Tyler the Creator
The Parental Advisory sticker on the cover of Tyler the Creator’s Bastard has to be one of the most perverse jokes of the whole album. Tyler designs most of the covers for Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Odd Future’s Radical cover, for example, shows a vintage photo of a clown, wearing a hat that looks like a pylon, face painted pure white, except for his nose and lips which are painted red and dripping with blood. Hodgy Beats’ The Dena Tape features a legion of kids in uniform—black shorts and black shirts with white cuffs and collars—wearing canteens and gas masks. Often, Tyler’s covers feature little children with their faces Photoshopped in subtle but unsettling ways. Bastard’s is a classroom shot, maybe 3rd grade, white kids. One boy is missing his eyes; another, his entire face. Most of the kids have their smiles turned upside-down. One is wearing a t-shirt with a demonic Mickey Mouse on it. A girl has an upside-down anarchy symbol on her forehead. Tyler has taken these resolutely normal children, made some slight changes, and tweaked them into demon spawn—which is wholly appropriate, because that’s essentially what he’s done to himself. “Odd Future is children that’s fucked up in they mental,” he raps on Bastard’s opening track before launching into an album about being evil, full of vile shit, rape fantasies, abuse, and homophobia—oh, and not having a father. He uses his abandonment issues as an excuse to lyrically indulge in every nihilistic impulse he has. So, when he tacks that Parental Advisory sticker onto the cover—of an album he’s giving away for free, to an audience he didn’t know he’d have, that the RIAA could give a fuck about—as one last, tiny concession to moral rectitude, it’s hilarious.
It’s important to remember that Tyler and Odd Future spent a year or so creating before the rest of the world caught onto them, which allowed them to develop their own distinct aesthetic. Besides the covers, there are a series of videos that depict the crew skating, imbibing god-knows-what drugs, vomiting, and hurting themselves. The undeniable high point among the videos is Earl Sweatshirt’s “EARL,” which accomplishes a level of discomfort in 3 minutes that took Darren Aronofsky and hour and a half to achieve in Black Swan. Odd Future’s self-mutilation digs deeper than Natalie Portman’s because it’s played realistically. Musically, Tyler is unmoored from current rap chart trends. He fills Bastard with hypnotic beats that weld boom-bap to Sterolab chord changes and orchestral flourishes. Tyler frequently pitch-shifts his voice down so that it sounds like Ghostface’s skit staple Clyde Smith. Like the album covers, the effect is alien and alienating—music that will not come to you; you have to go to it. Most likely, Tyler could not have created Bastard with the spotlight shining on him. The trade-off for having time and space to work in a creative bubble, though, is that Bastard also exists in a moral vacuum.
That’s where a lot of Odd Future’s deplorable content comes in. Two of the major lyrical motifs on Bastard are rape and homophobia, and Tyler and Odd Future make them extremely difficult to look past (though lord knows most of their writer fans have tried.) In a culture that has become anesthetized to murder, crime, and drug use, rape fantasies are particularly disquieting offenses. Aside from the obvious violent misogyny involved, rape works differently as a symbol than murder. In rap music, generally, murder is about the will to power, ambition and alpha-dominance. With Odd Future, rape is about controlling another person, taking pleasure in someone’s pain, and, most importantly, defiling what is sacred. Rape is an apt metaphor for the collective’s mission statement, but supremely skeevy nonetheless. Make no mistake—it comes from a place of ignorance and anger, as does the group’s rampant homophobia, which mars the album equally. But if the actual psychology underlying homophobia holds up, half of these kids are going to have a horribly complicated decade, and what sets Bastard and Odd Future’s catalogue apart from other 2010 rape-mongers (like Salem and Die Antwoord) is that the psychology behind it is so transparent.
Tyler’s anger is deeply rooted in his abandonment issues, his persona as “Satan’s son,” and his sense of humor. Let’s not forget that this kid is not a paragon of maturity. On the videos and in concert, he loves rolling his eyes into the back of his head. Loves it. He’s making jokes about being on his period and acting his shoesize, not his age. Stupid shit. Shit that miiiiiiiight have been funny in high school, if you were a Senior entertaining the Freshmen—which is mostly the point. Tyler the Creator’s audience isn’t you, me, or Sean Fennessey; it’s not Nah Right and 2 Dope Boyz, the rap blogs Tyler throws a little tantrum about at the top of Bastard; it’s not mainstream-audience music, no matter how much of an internet meme it’s become. Tyler’s speaking to a group of maybe ten other people—kids that clearly look up to him, in part because they’re younger than him. He knows exactly what buttons to push to make them laugh or cringe—to impress them. This is closed-circuit rap. If anything, he tries too hard to be disturbing. But never on Bastard does it feel like it comes from any place but the wounds. Tyler’s music always sounds like it’s coming from a desperate kid –a prodigiously talented, but horribly desperate kid—and that’s what makes it one of the rawest and most compelling albums of the year. Unfortunately you can’t separate the rawness from the hate. Don’t worry, though. Ten years from now, Tyler will be making his Relapse.
-Marty Brown, 2010