The other day, Sara, of Tegan & Sara, posted an open letter to music critics, imploring them to stop elevating Tyler, the Creator’s music, because of its overt sexism and homophobia. You should read it here. It’s not the first time these sentiments have been made, certainly, but it’s caused quite a buzz over Twitter, and she makes the point more forcefully than I’ve seen before. At first I refused to listen to Odd Future just because everything I heard about them emphasised this mythology they’ve created, nearly every piece of journalism highlighted Tyler’s self-description as ‘black nazi’: the rapist, homophobe, all-round proponent of prejudice and hatred. And yeah, the sort of thing I’d hate – if that press had been telling the full story. Sara’s post – and especially, the number of times it circulated round my Twitter feed – made me feel guilty about how much I enjoy both Bastard and Goblin. I agree with her argument but here’s the problem; how do I justify enjoying music with such repugnant themes?
The first time I experienced Odd Future was the ‘Yonkers’ video. Everyone who’s seen it seems to have been blown away (most notably, Kanye West). This still stands as the epitome of everything OF stands for – visceral, aggressive, original, utterly brilliant. Tyler commands and deserves your attention here, and completely defies what you expect from rap music. While most rap is straightforwardly egocentric and braggadocio, Tyler immediately asserts himself as this ‘fucking walking paradox’ and spirals out of control – as does all of his music, littered with conflicting personae and insecurities. Yonkers is non-sequitur after non-sequitur, contradictions running deep: synthetic wigs made of dreadlocks? pregnant gold retrievers? Adventure Time?? And of course, the fact that the whole thing is sort-of a dialogue with his own conscience (Dr. TC). By the end, Tyler has morphed into some soulless empty-eyed demon and hangs himself. It’s just not HIM, it’s a persona, and this is the most overlooked thing about Tyler’s music, even though he spells it out in so many ways.
A week or two later, ‘Sandwitches’ on Fallon happened. I’d pinpoint this as the moment OFWGKTA exploded. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and it’s probably the most exciting thing that’s happened all year. They’re the punk-est artists in ages who’ve been given a platform like this.
But I didn’t recognise this at first and, more than anything, I was upset and confused as to how these lyrics got on TV. I was shocked at the censorship standards more than anything – they let Tyler edit the lyric to ‘punch her in the stomach where the little one’s supposed to be / screw a mask, I want that girl to know it’s me’ (pretty much the same thing appeared on the MTV Woodie awards later, too). The studio version goes ‘punch her in the stomach where than bastard kid’s supposed to be / fuck a mask, I want that hoe to know it’s me’. Thank god we weren’t exposed to THAT.
Before I go on, I don’t want to sound like lyrics like that are defensible (if purposefully exaggerated to the point of ridicule); they’re not. Tyler’s lyrics are rampantly sexist and homophobic, and I want to emphasise the importance of Sara’s arguments. I completely agree with their point that sexism should be treated in the same ways as racism/anti-Semitism. It’s been suggested that Tyler is often ‘excused’ because the stereotypes linking hip-hop and sexism are taken for granted. And at the same time, people are directing their vitriol at Tyler himself, whereas Sara’s argument holds more weight, being directed at those who support him.
It goes without saying that it’s ridiculous to suggest that Odd Future would be the tipping point for a high-school massacre like Tyler speculates about in Goblin. While searching for debates about the supposed negative influence of mainstream hip-hop, I found this great example; what strikes me about it is how closely intertwined mainstream hip-hop’s messages & audiences are. T.I. defends the way women are represented in hip-hop because it’s what the audience demands. It’s not productive to have this debate about Tyler when there’s a gulf between his audience and his lyrics (although it has been argued that they’re closer than it at first appears), particularly when Tyler’s themes are distanced (very obviously) from his messages, exaggerated to the point that it’s really not going to influence anyone. The sexism discussed in the “Hip-Hop vs America” debate is often not as overt as in Tyler’s music, but it comes in a more universal, pervasive form. Mainstream music (and music videos especially) have a tendency to reinforce this form of patriarchy, with one-dimensional depictions of women. On the other hand, Tyler’s records are much weirder, and all of the ultraviolent narratives are framed as lurid, individualist fantasies (albeit with wider implications, informed by patriarchal structures, as I’ll go on to explain).
Tyler’s fans usually deny his sexism and homophobia, as does Tyler, but the homophobia is ignorance, immatury (only as deep as misuse of homophobic slurs – and although the odd ‘no homo’ is a bit unnecessary, it comes across, to me, as fear of being scorned by his friends for his confessional lyrics). I think it’s likely that Tyler will grow out of this. His sexism, on the other hand, is more deeply entrenched. Tyler obviously doesn’t have any sort of desire to actually enact the fantasies of his songs (he also raps about cocaine despite being straight edge, although his sexist attitudes aren’t as simple as his discussion of drugs). But it doesn’t put me off the music entirely, simply because the reasons for his sexism are embedded in his lyrics, and I find this process of experiencing Tyler’s copious confessionalism fascinating.
