This is a guest post by B Michael Payne. B Michael Payne writes about a variety of things. He has a weekly thing at Fuse.tv, a website, and he’s probably tumblogging here, right now. You can email him at b dot michael dot payne at gmail dot com.
*Sexual assault and violence trigger warning.*
There are a lot of people who refuse to buy (rent, lease, or even attend an open house for) the hype on internet rap (defined broadly as any rap that mentions Facebook in its songs). For the most part, I’d agree with this stance. But right now, it’s not a good one.
For one, if you’re the type of person who’s ‘on the internet,’ then internet rap is going to/already has bubbled into your life. For two, you’d miss some interesting (and even good) rap. For three, you’d also miss what appears to be an eruption of social intersections that are probably even more interesting than the music itself.
Why, after all, are there so many Odd Future think pieces?
Before getting into that, it’s worth looking at how Brandon Soderberg has been patiently chronicling some of the more salient intersections among rap, r&b, rape, misogyny, and homophobia series of columns on Spin. His piece on Rainbow Noise’s “Imma Homo” picks up the perhaps most important idea on why the song is powerful (it’s because it’s good). Soderberg’s hypothesis that r&b is veering toward the ‘too rape-y’ whereas rap is owning up to its own terribleness seems to hold water, until a conversation with Racialicious‘s Latoya Peterson starts to pick apart the idea by asking wither the interests of women in rap’s ostensibly ‘better’ songs.
That that hasn’t been the question hanging over the entire discussion is, of course, the discussions biggest flaw from the start. You know, “that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation,” in the words of Kanye.
In the above piece, Peterson calls songs underlain by rape culture ones in which “the artists are removing agency from the woman and putting their desires at the forefront.” That’s, of course, a formula for a variety of oppressions. What’s striking about it is that it’s also a laconic way of describing the entire aesthetic and ethic of Odd Future’s, like, whole deal.
The inherent importance of removing the woman’s agency is also — perhaps interestingly? — why people either really like or dislike a lot of Odd Future’s songs.
[As a note, Odd Future (né Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, hereafter OF) are (I’m now, like, internet-contractually bound to say) a close-knit, eleven-person hip-hop collective based out of Los Angeles, California. They feature a lost member (recently located) who calls himself Earl Sweatshirt and is precocious and now seventeen years old; a gay woman, Syd tha Kid, who produces a good number of their songs but rarely graces any of them, vocally; and a charismatic leader, Tyler, The Creator, who’s recently turned twenty, is 6’2″, and boasts a deep, raspy voice that seems like it was almost divinely intended to be good at rapping. They’re very popular ‘on the internet,’ and with a pair of breathless profiles in the New York Times, they’re going to be popular in whatever ‘not the internet’ represents, very soon.]
When people mention OF, what they usually mean is Tyler, The Creator and/or Earl Sweatshirt. The two of them’s songs seem to have generated the majority of their press. Their raps tend to focus (being somewhat general, here) on the most extreme rape and kidnap fantasies that’ve made the group an instantaneously incandescent hot topic on the internet. Not that there isn’t violence and homophobia elsewhere on OF’s thirteen (fourteen? fifteen?) internet-only releases, but that really is par for the course when it comes, not just to rap music, but pop music (and classical music and opera and… well, all of culture, unfortunately).
* * * *
The way Peterson so clearly enunciated rape culture immediately reminded me of Earl Sweat-shirt’s song, “Luper.” Since it doubles as one of his best (or, ‘best’) songs, as well, it bears looking into.
A tiny bit of merely descriptive front matter before diving into the song. “Luper” is preceded by a ‘skit’ called “Wakeupfaggot,” which narrates over fairly gorgeous, spacey production Earl waking up: A sultry-voiced woman beckons him to wake up, calls him a faggot, and then tells him he has to get to school. The woman tells him he needs breakfast, to which he replies he can make his own breakfast because he’s sixteen. She calls him a faggot again, to which he says, ‘Shut the fuck up, mom!” So, you know, normal sixteen year old stuff.
“Luper” is set across a looped, unresolved piano line that’s reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s “Raise Four.” The first-person narration starts out like a prosaic description of a fairly common before-school morning ritual.
Ma said “Wake up son, good morning.”
