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Can OFWGKTA See the Future?

tyler coachella 2015 @ www.JPLimeProductions.comTyler, the Creator had himself a blast this past weekend, hitting the stage for the second weekend of Coachella with some of his Odd Future “bandmates”. Adding to a colorful oversized bedroom stage set that included the above racecar patterned in wild, silly colors, Tyler made headlines by berating Kendell Jenner and other audience members of the high-priced VIP section.

It turns out the two are actually friends, playing a game of Twitter make-up after the show, but that doesn’t serve to dilute his remarks any. In the month prior to the Coachella Music Festival, the hip-hop collective known as Odd Future saw the release of its leader’s fourth album Cherry Bomb as well as the return of Earl Sweatshirt with his third (second on a major label), I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. In total since 2008 the collective has released 19 projects, with smaller groups and duos inside the main collective, continuing to rise in popularity despite an underground attitude. So what is it that Tyler and Odd Future have been doing right to contribute to their success?

They burst onto the scene with a certain sensibility – indie, alternative, nerdy, horrorcore, however you want to label it – and haven’t yet changed that for anyone. Their youth is helpful in this respect, feeding a bold brashness and a desire to not give a fuck about anyone’s opinions outside of OF. That stubbornness is key to creating the cult following that has earned them their success. Part Beastie Boys, part Wu-Tang, with some Louis C.K., Hannibal Burress, Frank Zappa, Wes Anderson, Andy Kaufman thrown in for good balance- this is what one might imagine the crew is dumping into the blender and sucking down at the beginning of the “EARL” video. There is an identity to the OF brand and while it may be difficult to pinpoint, it is certainly their own. Their live show is a large contributing factor, which feels more punk rock than underground Hip Hop, complete with moshing, frequent stage-diving, berating the audience (see above), screaming vocals, and smashing shit. But to call them punk rap is too simple. There is an element of nerdy, Alternative Rap, of bright colors and offbeat senses of humor, of saying “Fuck You but not just fuck you, there’s more to it than that”. I was first struck by Tyler’s strong PR persona when I saw a video of him at this year’s ReCode tech conference. I had read plenty about and from him but hadn’t yet seen him in interview format. What comes across when you see him in this context, perhaps even stronger than his ambition, is his confidence as he speaks about what’s coming next for OF and the music industry at large. Also worth checking out is his recent interview with Tavis Smiley, where he talks about some musical influences and the plethora of entrepreneurial avenues he’ll soon be exploring:

Everything, I’m making everything. Name something and I bet you I’ll make it… Clothes, furniture, a magazine, music, I’ma start a band next year… I’ma do kitchen stuff, I’m working on cars… I hope Bic sees this, I’m trying to do some things with their markers… I wanna design the inside of the spaceship furniture…

Tyler’s most recent innovation is the Golf Media App, which allows him to stream music and other content directly to his fans. That unfiltered line of communication has been a defining characteristic of OF’s success, beginning with the early days of the Tumblr account where they’ve released more than a dozen free mixtapes and albums directly to their fans. Tyler has said Golf Media is “basically [his] brain in one place. It does just about everything except cure asthma” and each subscription comes with a free copy of the also brand new Golf Magazine. The early word was that it had more first day app subscribers than TIDAL, recently launched by Jay-Z and others. How much of OF’s music will be filtered through the app remains to be seen and is dependent on their subscription growth, but the boy is on his grind.

But this all seems to be a lot of talk about Tyler, as opposed to the Odd Future gang as a whole. Is this indicative of something?

There has certainly been plenty of attention paid to Earl Sweatshirt, his two-year absence prior to Doris and his role as possibly OF’s best emcee as he returns with I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Seemingly pegged as the second-in-command, many consider Earl to be the collective’s best pure lyricist. His style is sharp and continuous, Nas but with less structure. I read one article about him where I learned the word “logorrhea”. “Dyspeptic logorrhea”, was the phrase in fact, applied in complimentary fashion to Earl’s run-on style. It makes it so you might miss some of his cleverest bars, if there were more to be distracted by on the tracks.

earl sweatshirt 2The emcee dropped his debut album EARL in 2010, an album produced almost entirely by Tyler and released independently through the group’s Tumblr account, to widespread critical acclaim. The video for the title song quickly went viral, visually breaking the teen emcee and his skater-punk Hip Hop crew through to a wide audience and currently has over 13M views on Youtube. But in the two years following the album’s release Earl was noticeably absent from OF recordings and events (aside from the “Free Earl” campaign) and it would later surface that his mother had sent him to the Coral Reef Academy in Samoa, a facility for at-risk boys. When he returned anticipation was high, both among his fans and his bandmates. Instead of choosing to sign with the Odd Future Records label that had been created in 2011 during his hiatus, Earl opted to form his own imprint, Tan Cressida, still under the Columbia umbrella in order to remain a close part of OF. Speculation on a rift was quickly quelled, and the emcee’s attention is reported to be turning next to an Earl-Tyler collaboration album.

As Tyler continues his efforts to expand into every platform imaginable, the picture of the Odd Future business plan comes into even clearer focus: give away the music largely for free and sell the brand, making their money off merchandise and other enterprises (like Golf Media). And while this approach is both enviable in its independence and just plain brilliant in approach, does it forecast long-term success or strong, temporary hype? Will Tyler be able to grow his Golf subscription base big enough to supplant other streaming outlets for his and their music? And does his branching out work to continue the collective’s success or push him forward at the expense of the group’s less-contributing members? Has he built an engine for the group’s success or for his own?

The latest releases from Tyler and Earl lend to the OF picture maturity and development, but how much, and development for the crew as a whole or for the two artists as individuals? Both are excellent works, though they could not feel more different. Tyler’s Cherry Bomb is an explosive record with sudden jumps and smooth bouts that I would recommend listening to straight through. It represents an escalation in profile for the crew’s leader, with features from Kanye and Lil Wayne and musical derivations from Andre 3000 and friend, now-collaborator, and chief influence Pharrell. There is also a TPAB-esque underlying “Find your Wings” mantra that pervades the album. Earl’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is a low-toned (nearly monotone, even) soundscape that puts the artist’s lyrical acuity on full display. It is nearly entirely self-produced with a sensibility of simplicity that matches the album’s cover.  For Earl himself, it feels like his most honest and real work, a new beginning:

…I feel like this is my first album. This is the first thing that I’ve said that I fully stand behind, like the good and the bad of it. I’ve never been behind myself this much.

It was with Earl’s major label debut Doris that I was introduced to the Odd Future gang and as I probed into their existing collective catalog I became no less confused. I was drawn but didn’t have a full grasp of the style, of the beauty in their punk rock mentality. Here in 2015 the Wolf Gang seems to be truly catching their stride, making headlines as Hip Hop’s most undefined property while finding new, innovative methods for success in a changing music industry. The question that remains is whether OFWGKTA will make their greatest impact as a crew or as a vehicle for the careers of their two biggest stars.

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