It’s finally happened. We’ve been waiting for what seems like forever for Frank Ocean to release the follow-up to Channel Orange and all of a sudden he breaks the internet by dropping two (!) albums out of nowhere. On first listen, they sound incredible — we should have known that he wouldn’t disappoint us.
As we begin to digest these records (and there’s a lot to absorb here), I think it’s a good time to look back on his old group Odd Future and try to make sense of what they were doing. They’re easily one of the most controversial crews in hip-hop history — you’d probably have to go all the way back to 2 Live Crew or even N.W.A to find another rap group so famous for being offensive. But 2 Live Crew was really just a risqué party group and N.W.A was a kind of politically-charged “reality rap” group that at times fought against racial injustice (at least that’s how they’ve been received).
Odd Future was different: they had a “fuck everything” attitude, but not in some cavalier, “YOLO” kind of way. Although they often came across as “giddily nihilistic,” as one writer put it, their music was extremely dark. They were bitter, disappointed and depressed — it was like the misogyny and homophobia that they became so famous for simply flowed from their hostility towards the world in general.
“Bitches scared to let me smash on they ass / Yeah they heard I’m fuckin’ nuts like the swag of a f*g / Like me and Tekeli was gagging in the back of the cabin.” — Tyler, the Creator “Jamba”
Frank Ocean didn’t seem to fit in with Odd Future from the beginning. They were obnoxious and aggressive while he was quiet and introspective. And he was already a successful songwriter for the likes of Justin Bieber and Brandy before he joined the group. So when he came out at the peak of Odd Future’s notoriety and told the story of how his first love was a man, it really didn’t make sense why he, of all people, would associate with a group who didn’t just casually use homophobic language, but seemed to revel in it. But he explained that he joined the group precisely when he was struggling most with his sexuality and that he felt such a sense of kinship with them that, as the oldest and most successful member, he became a sort of mentor figure to them.
This was completely baffling. Odd Future was simultaneously the hip-hop group most accepting of homosexuality — they didn’t even feel the need to remind us that their DJ/Engineer, Syd Tha Kid, was a lesbian — and the biggest target of gay rights activists since early Eminem. To most of us it didn’t make sense, but to them it was completely normal. They didn’t just support Ocean when he came out, they questioned why we, the public, thought his sexuality was such a big deal in the first place.
Ocean’s place in Odd Future only starts to makes sense when we look at what attracted him to the group in the first place: their pursuit of freedom. And it wasn’t just touting freedom of speech, in which you should be able to offend whoever you want (although that was definitely a part of it). This was the uncompromising freedom that comes from being true to yourself, rejecting all labels, and making your own lane.
But freedom has its price. It’s really difficult to live out a brutally honest freedom in public, but they refused to shy away from it and that’s what ultimately caused the group to split apart. By the time they broke up they faced painful aspects of freedom that they didn’t imagine when they got together: the freedom to make mistakes in public and the pain that comes from being forever judged for those mistakes.
To see the beauty in their search for freedom is to go beyond the surface, and in the case of Odd Future, it was often hideous. Although I almost always recommend going deeper with any group or topic to find something profound or beautiful, Odd Future is one of the rare cases where I absolutely understand why someone would refuse to do so. It’s completely defensible to say that no possible deeper meaning, no matter how rich or beautiful, can justify Odd Future’s most cringeworthy moments. As they’ve gotten older, I actually think many of the group’s members would admit that they’ve had similar thoughts as they look back at the group’s heyday.
In 2011, when Odd Future (whose ridiculous full name is Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) was at the peak of their fame, they were the absolute darlings of the internet. It was a strange pairing to say the least — the internet usually tears apart anything that remotely resembles something offensive. But the group had tons of sympathetic critics who championed them as fearless freedom of speech heroes who were consistently pushing the envelope. They were obnoxious assholes, sure, but they were extremely talented and courageous.
But for many people they weren’t just trolls using homophobic and misogynistic lyrics to get a rise out of people, they were dangerous and disgusting. Perhaps the most infamous example is the song “Tron Cat” by Tyler, The Creator, Odd Future’s de facto leader. Here, Tyler leaves no debaucherous stone unturned, making punchlines out of everything from Chris Brown beating up Rihanna to child rape in the Catholic church. Listen at your own risk:
Tyler defended this kind of thing in a variety of ways — depending on the day you asked him. He has claimed that his lyrics were:
- a joke.
- from the perspective of a fictional character.
- his attempt to capture the mindset of a serial killer, like Ted Bundy.
- his attempt at articulating the darkness that all humans have inside of them.
- a sort of Quentin Tarantino-esque art project.
But that’s when he actually felt the need to justify what he was doing. Most of the time, Tyler and the rest of the group were just content letting people be upset. For them, most of society are mindless sheep who follow conventional morals and resist anything that’s out of the ordinary. So when they offended people, they took it as a sign that they were on to something real.
