quality over quantity, when you actually try to craft art instead of vomiting gall and bile on the world.

Until then, to OFWGKTA and all the architects of their moment:

Fuck you back. I’m over it.

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