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by Mosi Reeves

May 24, 2011

Rap Is Not Pop: The Great Tyler Debate

by Mosi Reeves  |  May 24, 2011

Odd Future leader Tyler, the Creator's Goblin may be the most controversial album of 2011 so far. Hundreds of professional writers, amateur bloggers, tastemaker publications and fellow musicians have weighed in on the 20-year-old Los Angeles rapper/producer's psychoanalytic exploration of his id. They have picked apart Goblin's lyrics, weighed its racial and cultural implications, and argued whether the album is a provocative stunt or a brilliant work. The commentary has reached such meta levels that many Goblin reviews just focus on the hype surrounding Odd Future from a swelling of industry buzz to myth-making cover stories in Billboard and The Fader to an online backlash, all within six months or so and disregard the actual work.

With so many writers penning their PhD theses (some of which are very good), I've culled excerpts from a few significant ones, if only to avoid repeating the same ideas (which may be impossible). But I'm not abdicating my responsibility to cover the album: I've also written a separate, extended review. (I already penned a capsule review upon the record's May 10 release.) Goblin may be far from a masterpiece, but it has certainly made for a memorable hip-hop experience.


For sustained and diverse brilliance, only the Wu-Tang Clan with their numerous side projects come close, and even they weren't this precocious (Odd Future are aged 17-23) or prolific. Over the past 18 months, the eight rapping and recording-artist members of OFWGKTA (a collective that also includes producers and illustrators) have made more than a dozen albums available for free download. Forget "mixtapes," these are fully realised works; sample-free, each meticulously crafted and worthy of major label release. Paul Lester, "Tyler the Creator in the UK: forget hip-hop, we're the new Sex Pistols!"

"Goblin is spiteful, internal, confident, vitriolic, vividly bruised stuff, a shocking and shockingly good album that bears little resemblance to contemporary hip-hop. It has more in common with the stark, thick-with-feelings independent rap of the mid-to-late-1990s and also the improbably rich-sounding minimalism of the Neptunes in the early 2000s. For every caustic rhyme about violence there's a pensive, unexpectedly gentle production choice to go with it. Unlike the maximalism of hip-hop radio, you can feel the air in these songs, the gasping for breath." Jon Caramanica, "Angry Rhymes, Dirty Mouth, Goofy Kid"

"The real key to Odd Future's success is that, for all their scary talk, they're still just a bunch of teenagers who can't even drink at the clubs in which they perform. Some of them are still in high school, and rumor has it that Earl Sweatshirt got in trouble with his mom for his foulmouthed exploits and was sent off to a military academy.

It's this overarching sense of youthful whimsy, this idea that they don't mean most of what they say, that keeps Odd Future in white fans' good graces. Because history has shown that white critics have a very low tolerance for actual, tangible black rage." Cord Jefferson, "Odd Future's Odd Fan Base"

"Goblin wasn't made for me, and I'm glad for that. Trying to enjoy it involves tapping into some feelings I'm glad I never had, and others I'm glad to have grown out of. It involves consciously summoning up empathy for Tyler who comes off as a wounded, defensive kid, not very skilled at relating to others or the world, and starved for some sense of love and family. He spends all his time stuck in his own head and raging about it, deploying defense mechanisms, showily baring his soul as an additional defense mechanism, and so on. If I make the effort, this can seriously move me but mostly in a way that feels bleak and tragic." Nitsuh Abebe, "Tyler, the Creator: Visionary Rapper or Obnoxious Teenager?"

"Goblin's highest points and most infuriating moments come from the fact that it's a vérité depiction of the worst aspects of American boy culture. You know, hating girls because they don't like you because you're a weirdo, hating any and all authority figures because they try to tell you how not to be such a weirdo. But most importantly (and scarily), there's the part that involves lashing out about being viewed as a weirdo, and being summarily rewarded i.e. seen as normal for doing so. (It probably goes without saying that girls don't have the same luxury.) Nobody cares about Tyler the Creator being someone's role model in 2011. Which in a way, is the scariest thing about Goblin too much of his scary fantasizing, for too many boys, is all too normal." Eric Harvey, "Tyler, the Creator's Boy Club"

"As journalists and colleagues defend, excuse and congratulate 'Tyler, the Creator,' I find it impossible not to comment. In any other industry would I be expected to tolerate, overlook and find deeper meaning in this kid's sickening rhetoric? Why should I care about this music or its 'brilliance' when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible? There is much that upsets me in this world, and this certainly isn't the first time I've drafted an open letter or complaint, but in the past I've found an opinion some like-minded commentary that let me rest assured that my outrage, my voice, had been accounted for. Not this time.

If any of the bands whose records are held in similar esteem as Goblin had lyrics littered with rape fantasies and slurs, would they be labeled hate mongers? I realize I could ask that question of DOZENS of other artists, but is Tyler exempt because people are afraid of the backlash? The inevitable claim that detractors are being racist, or the brush-off that not 'getting it' would indicate that you're 'old' (or a faggot)? Because, the more I think about it, the more I think people don't actually want to go up against this particular bully because he's popular. Who sticks up for women and gay people now? It seems entirely uncool to do so in the indie rock world, and I'll argue that point with ANYONE." Sara Quinn from Tegan & Sara, "A Call for Change"

"Is he a homophobe? Maybe, but at least he's familiar with the label (that already places him light years beyond most of his contemporaries where expressed awareness is concerned). At least here, there's something more to chew on that isn't just flawed logic holding onto vague concepts ("the sanctity of marriage") over concrete equality. At least this isn't a drag show with an agenda, like that of the Westboro Baptist Church. At least it isn't just plain idiocy. Here we have someone who couldn't possibly understand the shame of being called a faggot when you are one, using the word for his own benefit ultimately (Odd Future without the hateful imagery would be like Cannibal Holocaust without the animal mutilation: largely ignored). He says he isn't homophobic, but then he says a lot of things. Leaving it up to us to sort it all out could be a cop-out, but it could just as easily be a sign of respect." Rich Juzwiak, "Tyler's gay stuff"

"This like almost everything said about OF is probably a cliché already but: to me it's like a high school prospect who got drafted straight to the pros equal parts exciting and irritating, lots of promise and flashes of brilliance but his game clearly isn't fully formed. So your reaction may depend on how sympathetic/endearing you find Tyler, how willing you are to judge on a 'great for how young he is' scale.

"On this point I will just note, assuming their publicly listed ages are accurate: Nas was this age when he made Illmatic, Ice Cube was this age when he made Amerikkka's Most Wanted, Rakim was even younger when he made Paid In Full, and so on, et cetera. Our sense of Tyler's relative youthfulness as an artist is arguably skewed a bit by his investment in acting immature." Jay Smooth, "Is There a Recognizable Consensus on Goblin Yet?"

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