Odd Future, energy, inclusion, and exclusion

A little over a week ago, for work, I wrote a quick SXSW recap post involving Odd Future — which wound up being trimmed down to a post about Odd Future, and then, after more editors went over it, an article about Odd Future, and then eventually I started to feel like whatever vague point I’d had might have wound up dulled and unclear. So here’s a clearer thought, which is not about Odd Future’s music or Odd Future as people or the value of their work, but more about my relationship with the process of maybe-liking Odd Future.

Because there are a lot of things I love about Odd Future. Some of the albums coming out of the collective actually remind me of listening back to hip-hop from the late 80s and early 90s, when you can actually hear the joy of people creating music because it doesn’t exist yet, and they need it to; Earl’s record in particular has that feeling, a certain playfulness and vitality. And I’m compelled by Tyler’s charisma. I was a sulky teenage boy in the 1990s; of course I can connect with all his grim dark grumbling. As can teenagers today. When I saw the group in Austin, the energy surrounding them was fierce and sort of beautiful. A crowd of kids stood around chanting “FUCK STEVE HARVEY” in an effort to lure the group onto the stage. These were not kids whose lives I imagine being much impinged upon by the existence of Steve Harvey. Was there some point I missed where white Texan parents started boring their kids with his radio show on long drives? On one message board I read, there was a poster who thought “Steve Harvey” might be made up, just an imaginary object of Odd Future’s scorn. This has to say something about the lure of this group, that people want to join them in telling Steve Harvey to fuck off—just because the energy is right, not because they actually care so much who Steve Harvey is.

But then the next night, Odd Future cut short a set at a Billboard showcase—they stormed off after three songs—and I was surprised to see some fans on Twitter grumbling about it, feeling aggrieved or let down. These were people who liked the group’s energy. They just turned out not to like it so much when it was pointed at them and inconveniencing them—when it came off like a fuck-you to them instead of someone else. That’s not surprising: Most everyone wants to be inside the circle of this kind of massive energy, not excluded by it. What’s surprising is that some of these people were less than receptive, months and months ago, when a whole lot of other women and men gave a listen to music from Tyler and Earl and felt excluded by the end of the first verse—because all the ghoulish taunting about raping, kidnapping, or assaulting women wound up disinviting them from the get-go. In fall, Jon Caramanica asked Syd—the woman whose production and DJing underpin a lot of the group’s music—about that. Her answer: “Actions speak louder than words, and they treat me as an equal.” This isn’t exactly a full endorsement of those lyrics; it’s more like a way of saying she feels fully invited within the circle of energy. She’s included.

It’s those taunts in particular that ensure lots of people will never be able to feel entirely included here. There’s been plenty of discussion of the moral dimensions of that fact. Here’s another dimension to consider, though: Doesn’t that just kind of suck, that this group would turn out a lot of fantastic music that unnecessarily dis-includes a big chunk of listeners? That there would be these terrific tracks and vital energy you might want to share in and share with others—except that sharing in it involves leaping this pointless exclusionary hurdle that doesn’t just leave out people you care about, but actively assaults their sensibilities? Sure, this kind of teenage energy is usually exclusionary: It needles outsiders and old guards and earnest moralists, and along the way it creates an us-against-them camaraderie that animates a ton of Odd Future’s output. But this stuff isn’t just needling sensibilities; it’s throwing up a significant roadblock that divides me from people I don’t want to be divided from. Leave aside morals: It bums me out that I can love so much about a few of these tracks, but wouldn’t put them on a mixtape for a lot of people I care about. It bothers me on the same small level it bothered me when my family toured a men-only monastery in Ethiopia and had to leave my mom standing outside for 10 minutes. There’s a broad energy Odd Future are offering, one that seems poised to connect not with rap’s core constituency, but with a whole lot of alienated middle-class teenagers, right out to the suburbs—it’s odd to think how many of them just got rhetorically barred at the door, not for being “uptight” or “clueless” but actually for being … right-minded, basically.

I’m making a weird claim here, of course, that this exclusion is “pointless.” You might disagree with this. You might say the value of art in general, and hip-hop in particular, often lies in unfiltered human expression, and you can’t start dissecting or Bowdlerizing the work into useful, redeeming parts and pointless, hateful ones. It’s complicated, it’s a Gestalt. Tyler and Earl can both sound exceedingly wounded and resentful, thick-skinned for reasons they didn’t entirely choose; it’s not like I personally can hope to control the directions they decide to vent bile. But I can certainly make decisions about which directions engage me as a listener and which ones don’t. And Tyler and Earl don’t exactly fit the old hip-hop narrative of reflecting reality, the one where there was always something obscene about middle-class moralists critiquing the themes of rappers who grew up in crack-era inner cities. Nine times out of ten, I wind up agreeing with that view, but Odd Future always feel like the tenth time: wounded though they might sound, there’s a knowingness, a cleverness, a persona-building to what they do. The exclusions are … self-aware. And I’m pretty sure the same energy could be summoned up — the same vitality and excitement and in-group camaraderie — without this one specific exclusion. There are plenty of meaningful and lovable lines drawn in this music already — lines of age, lines within hip-hop, lines of sensibility and persona and visions of #swag — that would function beautifully without this roadblock among them.

So how big of a deal is this? For those who can bracket it and enjoy the many amazing things about the music, it’s one of the least interesting things about the group—misogyny and homophobia are everywhere, but music this vital is not, necessarily. But if you, or truths you care about, are on the business end of those taunts, it’s an incredibly significant deal; it might as well be a picket line you’re crossing. This, in the end, is the hopelessly selfish complaint I’m making: I wish I could embrace the pleasure I get from this music without feeling like a scab, without knowing I can bracket things and include myself in a way that’s not so possible for others around me.

And I say that as someone with pretty highly developed bracketing skills. Also, one of at least four Ethiopians at what I assume is the only Austin Odd Future show at which Tyler made an Ethiopian joke.

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    This is pretty goddamn fantastic.
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