I rolled out of bed, greeted mama with a yawn, then
Paused to scratch an itch and went, down to the kitchen.
Fixed a plate of eggs and bacon, glass of OJ Simpson.
Just as I was about to dig in,
A thought jumped in my head, school was to be attended.
The opening actually is some pretty normal sixteen year old stuff, right down to the awkward phrasing of that last line in order to squeeze in one more rhyme. Of course, calling orange juice “a glass of OJ Simpson” is a clever bit of foreshadowing, given what follows. The verse continues, and Earl goes on to think about a girl he has a crush on. He mentions that he’s “stalking her on MySpace,” a sort of objectionable colloquialism that people seemingly use now. He kind of flips the equation, talking about how he’s powerless in the situation given that “she runs shit, she’s the jock.” And, more foreshadowing, Earl says in the middle of the first verse, contextless, that as he was heading out the door he saw the girl who’s inspired this morning reverie.
The second verse goes on in more typical, teenagerly, fashion.
Maybe if you looked in this direction
I’d pick my heart up off the floor and put it in my chest, then
Feel the fucking life, rushing through my body.
But you got a guy, it’s not me, so my wrist is looking sloppy.
Come on, let’s cut the bull like a matador.
You light me up like lamps. A chance is all I’m really asking for.
Give me one, I promise I’ll be back for more.
Most want to tap and score, I want a fam of four.
Not like a family of four, just like… fuck it.
You’ll never listen to this shit anyways. Fuck you, bitch.
Earl seems like he’s just experiencing that sort of typically fucked up adolescent way of liking someone and having them not like you, vacillating between hating her, loving her, and hating himself. On the one hand, he says corny stuff like “You light me up like lamps,” and claims to want a family of four (at sixteen? really?), but he also admits to being a cutter and calls her a bitch a lot. But basically, it seems like pretty normally habituated way of thinking.
It seems fair to note at this point that if the rest of the song went on like this, it would be all right. You know, like a 6.8 or something. Earl’s a good rapper, technically, and the beat is interesting, but it’s not really an interesting song.
It’s the last verse is where “Luper” gets really interesting (or gross) and veers off into some “My Last Duchess” shit. It begins with her calling him a “son of a labrador,” a nod perhaps to the interracial relationships that OF frequently raps about. Earl goes on to say,
The basement light is darkened and the switchblade is sharpened.
Her name on my arm and her face on a two percent carton.
See her face while you’re fixing your breakfast,
And know she’s in my basement, objecting to sex with
Me. Murder spree surges on with the next bitch.
Tombstones read RIP cause it’s pieces they rest in.
Which makes illuminates the early, throwaway lines about OJ Simpson and seeing the face of the girl he likes–it’s on a missing person notice on a milk carton. The whole picture snaps into focus. Earl’s kidnapped his crush, in the midst of a kidnap, rape, and murder spree. The song has a fairly well-defined dramatic arc, with a big reveal at the end, which counterposes the previous two-third’s matter of factness. It’s an unquestionably powerful song, to me. But–
There are a few ways to look at the song. It’s obviously not a literal exegesis of Earl’s day-to-day life. Rather, it could be a stoned out fantasy (“It seems kinda brash but it’s the hash, I mean, the harsh truth”) of a dirty mouthed teenaged kid. Or it “could be that rape — a haunting accusation, historically, for African-American men — seems like an inevitable burden,” as Ann Powers posited, and a meditation on such. Or it could be that Earl’s a normal kid that’s been normalized (literally, personified) by the pervasiveness of rape culture, and he thinks that this is a perfectly fine way to express the way he’s pissed off and lonely–no artifice intended. Or it could be that he’s a sick-minded little brat who was, rightfully, shipped off to an academy for troubled youths.
The thing is — that is, more than just a ‘could be’ — “Luper” is a typical sort of OF song. It’s a standard part of the canon that has inspired a legion of rabid fans–both the young ones who go to the shows and scream out “Kill People, Burn Shit, Fuck School!” and the old ones who keep writing think pieces about them, “speeding from the margins of the Internet toward the center of forward-thinking music circles,” in John Caramanica’s words from one of those NYT pieces.