“So, a couple f*gs threw a little hissfit / Came to Pitchfork with a couple Jada Pinkett signs /And said I was a racist homophobic / So I grabbed Lucas and filmed us kissing / Feelings getting caught, it’s off, I’m pissing /You think I give a fuck? I ain’t even stick my dick in yet / (No homo. Too soon.)” — Tyler, the Creator “Domo 23”
Although it often seemed like Odd Future’s one mission was to upset people, they believed that by refusing to follow society’s rules they were inspiring their fans to be true to themselves. The group’s members were outcasts growing up and they wanted people who feel like they’re unaccepted to find the confidence to follow their own path. On the song “Oldie,” Tyler explains how the group’s music was meant to empower people who felt misunderstood:
“This is for the ni**a in the suburbs
And the white kids with ni**a friends who say the n-word
And the ones that got called weird, f*g, bitch, nerd
Cause you was into jazz, kitty cats, and Steven Spielberg” — Tyler, the Creator “Oldie”
So they attacked everything they could think of that makes people feel bad about who they are. And I mean everything — nothing was off limits: religion, elitist hip-hop culture, societal norms. Even their most outlandish antics and lyrics were for the purposes of breaking people out of their mental boxes. They believed that if you allow yourself to be offended by something that it has a hold on you.
This goes for their controversial language as well. They used homophobic language in part to offend people, for sure, but mainly because they questioned why people let words have power over them in the first place. Tyler’s logic here is both kind of shallow and kind of utopian:
“I’m not homophobic. I just think ‘fa — ot’ hits and hurts people. It hits. And ‘gay’ just means you’re stupid. I don’t know, we don’t think about it, we’re just kids. We don’t think about that shit. But I don’t hate gay people. I don’t want anyone to think I’m homophobic.”
Tyler extends this line of thinking to racism as well, believing that if you focus on the issue you’re actually making it worse. He’s gone so far as to claim that white people using racial slurs doesn’t bother him in the slightest: “Motherfuckers who care are the reason racism is still alive. I guess people my age, we’re not even thinking like that. When you think like that, you keep the racism alive when that’s not even on our palette.”
Of course, I disagree with Tyler’s logic here — the “gay just means you’re stupid” and “words only have meaning if you let them” defenses have been disproven hundreds of times. You only have to turn on the news for a minute to know that this way of thinking doesn’t match the reality around us. Words do carry the weight of the past and affect our lives in the present, whether or not Tyler or anyone else wants them to. But even though his logic is flawed, the sentiment comes from a hopeful place that thinks we should be free from the labels that society forces on us. It’s naive, but it’s kind of admirable.
After only a couple of years in the limelight, Odd Future began to splinter apart as its members started to grow weary of the band’s stigma. The group’s controversial lyrics — at first billed as an expression of freedom from society’s limitations — was now the box they wanted to escape from.
DJ Syd grew tired of having to justify her place as the lesbian in the group to the gay community. In a recent interview with The New York Times, she talks about how her leaving the group made it tougher for them to justify their homophobic lyrics: “I was their get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s easy to say they aren’t homophobic because Syd is there.” And within a few short years of dropping his infamous, rape-themed Earl mixtape at age 16, Earl Sweatshirt regretted the controversial lyrics that made the group so famous. By the time he was 19 he had worked with sexual assault victims and immediately realized he needed to mature.
“I’m an adult. I can’t be fucking talking about raping people and shit. That shit’s crazy. As an adult, if you want to talk about rape, there’s certain shit that comes along with it….Yeah, so you get to see that side of the fence, and then it’s just fucked…That fully draws the line, where it’s like you can stand on either side. Either you’re a fool that is down with fucked up shit — I mean, I’m a fan of macabre shit, you know what I’m saying? But not like that. At the end of the day, I’m not some evil guy.”
Even Tyler, who brought the group together, started to grow weary of what Odd Future represented. As he matured and focused on the need for positivity in his life, many of his fans wanted him to forever remain the miserable, 2011 version of Tyler that they fell in love with. He questioned why fans weren’t happy that he beat depression and why they wanted him to continue writing about dark things when it wasn’t true to his artistic and personal growth.
Odd Future was created as a way to pursue freedom, but now the group’s identity was suffocating them. By 2015, the group had fizzled out — they couldn’t wait to get away from the burden of the Odd Future label. As Earl says, “The [Odd Future] thing follows you… It’s my teenage boy club that got famous that I’m trying not to be defined by.”
Now that they’ve broken up, we can look back and ask if their pursuit of freedom was worth the homophobia and misogyny the group themselves ended up rejecting. I’m generally inclined to say no, but it’s unclear. There is something noble about the band’s willingness to pursue their own ideas at all costs, even to the point of admitting their mistakes in public. That’s not easy to do.
And even though their logic was flawed, it came from a hopeful place that champions freedom from the labels that society forces on us. In an interview with GQ, Ocean explained why he rejected the label of bisexuality and how it ties to his rejection of labels in general:
“I’ll respectfully say that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences, and the same sentiment that I have towards genres of music, I have towards a lot of labels and boxes and shit…You can’t feel a box. You can’t feel a label. Don’t get caught up in that shit. There’s so much something in life. Don’t get caught up in the nothing. That shit is nothing, you know? It’s nothing. Vanish the fear.”
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