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Right off you should know this is a piece about hip-hop, tweeting, and a rap artist that has already become far too over-analyzed by online writers (like me!). It’s also about the changing place of documentary film, so it’s not totally off the wall.
With that said, if you’re not keeping up with the latest in cutting edge, over-analyzed hip hop acts then you may not be familiar with Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All and the group’s leader, Tyler the Creator. The details of their story –which is still currently a short one– are extremely interesting and I’m not going to rob you of the opportunity to dig into the FREE EARL saga, Tyler’s infatuation with Justin Bieber, and all of the other bizarre shit that makes Odd Future so goddamn fun to keep up with.
To sum it up though, essentially there is a scattered collective of very young rappers/artists/skaters led by the insanely talent Tyler, and together they’re known as OFWGKTA. Their live shows are insane punk rock spectacles filled with blood, vomit, and sweat, and collectively their rap covers a lot of styles. But Tyler’s work/antics have long nabbed the spotlight for being the core of the group’s sound and, frankly, because it’s the best stuff. The music gets shoved into a lot of dumb genre boxes, and words like “grungy,” “violent,” “witty,” “grotesque,” “misogynistic,” “shocking,” “dumb,” “smart,” and “funny” have gotten tossed around a lot in the thousands of blog posts and reviews that have examined Odd Future’s work in the past few months. We’ll get to why I’m joining that great white chorus soon. I’m not going to try and explain if this shit is art or why it’s valuable though… I’ll leave that to those that decide to dig into it. At the end of the day I think too many are trying to intellectually call what cultural influence this stuff will or should have, and have overlooked the simple fact that people enjoy listening to it because it’s mentally stimulating and sounds good.
The comparison may seem shallow and worthy of an eye-roll, but ultimately Tyler’s body of work so far resembles something of a DIY late-90s Eminem. Calling it “horrorcore” is grossly inaccurate (and pisses Tyler off) because like the best of Slim Shady, a very dark and inherently juvenile sense of humor lingers and constantly pokes holes in all the melodrama, while somehow making the violence seem even ickier. Tyler (and Odd Future in general) own the influence, and for every explicit reference there are three other, more subtle allusions in the same song. Most importantly, there’s also the same metatextual awareness of his critics, the fickle nature of his fans, and the contradictions of his own act smeared all over his songs, as if Tyler is simultaneously rapping and listening to his own rap along with the listener. There are other musical influences for sure (the composing definitely comes from a very different place) but there’s an eery similarity with the controversy and hype that has developed, to what I remember seeing on MTV in 2000 during the lead up to the Marshall Mathers LP.
So what makes this all relevant?
I’ve been watching the Odd Future story progress for many months now as they made their first TV appearance, attended SXSW, sold out shows, and Tyler specifically worked towards releasing his first commercial solo album. During this whole narrative, the filmmaker in me was just hoping, praying, and crossing my fingers so hard my bones hurt that some lucky son of a bitch with a camera was pointing it at all of this with an eye towards a documentary. Yesterday –the day that Tyler’s album GOBLIN finally dropped– I decided I’d never need to see that documentary.
You see, for months Tyler has been an active user of twitter, and by active I mean he’s tweeted 18,000 times in less than a year. Nearly 11,000 of those tweets have posted since February, which (seriously) means he’s been busting out a tweet every 10 waking minutes or so for a couple of months now. If it doesn’t leave you shaking your head, that probably inspires some assumptions about Tyler’s youth and narcissism (which are valid to some degree), but it’s most interesting to interpret this as Tyler essentially plugging his phone somewhere into his brain stem so that we can literally think along with him, 140 characters at a time. The tweets are so frequent, so unedited, so instinctual that at this point following along with them in real time has become a uniquely fascinating study in observing a troubled artist’s rise to fame, and riding some vicarious facsimile of that same emotional roller coaster. It’s a story that’s been told a million different ways in a million different mediums (movies, books, tabloids, sewing circles), but even including all of the bizarre self-documentation art-video projects of the last few decades, never before have we had such an unabridged look into an artist’s arc.
Like with any kind of documentation there is a Schrodinger’s (tron)Cat scenario where the very act of recording these thoughts and events changes them. Of course Tyler is writing these tweets for his nearly 200k followers, but again, the frequency of his output and the compulsive manner in which he does it means that we are watching a reasonably unfiltered stream of what’s going on in Tyler’s head (and bathroom: he notes virtually every time he takes a shit or jacks off). You’d have to do a ‘replace all’ on the “faggots” and “fucks” to publish it, but this is very much a firehose of emotional and mental expression worthy of attention. He documents his fleeting bursts of depression and joy with equal frequency, notes when he gets goosebumps meeting someone or gets angry reading a nasty review. Tweets ring out every time he comes up with a dumb joke, loses a shoe, or sees himself on TV. Long nonsensical strings of one-word tweets will clog his stream in a forced silly joke, and then be immediately punctuated by a touching bit of honesty. Like any person, his feelings are often contradictory or just don’t make any sense- can we not all relate to that?