I don’t want to sound like I’m excusing Tyler’s prejudices, because the tracks on which his misogyny is most prominent, like ‘Transylvania’ and ‘Bitch Suck Dick’, are throwaway and offensive, even on this carefully-constructed context of Goblin. I don’t find them entertaining at all, although I can sort of see why Tyler wrote them as a sort of cathartic exercise. But Tyler has proven himself capable of so much more.
The intros to both Bastard and Goblin are minimal, abstract, barely hip-hop at all, and they’re both entirely self-reflective, six-minute rants directed loosely at “Dr. TC”. Aspects of what makes these songs brilliant recur throughout the albums, but the essence of what I enjoy about Tyler is most condensed in these two tracks. I’d go as far as to say that the albums don’t make sense without these intros, and they’re often ignored in condemnations of Tyler’s music. Tyler is annoyed by this:
It hurts me when people can’t see beyond the first layer. They don’t listen to the word play, or the patterns we use to the song, or the vocabulary we use. They just look at the word ‘sodomise’, or ‘rape’, or ‘bitch’ or some shit, and just go like ‘Oh my god, did you hear what he just said?’ No, did you hear how he said it? The terms he used to say it?
‘Bastard’ immediately frames the moral void of the rest of the album as symptomatic of his father’s absence, as in most verses, Tyler expresses his disgust that his dad left his mother to raise him alone. But he also acknowledges that he’s likely to follow in his dad’s footsteps: ‘My father didn’t give a fuck, so it’s something I inherit’. Bastard is, in my opinion, a deeply psychological record – it’s subtle, but can certainly be experienced as such – and the issue of his father is the crux of Tyler’s conflicts. He’s growing up expected to express a similar disregard for women, and without a positive male role model, the negative aspects of his masculine identity are emphasised.
Goblin begins with a highly metafictional intro, laden with narrative voices, and a direct continuation of Bastard. Whereas ‘Bastard’ laid out the trials and tribulations Tyler had faced so far, ‘Goblin’ continues and is focused on his standing as an artist, as a celebrity. (I’m fascinated by the fact that the first track of Goblin references the success of track two of Goblin.) But tellingly, Tyler is more concerned with being labelled as “horrorcore” than as misogynist. He emphasises the fact that he’s ‘suicide prone’, and far be it from us to chastise someone in this position. Both songs pour out emotion; I won’t go too far into an analysis of them just because I think it’s something to experience for yourself, but the vital thing is that both songs completely alter everything that follows them on the record; fantasies of rape and murder cannot be viewed in the same way when they’re admitted by someone with such mental instabilities.
A useful comparison is the Earl record. Earl Sweatshirt, just 16 when he recorded the record, is an astonishingly adept rapper, his flow is remarkable. He has a way with words that Tyler just can’t match. But the thing is, I can’t enjoy this record for exactly the same reasons many people have said they couldn’t enjoy Tyler’s work, because it completely lacks the self-reflection which keeps me intrigued in Bastard and Goblin. Earl is a very dexterous expression of self-consciously puerile fantasy, and it’s incredibly difficult to listen to without any sort of narrative framing. (Earl seems to be capable of more. Perhaps his time in Samoa will result in him producing something more artistically controlled?)
Tyler is sexist. This, I can’t refute, or quite get past, in his music. The misogynistic fantasies on his records are, as “Tabula Rasae” argues, reflections of ‘the ingrained mindset that women are only alive for the sexual gratification of men, and that a woman, naturally, is sexually inferior and should be confined by the sexual perversions and wants of men’. When Tyler is rejected by women like “Sarah”, his anger is that reality does not align with his unrelenting patriarchal mindset.
Of course, Tyler goes on about how much he hates critical analyses of his music, like this one, no matter how complimentary they are: ‘They don’t get it, cause it’s not made for them / The nigga that’s in the mirror rapping, it’s made for him’. He resents and resists outside influence but plays on it, explicitly references it, and while I was writing this post he tweeted a predictably outlandish, incendiary response to Sara:
Like his music, it’s not to be taken seriously. He must recognise Sara’s feminism and the fact that this response does nothing but piss people off more, but probably posted this just as a way of remaining wilfully ignorant to outside influence. He resents people criticising something that he insists was not designed with an audience in mind (and to be fair, Sara is criticising Tyler’s appraisers).
The first step to maturing a bit would be to take on board such criticism, to recognise his influence, as Tyler both begins to do and avoids on Goblin, because there are so many redeeming qualities in his music. Nitsuh Abebe describes the misogyny and homophobia of OF as an ‘exclusion’. He pinpoints that: ‘the same energy could be summoned up — the same vitality and excitement and in-group camaraderie — without this one specific exclusion‘. OF can, I feel, realise the folly of these exclusions, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how they grow up. It’s scary to think that works as complex and accomplished as the OF releases were made by people younger than me, but in a lot of ways, it’s glaringly obvious.
The wealth of critical responses to Tyler, the Creator is a testimony to his intrigue, and how his messages are so much more complicated than Sara suggests. He’s not, by any stretch, my favourite rapper; in fact I agree with Nitsuh Abebe in that I find the fact that I listen to him so much kind of embarrassing. But there’s a lot of potential here, massive amounts of energy, impeded rather than ruined by its moral corruption.