Heartache in golf shoes: how Odd Future brought fresh energy to rap

By embracing vulnerability at a time when all the old rules about the genre were breaking down, the LA collective broadened what it could be

Last year, the three most streamed artists across the globe on Spotify were all North American rappers – Drake, Post Malone and XXXTentacion – the culmination of a decade in which rap became the world’s dominant pop music. It’s a genre now so wide and plural that sweeping statements about it become nonsensical, and so many figures in the last decade have helped move it to its current place in the firmament: the DIY spirit and uncontained impulses of Lil B; the monolithic repetitive one-bar melodies of Chief Keef; Nicki Minaj’s weaponising of drama and persona. The scene’s biggest star, Drake, is interestingly both highly influential and heavily influenced.

But one rap collective is a case study in how the genre flourished, expanded and culturally dominated this decade, and also functions as a Seven Up-type social experiment in seeing people grow in real time. Odd Future – or Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All to give their full name – emerged as teenagers from Los Angeles in 2008, in a hail of encrusted tube socks and profanity. After a flurry of group mixtapes, its members grew up and amicably became independent of one another, just as groups of teenagers are wont to do. Various artists from their number would go on to release some of the best rap, funk and R&B music of the period – Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Syd – and others, such as Domo Genesis and MellowHype, put out future cult classics. Normalised to the always-on broadcasting of social media and the droll surrealism of meme culture, they carved out new space for rap, becoming the bards of the confessional impulse that gripped our culture from Twitter to reality TV.

The first time I saw them live was the first time anyone in the UK had seen them: their first London gig in 2010, in the basement of the Stoke Newington pub where I worked. I let myself downstairs and all I remember is a hail of limbs; everyone on stage seemed to be like one of those flappy inflatable humans you see outside car showrooms. Here and on record, they were being powered by the same batteries that juiced up Jackass, or punk, or anything else that has historically annoyed parents.

The bards of the confessional impulse ... Tyler, the Creator.
The bards of the confessional impulse ... Tyler, the Creator. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

This energy fed the genius of Tyler, the Creator, the group’s central MC. His early work sounds like it’s coming from a mouth with just the faintest hint of a sly grin curling up at the sides – he dares you to think he’s being serious. It’s the deadpan cruelty of a kid too advanced for the rest of his class, and even the teacher. As well as playing up, he shows off – there is a brilliant musicality to his Ren and Stimpy vision of sex on French!, for instance: “I guess I got to stretch it out like it was flubber / And leave it dripping green and red like double cheeseburgers / Chewing on cum like bubble gum from Hubba / This bitch knew dick like Bubba knew shrimp”. Unfortunately for him, Theresa May’s Home Office banned him from the country, a decision that led to feverish excitement on his eventual return, and an edge of outlaw danger.

The lurid gross-out vibe had previously worked for Eminem, who similarly spiked his tracks with comic ultraviolence, and whose whiteness made him that much more relatable (or, depressingly, palatable) to the large white audiences in the US and UK – no travel ban for him, of course. Odd Future were black, but sat closer to the traditionally white-majority space of skate culture than mainstream rap – and they were “moving from middle to upper class”, as Syd would soon rap. The “super rich kids” Earl Sweatshirt complains of on the Frank Ocean song of the same name are a class above him, but he’s still in their bratty orbit. The glamorous underclass violence and sheer otherness of gangsta rap had been alluring to ogling white audiences, but here was something even more enticing: authentic for being black, accessible for existing in middle-class white spaces, and saying crude, funny, clever things. This blend attracted a cult following, which was swiftly monetised through the kind of hypebeast-streetwear merch (branded Golf Wang, a play on Wolf Gang) that tends to be bought by those with a considerable disposable income. Sure enough, when I next saw Tyler perform, this time in London’s Roundhouse, sat behind me were five white pubescent boys all wearing Supreme caps in different designs. It’s a tension that Odd Future noticed: the cerebral Earl Sweatshirt complained of being “too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks” on his track, Chum, while the hornier Tyler fretted on Bastard: “I’m tall, dark, skinny, my ears are big as fuck / Drunk white girls the only way I’ll get my dick sucked.”

These jaded half-boasts also point to another key part of Odd Future’s appeal: vulnerability. You could probably plot their rugged, slapdash production and fiendishly clever, free-ranging flow in a line with Wu-Tang Clan or MF Doom, but you’d rarely hear those artists be as confessional as Odd Future’s members. There was plenty of hip-hop’s boastfulness, but various other rap cliches were nowhere to be seen, be they luxury brands and cars at one end, or guns on the other. Some filed them alongside the schlocky violence of horrorcore rap, but Tyler rejected this.

For years America had focused on its feelings, from expensive therapy to TV shows such as My So-Called Life and Dawson’s Creek, whose plots were driven entirely by remarkably articulate expressions of emotion (and seemed as exotic to Brits as US gangsta rap). Blogging and social media allowed this impulse to flow naturally, and Odd Future came of age during this time when it became normal, even expected, for you to spill your inner life into a public realm. Tyler even used the framing device of a therapy session – another middle-class trope – to give structure to his diatribes against his absent father and his new urges.