Naturally there’s a fair amount of self-promotion, but it’s all mixed in with a constantly churning reprocessing of his own jokes and catchphrases. The familiar cry of “WOLF GANG!” long-ago morphed into the more frequently used “GOLF WANG!,” and more than just being an in-joke twitter meme, the changeup has infected Tyler’s first album and is used more than the original, undercutting the group’s catchphrases before they’re even become established. That kind of thing happens with music groups all the time, but usually it takes four or five albums. Now we’re witnessing that same kind of progression at a hyper-accelerated, internet-fueled pace, but focused on an actually interesting artist rather than someone like Rebecca Black. It’s no wonder Tyler keeps wondering aloud if he’ll be a coked out nobody in a year. More than any other celebrity with a twitter account I’ve ever seen, Tyler seems to be truly aware of his spotlight and the perception of himself that’s out there, and he’s trying to process and understand it the same we are, and the same way the media is.
So let’s bring this back around to cinema. The last documentary I really enjoyed was Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which had wonderful access to the comedian at a very important time in his life, and not only did it document a very cool endeavor, it captured some of Conan’s core values and motivations. It gave me insight into him that I would never have gotten from his act or from interviews, because someone was there with a camera when the armor came off, so to speak. These are moments and facial expressions that had to be witnessed, captured visually, not told. While Conan is a savvy social networker as well as an avid tweeter and has exploited it to unprecedented success, it’s still a part of his act (which functions based on a level of emotional honesty, but it’s engineered all the same). It’s clear that a cameraman lurking in the corner of the room was still the surest route to digging that deeply into his mind and soul. That’s not the case with Tyler, who is among the first culture-shifting artists to be younger than the internet in its current form. For all practical points and purposes, the internet has been an omnipotent presence across the world for his entire life, and twitter as a concept has been written into his perception of communication with the wider world. Maybe he can think back to a time before the internet was ever-present, but there’s no denying that he’s been creatively shaped from the start with the internet in the background. This is a big change, and could very mark the drawing of a subtle line between those that grew up before and those that grew up after. How will this affect art and the artists who generate it? That remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that it’s a paradigm shift unlike any other.
I have a feeling we’ll start seeing more of this with actors, musicians, and other young celebrities that become cultural phenomenons, as the tide finally turns so that all of culture is being generated by a generation of post-internet cyborgs. I don’t use that word lightly, and I certainly consider myself of that generation (I’m barely three years older than Tyler). It would be impossible to deny that most of my memories and adult development have had whatever worldly internet hive-consciousness affecting them at some level- shit I’ll carry with me forever. I’m still not sure which side of the generational line I’m on, in terms of knowing what it’s like to not be incessantly connected, but I can definitely see that kids even a touch younger than me are firmly plugged in. They’ll never understand the concept of solitude the way human have before. Perhaps a traditional documentary could capture some slice of this feeling and these ideas, but I don’t know that it could match the months-long piece of inadvertent performance art that @fucktyler represents, and it all came to a big crashing (temporary) conclusion yesterday when GOBLIN hit iTunes.
I’m not going to review the album, but I’ll say that I pretty much love it. Beyond all the controversy and attempts to find the perfect words to characterize it at as proto-punk-rock-grimegrunge-shock-rap (or whatever it is), it just sounds good. I could be combative with the album, or try and control it by outsmarting the material or its maker, but I’m just happy that it’s satisfying to listen to. It makes those neck hairs stand up at some of the brilliant shifts in energy and mayhem. It’s also a punctuation mark on the first plateau of this Odd Future saga- the conclusion of 18,000 tweets and hundreds of blog posts and dozens of interviews. Taken all together, it’s something very new.
So would I watch a documentary about Odd Future? Of course I would. They’re fun kids to watch break shit, swear profusely and then turn around and be effortlessly brilliant (see the Funny Or Die video below). But any insight I could gather from the images of a documentary have already been undercut by the frighteningly personal, real-time window into the mind of Tyler Okonma, and the story it has created around and within him and his music. Two hours of reading his stream in order* is as artistically affecting an experience as any documentary I could foresee being produced. As a film lover and a “critic,” I don’t quite know what to make of that…
Have I pulled something out of nothing, or is this something you’ve spotted elsewhere? I’d love to know your thoughts on the subject, and if you’re just now hearing about Odd Future let me know what you think about them.
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*This required me to clamp down the “page down” button on my keyboard and let twitter infinity scroll down the @fucktyler page for about 25 minutes. Research!
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