We need brats. That’s what I‘ve always thought, and why Odd Future first grabbed me. The story runs like this: by the end of the last decade rap was old, in thrall to rappers last exciting in the 90s and that stale sub-dirty south style. Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, a bunch of 11 or so egregiously talented producers and rappers from skate-kid suburban LA started releasing .zip tapes through Mediafire. Ranging from furious rants against absent fathers to vile rape fantasies over lo-fidelity, half-produced beats and flagrantly unfinished rhymes, the thing that was striking was how much fun they wanted to have and how little they cared for most rap. Their self-created hype machine, spanning from Twitter to Supreme hookups to MTV, and their gloriously nasty 19-year-old leader, Tyler, The Creator, have dominated our corner of the internet for a few months. This is the over-simplified story, but such is the power of Odd Future. It feels big. It feels important. And now, after Tyler‘s free, widely distributed, wisely lauded ‘Bastard’ album, he’s brought out his first mass-market full-length, ‘Goblin’, on XL.
Though Tyler makes rap music, his brattish fuck-you-I-do-what-I-want pose sits far easier in the tradition of rock. Gifted teenagers breaking stuff and pissing people off, movements against the old order remember that? Nah, me neither: the boomers are a retiring rock on my generations back; punk is old and selling butter; and rave soundtracked an election won when I was 13. We may not remember rebellion, but I remember being a teenager, and it was about as much fun as Tyler makes it out to be.
Because on this record, Tyler exhibits three things, the same thing, really: naked belief in his own importance, an urge to shock somehow – anyhow – and the unguarded sensitivity of a teenager. This clarity has to be saluted. It‘s hard to think of a more scaldingly perfect view of what being a teenager was like. There are moments of almost-uncomfortable honesty when he attacks his father “I ain‘t got no motherfucking daddy”, he snarls at one point, and its lack of furnish burns. The title track is nothing more than a list of things that annoy him: being too busy with promo to skate, people attacking him on message boards, critics who take his lyrics too seriously. These things seem small to a listener far from 19, but thats perspective‘s trick. Up close, everything is major, everything is felt. He can rhyme when he wants, and sometimes his scattergun fuck-_everything_ attitude is thrilling, as on Tron Cat, when he reels off “Wolves, I know you‘ve heard of us, we‘re murderers / And young enough to get the fucking priest to come flirt with us“. There‘s something exhilarating about watching someone with an imagination so furious they can call themselves a table or a unicorn and make it sound like a threat, but too often, his imagination feels somewhere else, unable to sustain the anger, with the majority of tracks losing any sense of will. The problem with rage on record? Without fuel, it burns out.
His personality so dominates the album that it‘s impossible not to focus on Tyler as a human over his music, but there are some really interesting things going on with the tracks. Owing a great debt to Pharell’s mechanical funk, though with little of his grace, tension or delicacy, it can be a great sound – rough, grimy, fleshy, basic, resistant to either the gleam of mainstream modern rap or the highbrow complexity of much underground hip hop, but it is rather overused. Yonkers, with its atonal, coiled, frustrated sample is still great, but there are too many songs that try to repeat this noisy formula without enough ideas to back them up, leading to a sound that’s ugly without being interesting. One indication of Tyler’s potential after this rather disappointing record is how well the songs that don‘t play to his snarly self-image work: the swooping, softly thrilling AU79 nods to Shuggie Otis, while She captures the synthesised yet lo-fi soul that made Frank Ocean’s record so good both stand out. Very clever flashes happen here. Rarely, but they do happen.
Tyler sounds hurt by the fact that people focus on the violence. Not that that stops him focusing on violence. He probably thinks that his use of hideous things like rape and domestic violence are a very clever trick to Scare The Fuck Out Of Old White People That Live In Middle Fucking America, as he once tweeted. Laudable enough ambition: it must have been cool being Elvis, horrifying them with a flick of the hips. Or being Ice T, rapping a line that makes the second lady spit. But there‘s not that much scares these people, not anymore. What‘s left are sickening things, taboo for a bloody reason things, like rape, like punching your lover, like attacking someone for whom they chose to bring to bed. As stomach-churningly familiar as domestic violence always is, and as divorced from reality as the pathetic jokes of a particularly nasty frat house, it‘s just a bit saddening. A song begins “By the way: we do punch bitches”. The “F“ word, the other “F“ word, the one no decent person uses, is dropped blindly and often. One of the songs is called Bitch Suck Dick, a title full of misogyny so brainless it can’t be anything but a pose. As New York magazine pointed out, the indefinite article is telling: for Tyler, women are a general, undefined mass better known through YouPorn clips, via rap songs and across the lunch-hall than through any real-world experience.
At one point, he begs us to not to take it seriously, and we shouldn‘t. Tyler saying ‘Little slut whore … I’ma kill this bitch’ on Boppin’ Bitch is a fiction, told for a cheap shock. But it’s the fact that these things are jokes, told without a clue what they actually entail that leads to the odd mix of disgust and embarrassment at the sheer, crushing un-coolness of making fun of domestic violence, or saying “Faggot“ when your engineer is gay. The overall feeling is not one of shock at the white-hot fury of youth, but the squirming awkwardness you felt when the gawky kid at school told an off-colour joke and no-one laughed. Tyler wants to shock, but hes just too dorky for it to do anything beyond depress – he wants Odd Future to be the new Pistols, but theyre closer to the Inbetweeners.
Many people have speculated that Tyler may well have ADHD because of his rampant energy and furious productivity. But too often it’s the AD rather than the H that we get here – Tyler’s deficit of attention to his lyrics, his music and his message comes through on ‘Goblin‘, far too often. He constantly attacks the world, from girls to record labels to critics, for not getting him. Self-obsessed, painfully unaware, bored, sexually frustrated, moody ? Getting it isn‘t the problem. The problem is that, as one of the unfortunate 50% who had to go through adolescence surrounded by other boys, I get it. Way, way too well. In its defense, Goblin does show promise – the problems here stem not from a lack of talent but talent wasted or not applied; and it’s foolish to think of the shock tactics as anything greater than entitled dumbness stewed in the sweat of other lads. But with those provisos aside, you‘re left with a rather dismal, quite ugly record. We wanted brattish, but ‘Goblin’ is just spoiled.