by Emma Carmichael
Late on Friday night, I joined a lot of other white people at the Highline Ballroom to see Odd Future. At the door, a girl in a Juicy sweatshirt handed out paper masks of Tyler, The Creator’s face. The image was borrowed from his self-designed Goblin album cover. There were eyeholes punched out, so that you couldn’t see the milky black irises he’d Photoshopped onto his own face, and so that every person there could resemble Tyler while they chanted “swag,” “goblin,” and “Free Earl,” who needs no freeing, at the 20-year-old with a microphone and a record deal who claims not to care for his own music.
About an hour after the doors had opened the crowd started to push to the front, and a cheer went up as Syd Tha Kyd, Odd Future’s openly gay female DJ, came to the stage. She wore an oversized white T and no jewelry, and she took to her tables without a word. The young men surrounding me — most of whom, I’d estimate, were still in high school or in their early undergraduate years — stared at her in a kind of rapture. Some danced, and everyone chanted things, like the words to Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag,” which was done with a careful balance of irony and earnestness. After two mixes, and a brief run offstage, Syd picked up a mic and announced that she’d been told “they were disappointed back there because y’all are acting like bitches.”
I went to the women’s room and, being, I guess, one of the few actual bitches in the audience, found no line.
From my stall, I could hear a loud cheer go up. “Oh shit, we’re missing Tyler?” a girl yelped.
“All you’re missing,” I said, “is white boys jumping on each other.”
“Yeah, sister!” she shouted back, laughing. “About the white people.”
I came out to wash my hands and acknowledged her. We were both white women.
Back in the hall, I made my way again to the front half of the crowd and stood about ten deep at left center stage. Syd was actually just wrapping up her set, and everyone seemed charged, or just drunker, in anticipation of the 20-year-old who had named himself The Creator to arrive to the stage. He emerged minutes later in a blue-and-white baseball shirt and a hat. Syd dropped the beat — all Neptune scarcity, bass-line heavy — and the young men raged. They jumped and pushed and yelled and looked like they had never cared about a thing so much in their lives. It was, for the first 10 minutes or so, simply live and energetic and maybe even a little bit rapturous.
Odd Future, and especially Tyler, have an energy to their live shows that I haven’t seen for years — probably my fault, because for years, I’ve been going to see aging hip-hop stars of the 90s perform as I attempt to play catch-up to a culture that moves too rapidly and changes too drastically for catch-up. It’s as pointless a pursuit as the contrived nostalgia that defines hip-hop fandom: we, even those who maybe don’t belong in the first place and who weren’t around in the first place, are forever reminiscing about some lost era to the music, when supposedly every rapper had some kind of a social agenda and when women had a real part in it.
But I wasn’t there, and I don’t know whether or not it’s true — or if it’s just the kind of self-produced delirium that makes it easier to hate on whatever we have on rotation now. But I know that I’m drawn to Odd Future because they’ve done something that feels seismic in its influence, in a way that I think hip hop must have felt Back When. And they’ve done it without bending towards the simple rhyme schemes and easy misogyny of the mainstream rap I try to ignore until I get the chance to dance to it in a dim room. (“Party staff baffled, askin’ where her ass go/In my room, redefinin’ the meanin’ of black holes,” as Earl raps in “Earl Sweatshirt,” carries a different weight for me than, say, “Gurl, shake dat Laffy Taffy.”)
I’ve come to know Odd Future’s music in the same way I did the summer before seventh grade, when my oblivious mother bought me the unedited Marshall Mathers LP for my birthday: alone, on my headphones, letting the wordplay and the rhymes meld into some edible melody that I can convince myself is singularly impressive. Since then I’ve done my best to subconsciously distance myself from the word “bitch” in the albums I buy and listen to. I’m able to convince myself that it is not about me. It helps that both Eminem and Odd Future have tried so hard to convince us that what they’re saying is not about anything at all.
But I never went to see Eminem perform “Kill You” live, and I wonder if I’d have responded in the same way I did at the Highline Ballroom on Friday night: two songs in, whatever initial high I had died and I slowly retreated to the back of the room. I felt overwhelmed, and I needed a break. In the back, the area Tyler had earlier fingered as the place where all the bloggers (or the “hipster-ass faggot-ass niggas”) were standing, there were actually women. We watched from a distance as a fan grabbed Tyler’s T-shirt so hard he ripped it, and as the young (mostly white) men raged to the young black men rapping about bitches and fags, and I wondered if I had gotten old and cranky and oversensitive without realizing it and if I just didn’t get it. Or was this some personal dressing-down for all the years I’d listened without really acknowledging or feeling the words I’d been listening to?
