Odd Future (or OFWGKTA) is the name of the hip hop, rap collective based out of L.A. featuring among others Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, and Earl Sweatshirt. Last year, I missed the Odd Future set at the Pitchfork Music Festival because I was watching the Women’s World Cup Final, which the U.S. lost in a heartbreaker to Japan on PKs. At the time, I was not too familiar with OF’s music or the controversy surrounding their presence at the Festival. Domestic violence groups were protesting their inclusion and sought permission to host a booth on the Festival grounds. Although their request was denied, groups did protest outside the Festival grounds, expressing their opposition to OF and the messages contained within some of their music.
I offer this back story because I think it would be irresponsible of me not to at least address the issue of OF’s at times highly questionable representations of women and violence in their lyrics. One could easily take the approach of discussing the group’s musical and lyrical skills while make a passing reference to OF depicting “their reality”. This, I would argue, is a dismissive pseudo-cultural relativist tactic; however, I will not judge those who choose to take this approach. As a progressively minded person, I cannot, irrespective of their talent as beat-makers or wordsmiths, disregard that it is difficult not to find the depiction of women and references to women as “bitches” both offensive and dangerous. (For the sake of thoroughness, I will note that not one but two current major network shows contain a not so sly allusion to “Bitches” in their titles, see GCB and Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23. Personally, I find the casual and “comical” usage of this term in a nationwide TV program even more problematic as it attempts to “normalize” this practice. But, I’ll leave further commentary to the media critics.) But, says the devil’s advocate, aren’t OF merely representing the world that they live in and isn’t this a valid way of expressing an alternative point of view? Difficult to say from afar, but I think one can represent reality without necessarily promoting systemic verbal means of oppression, see the local Chicago collective BBU’s the bell hooks Mixtape (discussed below).
Stepping back to the music, the OF Mixtape Vol. 2 evokes the rhyme dominated hip-hop of the 90s by groups like Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan and De La Soul. The production is minimal and the beats are basic, allowing Odd Future’s clever word play and rhyming to come to the foreground; simply look at the nostalgic closing track number, “Oldie”– a song that lives up to its title by evoking shades of Tribe Called Quest, in particular. The track is essentially a recorded old school freestyle rap, featuring all the members of the Odd Future collective laying down rhymes in their distinct manner to one simple, recurring sample for the entire 10 minutes. The highlight comes at song’s end when
Earl Sweatshirt Tyler, the Creator (ed. note, attribution error, thanks to PG for catching) throws down a direct retort to OF’s critics: “radical is my anthem, turn my fucking amps up, so instead of critiquing and bitching, being mad as fuck, just admit not only are we talented we are rad as fuck.” I have to admit, the contents of the mixtape support his claim. But, OF isn’t just being confrontational, they also weave into the mix satirical tracks such as “We’ve Got Bitches”, which incorporates and scoffs at standard tropes found in “bling obsessed” rap. (Given what I discussed above, I have to wonder if OF is more conscious of the use of certain terms and are making a meta-commentary about these tropes? Jury is still out.) Also, there are the soulful chill-out jams like “Analog 2” and “White” evocative of Innervisions-era Steve Wonder and Neo-Soul, hip hop artists like Musiq.
Listen to the entire OF Mixtape Vol. 2 here (via Spotify).
“…this is a wake-up call, so how many of you will answer?” – Malcolm London
Chicago based BBU’s bell hooks mixtape begins with the arresting verses of the young Chicago poet Malcolm London‘s “Wake Up Call. The poem is a tour de force conjuring a vision of Chicago as a Katrina-ravaged wasteland where “if you haven’t noticed the cemetery seems more populated than the streets.” But, as the title indicates, it is also a clarion call to pay heed to another vision of hip-hop culture – not stories of “weed”, “Nikes” and “urban gear”, see “Michael Scott (skit)”. To me the bell hooks Mixtape is social critique at some of its finest moments, lampooning both left and right, questioning a President who promised change and interrogating the Tea Party and the Right about its internal hypocrisies, see “Jumpers”. BBU do not traffic in the trappings of consumer culture unlike many of their peers, instead they promote the values of education and civic duty in songs like “Wrong Song”: “I wanna see you hit the poles, I’m talking about voting girl, you know cause I love it when they’re smart.” Rather than name dropping labels, they name drop the architects of 20th Century Black Thought (e.g. bell hooks, Audre Lord, James Baldwin, Gil Scot Heron, Ella Baker, and many more). Although most of the tracks are sly and playful in tone, the mixtape’s most powerful number is the lyrical onslaught of “26th&Cali” (shorthand for the house of horrors that is the Cook County Jail) revisiting the dystopic imagery of London’s opening verses: “My city is like a zoo, My city is like a zoo, these crackers keep us in cages, we crazy when we get loose.”
Yet, if you aren’t listening closely, you could easily get lost in the house party beats and rhythms of songs like “Outlaw Culture” and “The Hood.” BBU prove that you can produce a socially conscious and critical record to which you can groove and jam. Isn’t this more powerful than engaging in somber and self-righteous tomes? Consider Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, one of the great rock diatribes, the song succeeds not simply because Dylan captured the cultural zeitgeist with his caustic and colorful lyrics but because it invoked popular folk-rock conventions that seeped into the cultural consciousness. I’m not suggesting BBU are the 21st Century personification of Dylan. However, they do follow in a tradition of socially critical art that seeks to both entertain and educate, resembling another great hip-hop act of the 90s BlackStar (aka Mos Def and Talib Kweli) who choose to focus on stories of Black Empowerment as opposed to the violence and the hustle that dominated late 90s rap. Last, if you listen closely you’ll hear a very familiar song/sample in “Kurt De La Rocha” (a fascinating title mash-up that says a lot). Interestingly, this is the second hip-hop record of 2012 that samples Nirvana’s Nevermind (see “Smells Like Teens Spirit” from the Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio (previously discussed)). Without reading too much into this, I will say that it speaks to the lasting power and influence of that record to this day. Rather than continue to over analyze this record, I urge you to take your own journey through this astonishing release and please share it with others — these are voices and stories that need to be heard.
Stream or download the entire the bell hooks Mixtape for free here.
And for something completely different …
- Check out this phenomenal live performance (along with a mini-interview) by one of my favorite new artists of 2012: Grimes (via NPR) or if you haven’t heard Visions click here (via Spotify)
Or, if you need something to allow you to ease into weekend’s end, then try out Barcelona based John Talabot’s trance-inducing, electronic record Fin — you just might feel like you are sitting on the sands of Ibiza.
Adios from the peanut gallery,