I know it’s not literally true, but it seems like literally every OF song is about “removing agency from the woman and putting their desires at the forefront.” In Tyler’s song “Blow,” he plays around a lot with race and interracial dynamics –cocaine is an obvious symbol for whiteness — but he also says, “And you call this shit rape, but I think that rape’s fun.” The rap-explicating site Rap Genius has an optimistic guess at the line’s meaning: “Tyler finds it fun to rape, which is likely a metaphor for something else.” But really, to a lot of right-thinking people (it would seem, maybe, hello right thinking people?!) thinking “rape is fun” just is a metaphor for removing agency from the woman, where “woman” means “anyone who’s not me.”
There are a lot of historic, built-in, hegemonic ways in which people are underserved politically. Being a woman is one of them, and being an ethnic minority is one of them. These are not necessarily competing ways of being screwed over by society. I understand the argument that as a group of young black men (and one gay black woman), they cram over the top imagery into their songs to, perhaps, show how powerless they really are. But — not to be an asshole about it — they’re also basically just kids, and kids are also usually powerless in fairly mundane ways (see above: “Luper” and having to go to school). Their raps are as much your standard is-sue youthful anger than anything else.
Really, it is the case that the historical thrust of rap has been to give voice to the underserved. But OF is not, like, N.W.A. or Public Enemy, and no one really thinks they are. What they’re do-ing, perhaps, is co-opting the extreme violence and confrontation of golden age gangsta rap and bending it in on itself, a post-modern turn, that depletes its ostensible social meaning. To reiterate a point I’ve made elsewhere: Pimp C needed to be freed from trumped up jail charges; Earl’s fans chanted for him to be freed… from a boarding school.
Which is not to say that there aren’t readings of OF that peg them as transgressive, envelope-pushing musicians. But it takes just a brief jaunt through the internet rap-o-sphere to see other hyped up net rappers who are doing it in a different way.
* * * *
When Das Racist hit it big with a novelty remix single, “Combination Taco Bell Pizza Hut,” and it seemed like they were just another group of stoned, one-hit-wunderkinds. As more songs trick-led out, they revealed themselves as wordy, culturally aware liberal artists.
Das Racist’s songs wield out and out humor the way OF’s throw around rape/kidnap fantasies; that is, liberally and to great effect. On standout track “hahahaha jk?” Himanshu Suri (aka Heems) says, “We’re not racist. We love white people! / Ford trucks, apple pie, bald eagles!” It’s a typical Das Racist joke. They say something racist — typing whiteness by (appallingly ‘wrong’) stereotypically ‘white’ things — implicitly mirroring the speech of, among others, white people, who say, for instance, ‘I’m not racist! I like Indian food!’
The group is composed of two men of Indian descent and another of Afro-Cuban and Italian origin. Das Racist’s songs focus on race and its fucked-up-ness in America. Among other things, Heems has written a post on Stereogum breaking down exactly why Outsourced is such an abomination of a sitcom.
OF has gained a lot of its critical juice and net popularity by going the extra mile as far as what should be said (or thought) goes. And let’s not kid ourselves, a lot of the love for OF hinges on people thinking that they’re saying what people are ‘too afraid’ to think (being too ‘emo’), because of political correctness or, you know, not being a terrible person. For all the condemnations of OF, they seem to have a fairly influential fan base that includes prominent writers for The New York Times, Fader, The Village Voice, NME, and celebrities like Kanye West. Das Racist deserves just as much credit for their work (which, to be fair, they receive).
Besides aspersing that people are racist (gasp/yawn), the most interesting thing Heems has done lately (other than working with the group on creating their own album, proper) is his activity on Twitter following the death of Osama Bin Laden.
During the period following Bin Laden’s death, Heems retweeted seemingly every racist sentiment he could find. His twitter stream is now home to a litany of hate, including “dune coon camel jockey;” “hindus r smelly bastards;” many instances of “sand ni**ger;” and so on. After a few days (and after likely receiving a lot of @s telling him to shut the fuck up), Heems said, “un-follow me if ur sensitive bout me blowin the lid off this whole ‘heterosexual white men have the power to make their racism matter’ secret.” He went on to say (over two tweets, cleaned up for readability),
Racism is complicated, but this I know: If you’re white, and a person of color says something you’re doing is racist, they’re probably right. Not you. If a lady tells me I’m being a misogynist, or if a gay friend say I’m homophobic–I apologize, think about how they’re right, and try to change.
