Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Odd Future

I was first exposed to Odd Future while having a drink with my friends at Pittsburgh’s Brillobox bar. Tyler’s video “Yonkers” played on the big screen, followed by Earl Sweatshirt’s “Earl.” Both videos were disturbing and captivating.

The next day I googled the group (these guys have been covered in the New York Times, The New Yorker and were featured on NPR) and listened to a few of their songs on youtube. I remained on the fence. I thought the Odd Future collective was interesting, new, but nothing to write home about. But one late night I gave them a real listen and was amazed, moved and ready to label Odd Future the next big thing in hip-hop.

The group collectively channels Sid Vicious, Pharell, Marilyn Manson and the early Nas. Their beats are simple and deep, their image, gory and rebellious, their lyrics, thoughtful, poetic and (at times) extremely vulgar.

For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what to say about Odd Future in light of this extreme vulgarity and the attention (both negative and positive) that the group has received. I don’t have any one thing to say, so I’ll say several things.

1. We shouldn’t force ourselves to give the group or any of its members a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Anyone who likes hip-hop and has a social conscience has to both praise and blame the rappers they enjoy. We praise Tupac for his talent and charisma and blame him for his misogynistic and violent lyrics. We (I)should treat Tyler, Earl and the rest the same way we (I) treat every other artist: as an object of both praise and blame.

2. We shouldn’t always expect art to make us comfortable. Sometimes good art disturbs. Think Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Cosimo Cavallaro’s “My Sweet Lord,” or even Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.”

3. That being said, I think the gore, explicit atheism, the mocking of religion and (some of) the vulgarity allows the Odd Future collective to make a unique contribution to the African-American art narrative.

In watching “Afro Punk,” James Spooner’s documentary about black kids in the American punk scene, one realizes that many black punks struggle with their black identity. Many of the subjects interviewed wished to be white at some point in their lives (to better fit into the punk scene), resented other blacks in the scene (“I want to be the only one.”) or were the only black member of this or that band. (Of course, Spooner’s documentary and his Afro Punk movement, I take it, are helping to alleviate some of these problems).

Interestingly, Odd Future embraces the punk aesthetic (and, to be clear, these guys aren’t really punk or metal or hip-hop. They draw from a lot of sources), but in an unapologetically black way. In listening to their music (and watching their interviews), one doesn't get the feeling that this is a group of black kids who want to be white--they seem to embrace their blackness.


“Pigs raid my crib, I’m feelin’ like Fred Hampton…”

“I’m f*ckin’ bout it bout it like I’m Master P in 96…”

“I’m a n*gga with an attitude [NWA], trigger aimin’ at your dude…”

“At the lamp post in Oakland next to Bob Seale [the black panther]…”

And check the references to Jay-Z and Nas in these two lines:

“Chip on my shoulder like I’m dieting with Pringles/ Brush it off quick like H to the OV/ Life is but a beach chair, beach n*ggas folding.”

And, whereas most groups who embrace gore, atheism and/or the punk attitude are predominantly white, Odd Future is all black.

I can’t recall any hip-hop collective having done what Odd Future is doing (Wu-Tang and Mob Deep are dark, but not like Odd Future and Bad Brains is all black and embraces the punk aesthetic, but they’re not hip-hop). Odd Future is doing something new.

4. Some of the vulgarity is unnecessary and, I think, indefensible. I’m not going to repeat any of the really objectionable lyrics in this forum, but check the NPR feature on Odd Future to get a taste. The vulgarity is unnecessary in that the group could do what they want to do without all the (feigned?) misogyny and homophobic slurs. The music is shocking and novel enough without this objectionable content. I think it detracts from the group’s appeal.

Tyler defends his misogyny (and, really, the other members of the group aren’t nearly as bad in this respect as he and Earl) by claiming that the misogynistic lyrics are either the result of an artistic exercise in which he attempts to understand and rap from the perspective of a violent killer or part of a violent fantasy which shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than a Stephen King novel. Okay. But his worst lyrics appear to be off-putting to no end. They’re just out there and not part of a larger narrative. Admittedly, I haven’t spent a lot of time with either of Tyler’s albums, so I may be missing something.

Tyler defends his use of homophobic slurs by claiming that he’s not actually homophobic, but uses the F-word to deride those artists (people?) who are silly, uncreative and/or annoying. Fair enough. But, as Jenée Desmond-Harris points out, one must make a distinction between one’s intention in speaking and the effects of one’s speech. While Tyler may not be homophobic, many of us can’t help but hear his words as homophobic (I really don’t know how the 18 year-old skaters and punk rock kids hear the word). Once he becomes aware of this, he can no longer hide behind his intent. In this way, his use of the F-word is unacceptable. He needs to give the slurs a rest. Hopefully an older Tyler will recognize this point.