Indeed, daddy issues were a notable theme. Tyler was unrepentant: “Fuck a deal, I just want my father’s email / So I can tell him how much I fucking hate him in detail”, but Earl was more even-handed: “I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest / When honestly I miss this nigga”. A later Earl track, Playing Possum, extended an olive branch by poetically weaving speeches by his parents over each other – tragically, his father died before he could hear it. Earl’s radical emotional transparency is essayed in the very way he raps, his words endlessly rolling over line breaks, the sound of that constant spill. One line sums it up: “Say goodbye to my openness, total eclipse / Of my shine that I’ve grown to miss when holding shit in” – a paradoxical admission, being candid about staying silent, knowing that his candour is both soothing and the source of his creative “shine”. The rhyme scheme, as ever, has a casual perfection.

This frankness, and willingness to explore one’s interior life, extended to sexuality. Rap has often been homophobic, with plenty of use of the other F-word – one of the buttons that Tyler himself pushed, reasoning that “it hits” – and as recently as 2017 you had mainstream stars such as Offset claiming he was unaware of the homophobia in his line “I cannot vibe with queers”. But Syd, once Odd Future’s DJ and then a solo artist and member of cosmic funk band the Internet, was out and proud – it was refreshing to have her bedroom-R&B solo record be so open about lesbian sex. At one point she coos admiringly, with that aforementioned yuppie aspiration, at a woman who “drive a Beemer and she got it on her own”.

Tyler has gone from being accused of homophobia to sort-of coming out with a jokey tweet, dropping in lines such as “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004” and eventually writing an entire album, Igor, about a love affair with a man. His unwillingness to put a neat bow on his sexuality chimes with a world where, in the UK, 54% of 18 to 24-year-olds say they are not 100% heterosexual, and his playful lack of clarity is testament to the messiness of that journey for many people. It is all uncharted territory for him, indeed for hip-hop; it is impossible to quantify, but it feels as if he is influencing this sexual culture as much as it is influencing him.

Breaking the R&B rules ... Frank Ocean.
Breaking the R&B rules ... Frank Ocean. Photograph: Publicity image from music company

You could say the same for Frank Ocean. Mainstream male R&B can be even more heteronormative than rap, with the likes of Luther Vandross closeted by music that acts as a lubricant for sex in a majority-straight culture; as Ocean himself said in 2012: “In black music, we’ve got so many leaps and bounds to make with acceptance and tolerance”. But Ocean broke the rules, not just for what a male R&B musician could be, but also of the genre itself.

Like Tyler, he is part of a generation less inclined to label themselves, never describing himself as gay or bisexual – “life is dynamic”, he once said – but singing candidly of love and sex with men. Is this resistance, even subconsciously, borne out of fear of rejection by their audiences? That’s perhaps a reach; more interesting is how that resistance to being boxed in also shapes their music. Ocean is the great poet of modern R&B and Odd Future’s most revered member of all, with his album, Blonde, rightly being canonised as the finest of the decade. Its impressionistic daubs sit outside genre concerns altogether; it is “rhythm and blues” in those words’ most pure, literal sense. The album as a whole has a rhythm, is a rhythm; there are blues in the sense of different sadnesses, different shades, from inky midnights to duck-egg mornings, and of course he plays the blues, too.

Tyler meanwhile now sings as well as raps, and Igor, adding to the cosmic-boogie leanings of previous records, is essentially a neo-soul album. At his UK comeback gigs, thousands of people were singing “don’t leave, it’s my fault” along with Tyler, certainly an oddity at a rap show. With his Flower Boy album, stoner humour, and the bucolic vibes of some of the Golf Wang clothing (such as a hoodie reading Save the Bees) there’s a strain of Cali psychedelia, too. Praising skate brand Fucking Awesome, Tyler once said, resisting definition: “I think that vibe defines my music. It’s not rap, it’s not jazz – it’s Fucking Awesome!” The arrival of social media and interconnectedness perhaps informed not just Odd Future’s emotional candour, but their tastes, and they typify the cultural omnivorousness of their generation, who – outside the intense tribalism of stan culture – are normalised to liking a bit of everything, because there’s always a bit of everything on offer. This permissiveness, where everything can be cool if you say it is, has dissolved irony, and Tyler is the perfect example of that too: his fondness for jauntily dapper suits and golf clothing is sarcastic and sincere all at the same time.

In their punk energy, blithe attitude to sex, and their willingness to be vulnerable and confessional, Odd Future’s merry, messy band have been a definitive force in rap this decade, using their charisma and business nous to bring the underground and overground together just as digital culture was also erasing all the old cultural borders. What’s most startling is how young they still are. “Feeling rushed, grew up quick / Trip around the sun, this my 25th,” Earl raps on the excellent recent mini-album Feet of Clay. He also admits: “Sunny day but I’m cooking inside / Muddy path but I’m taking my time.” They’ve spent more than ten years churning up the ground behind them, cooking inside, and there’s still so much more ahead.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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