Which, yeah. Duh.
Contrasting the reactions of the artists themselves may be a little unfair: On the one hand, Heems is in his late twenties and graduated from Wesleyan. His songs refer to Gayatri Spivak and post-structuralism. Tyler just turned twenty; he was in a young and gifted program in high school, but he’s also caught his fair share of shit from life and never went to college. There are points to make here about privilege, but the point at this point is that the two are both intelligent, successful musicians whose music is actually blowing up and gaining a lot of fans. What they say matters.
* * * *
Are you supposed to give an automatic pass to someone because he’s young? Earl was only six-teen when he wrote his album. Tyler’s only twenty. They’re just kids! No.
There are ways to be provocative and socially conscious that don’t require a litany of mental gymnastics to justify. It may seem like I really despise OF. I don’t. If you were to google my name or check out my tumblr, you may find I’ve written a lot about them, a lot of it positive. I think OF is captivating as hell, and I’m constantly struggling with why that is. (Cf, this essay.)
OF sounds great. Their productions are lush and screwed up, beautiful. While I don’t think they really qualify as “violator art” in Ann Powers’s terms, I do think they can help advance the conversation when it comes to misogyny and racism. I mean, they’ve already done that. I literally can’t remember a time when people were so concerned with the meaning of their taste in rap music.
But to go back to our, as it were, critical lens, Das Racist and Heem’s take on the death of OBL is basically the opposite of removing the agency from the other and pushing your desires to the forefront. Das Racist’s work works in opposition to a lot of things: racism (duh), hegemony, misogyny, and I would say rape culture, as well. The most effective deployments of rape culture normalize it such that you don’t necessarily realize you’re taking part in it. Das Racist constantly points out how fucked up people are with the others of all colors. Instead of fighting it, OF plunges headfirst into the racism and sexism shitstorm, and it’s this aspect that makes me extremely wary of all the praise (and ink) given to them. That shit sticks.
Put another way, OF is kind of like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. On the one hand, some people (I included) think it’s a fairly awesome satire, a smart-stupid version of Friends for cynical people. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who fucking love that show! At face value! Like the as of now 145,214 people who “like” the D.E.N.N.I.S. System on Facebook! If you don’t know what that means, it just means that those people are assholes.
Given the pervasiveness of how shitty life is for women, people of color, and just people in general, I don’t think it’s unrealistically pessimistic to think that there are a lot of OF fans who just kind of unreflectingly (if, even, unrealistically) think, “I think rape is fun.” Again. Have you ever watched someone play Call of Duty on XBOX Live? Every other word out of their mouth is “rape” and “fag.”
In such a hyper-self-aware culture, the disclaimer to Tyler’s firebrand track “Radicals” reads more like a provocation than a prohibition: “Don’t do anything that I say in this song. OK? It’s fucking fiction. If anything happens, don’t fucking blame me, white America.” This disclaimer was immediately lampooned on Twitter as soon as Tyler’s album leaked, and rightly so. We come to OF to be provoked, not for moral guidance — clearly. Plato wanted to banish the poets from his ideal city; right-thinking people know that popular sentiment is rarely educational. But there are people who take their cultural cues from the radio, and the fact of it is dangerous.
I would never say OF shouldn’t release music, or that people shouldn’t listen to it. But what they’re doing is, for better or worse (probably the latter), an extremely post-modern exercise in hate-mongering. Pop music doesn’t exactly lend itself to such nuance of message, and that’s why OF is more than problematic. It’s either repugnant at face value, repugnant upon further reflection, or kind of thought provoking on further further reflection. The thing is, we don’t exactly need Tyler et al. to inform us about how wretched life is. Not to be too self-congratulatory, but for the people who are really interested in why OF is so captivating, further captivation isn’t really necessary. Again, the cottage industry of essays about OF could spawn even more such navel gazing without ever working toward social justice in any noticeable manner.
And that’s primarily why OF is problematic. For the people who just want awesome production and a cool voice, they’re awesome. But they’re not raising any questions — like where have all these ladies who are being raped’s agencies going? They’re just pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable for musicians to say on extremely popular records. For people who really want to start a conversation, well OF may be a pretty bad way.