I learned that being back here, with most of the other women, made me, already a bitch, more of a faggot-ass, because I was a new Odd Future listener standing in the back of the room and not a committed Odd Future listener pushing other committed Odd Future listeners in the front. Tyler explained this as he grabbed a Converse sneaker that had been tossed onstage and rocketed it into the upper balcony, and then he went into “Yonkers,” the phenomenal single from Goblin. The beat dropped and looped before Tyler, now shirtless and pulsing with energy even as his voice got hoarse, went in; the crowd started “Free Earl” and “Gob-lin” chants before Tyler told them to “shut the fuck up,” which they immediately did. They sounded, for a moment, let down by the man on their masks.
But if they were, they’d forgotten by the second “Yonkers” verse, when Tyler bounded into the crowd and everyone surged towards him, camera phones aloft. He returned to the stage as Syd killed the track, and announced that near the bar, he’d “bumped into a bitch and she got mad.”
“Bitch is a stripper!” he yelled, and lots of people cheered and laughed at the prospect of the bitch being a stripper. “Why come to an Odd Future show if you gon’ get mad?” he asked. “Pussy musta got like five licks. Bitch is a fuckin’ stripper, yo. You can go home if you don’t like it.”
Syd’s presence and control is one of many things that are remarkable and defiant about an Odd Future show. I watched her as the crowd joined the Odd Future crew in chanting “bitch, kill yourself.” She was calm, as she’d been throughout the show, with a slight smirk on her face, like she had the punchline to some private joke on loop, and that smirk often spread into a gleeful smile. She kept the look when, just after two in the morning, a blonde girl surfed her way onstage and kissed Tyler, who announced, “I might legit have herpes.” The crowd laughed and started a “show your titties” chant, and she refused, looking bashful. “Then get the fuck off the stage!” Tyler yelled, and she jumped into the outstretched hands, just as easily forgotten as the things he’d said.
It was then that Odd Future brought out Frank Ocean, the singer-producer who’s newest to the group and responsible for the great Nostalgia Ultra, and he sang “Novacane” as girls climbed onstage. Ocean regarded them a little, but not much at all, and they all did their best Shakira impersonation until a stage manager bounded out to drag three backstage and push the other three back into the crowd. “Real quick,” said Tyler, as he emerged from behind Syd’s table and Ocean left the stage, “that was the most awkward shit I’ve ever seen.”
This is the paradox of the Odd Future narrative, and of the people who so eagerly consume it. That includes me. The young men rap about bitches, and about fucking them and raping them and rubbing glass on their clitorises, but the “bitches” aren’t in their videos. They’re not onstage in any intentional way, as in an orchestrated moment at a Drake show. Unless their name is Syd and they’re in charge of every song and of the show’s momentum, the bitch in the verse exists in some theoretical plane where anything can be done to her, or it, and no one has to be hurt.
The words don’t match up with the spectacle.
Odd Future has been saying, for some time, that they’re doing something that no one else has ever done before. That’s a statement that you can’t really qualify, but I think there’s at least some truth to it, if only in part because the people we’re listening to are mostly teenage boys. The wordplay is intended to be an edible melody, with a sidelong glance that says I don’t really mean this and we both know it, and holy shit, isn’t it fun, anyway?, and nothing else at all.
Their trick is deciding who gets to be in on the joke; for listeners sensitive to lyrics about rape or homophobia, the trick is deciding if you really want to be in on the joke in the first place. Young white men, Tyler masks strapped on, were clamoring for that right on Friday, while the women tried to find a place for themselves. That meant either dancing awkwardly onstage, because that’s what seems true to the form, or retreating to the back, amongst the stripper-bitch-faggot-asses, and watching passively from a distance.
I guess I went back there because it felt more like I was alone and on my headphones again. Most didn’t need that space. At 2:30 a.m., as Odd Future ended its encore, the boys in the front rows of the crowd surged onto the stage to dance until the lights came on. They knew all the words, which I guess made them anything but faggot-asses, but I don’t know that it made them in on the joke.
Previously: The Miscontextualization of Nicki Minaj