5. That being said, Tyler is extremely talented and most of his flows are just nice. He can ride a beat and drop internal rhymes with the best of them. Earl Sweatshirt, son of South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, is the best in the group in my opinion. I don’t know if hip-hop has ever seen a 16 year-old with this much talent. I’m going to call it now: Earl is going to be a big deal. Hodgy Beats has an extremely smooth flow, Raekwon-like charisma and the ability to keep you interested and engaged for an entire album. I could go on, but you get the point. These young cats are good.

I support Odd Future as a group of wild, smart, talented (they make their own beats), and creative artists. I can’t get behind (or even defend) everything they do and say, but I can’t dismiss them either. As with any gifted but controversial artist or group, one must not be so blinded by Odd Future’s talent that one does not acknowledge their objectionable content and one must not be so blinded by their objectionable content that one does not appreciate the talent that these kids bring to the table.

I’ll leave you with two of the less-offensive Odd Future tracks. Enjoy.

Monday, June 6, 2011

What’s the Point of Arguing About Art?

We’ve all been witness to the following type of conversation:

Anthony: Have you heard the new so and so album?

Maria: Yea, it’s wack. So and so is falling off.

Anthony: You’re trippin’. Did you listen to track 10? It’s fire.

Maria: Yea, I listened. That track just sounds lazy, like so and so didn’t even take time to think about the lyrics…

Anthony: But what about this verse…?

From the outside (or the inside) it can appear as if engaging in this type of conversation is a waste of time. After a certain amount of time, it will likely seem that Maria and Anthony just aren’t going to come to an agreement about the album they’re discussing. From the fact that persons in Maria and Anthony’s position will not likely come to an agreement, people tend to draw the following two conclusions:

1) There is just no fact of the matter about whether the any work of art is good (or beautiful, or groundbreaking, etc).

2) Engaging in arguments about art is a waste of time because aesthetic judgments are purely subjective.

Here I assume that the former conclusion is true and take issue with the latter conclusion. The claim I advance is this: even if it is true that there is no fact of the matter about whether a given work of art is good and even if aesthetic judgments are purely subjective, there are reasons to engage in arguments about the value of any given work of art.

There are two things that one could gain from engaging in such an argument.

First, in engaging in an argument about the value of some work of art, we may come to see something in that work that we were unable to see before. That is, we may come to see a beautiful aspect of a song, painting or novel that we would have not been able to see without the help of another.

Second, in engaging in an argument about some work of art, we may come to see something in our interlocutor that we were previously unable to see. That is, we may see our friend as more thoughtful, more perceptive, more sensitive to certain aspects of the world than we had previously suspected.

On the first point, consider Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit (pictured above).

Imagine that Maria is only able to see the figure as a duck. Imagine also that Maria can’t help but seeing ducks as ugly. Let’s say that Anthony understands that one can see the figure as a duck, but is also able to see it as a rabbit. In talking to Maria about the figure, Anthony can point out things to her that she is unable to see at this point.

Anthony: I know you hate ducks, but can’t you see the rabbit?

Maria: No, I’m only seeing a duck. An ugly duck.

Anthony: But look at the duck’s beak. Can’t you also imagine the beak being the ears of a rabbit? Look closely.

Maria: Ah! Ok. Now I see it. That ugly duck is still there (in some sense), but now I can see the rabbit clearly.

I admit that this is an artificial example, but I think it is instructive. Imagine Maria and Anthony not simply talking about the duck-rabbit, but about a movie. We can imagine Anthony saying something like the following:

“I know it seems like a silly love story at first, but think of it as a commentary on the regrettable state of romance in this country. I think this is what the director had in mind.”

This beautiful, more thoughtful aspect of the film could strike Maria just as the rabbit strikes her. She could, in the middle of her argument with Anthony, come to see greatness in a film that she at one point dismissed as silly.

On the second point, in seeing the rabbit or in seeing the film as thoughtful, Maria could also come to see something in Anthony. When Anthony said that he liked the duck-rabbit or that he liked the film, Maria likely saw him as naïve and unsophisticated, as a philistine.

But in seeing the rabbit and in seeing the film as a sophisticated social commentary, Maria is also in a position to see Anthony differently. This one time philistine is now a person who is able to skillfully bring his life experiences and intelligence to bear on his aesthetic judgments. He is now a deeper person to Maria. She comes to know him better in coming to see what he sees in the work of art they discuss.

At this point you may be thinking the following: Sure, what you say may be right, but if we’re assuming that there’s no fact of the matter about whether any piece of art is beautiful, why encourage folks to engage in arguments about aesthetics? It makes no sense to make an argument for or against a claim that is neither true nor false.

My response to this worry is this: It seems that when we argue about the value of some work of art, we aren’t attempting to show that some claim follows deductively from some other claims. What we’re doing is attempting to get our interlocutor to see what we see in the work. In this way, we can understand aesthetic arguments as intelligible even if we assume that there is no fact of the matter about the beauty of some particular work of art.

So, please, continue to argue about works of art. Continue to think of interesting ways to get others to see what you see in a particular work and be open to seeing aspects of a work that you are currently unable to see.