I wanted to, nay did, write a review of Tyler, the Creator's new album Goblin. It was a scathing piece, focusing on the Odd Future head honcho's inability to go a complete sentence without uttering a misogynist, anti-homosexual phrase, or a pointless, virulent obscenity. I picked at his repulsive depictions of rape and beating of women, his violent retelling about a dream of murdering Bruno Mars and how often self-loathing seeps into the music as Tyler trashes his own worst enemy - himself. I even heeded his caveat; I listened (carefully) before I wrote anything about his music, before I dismissed it as "horrorcore" or as potentially dangerous music.
I had this review ready to send to the Smile Politely editors when Sara Quin and GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) decided to make all of those points for me.
Then something else happened: Common got invited to the White House. Suddenly, Bill O'Reilly was willing to put his implicit racism in the spotlight by debating Jon Stewart on why this was a terrible idea. Suddenly, rap was under attack, and not the music of a man-child advocating rape and murder, but instead the lyrics of a poetic rapper were being scrutinized.
Rap has so long been criticized by outsiders as incendiary, or disrespectful, or music for "thugs," as Karl Rove described Common. This argument is not entirely unfounded; N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police" has provided enough cannon fodder for critics thus far, and will continue to be used in arguments for at least another decade.
Of course, these critics fail to recognize the cultural critique in the lyrics, instead focusing on (what appears to be) a call to violence against authority. Common's lyrics in the song "A Letter to the Law" drew the same criticism for what the right-wing bloggerati described as threats against the police and former president George W. Bush. In fact, Common was speaking about the challenge and contradictions of police/community relations in cities across America.
This is where the issue with his invitation to the White House stems from, natch. Yet, as many commentators neglect to mention, he is not the first (nor will he be the last) potentially controversial artist to be invited to an event at the White House. The most notable of these controversial artists may be Bob Dylan.
Dylan's music, most notably "The Times They Are a-Changin,'" spoke for civil justice and gave a voice to the injustice in the world the same way Common's does. Dylan was invited to the White House and did not draw the ire of contemporary commentators the way Common did. Perhaps this is due to the zeal and enthusiastic euphemism employed by rappers to make a social statement, but is that not a reflection of our society's shrinking attention span and need for more direct messages?
That same wandering attention span has created the constant need for content in a 24-hour news cycle. And, unfortunately, it is easy to pick out selected passages of nearly anything and create a commentary (generally a negative one) for a "news" segment. Tyler will (good lord, I hope I never regret saying this) never receive an invitation to meet or perform for the President. But if the verses from Common's discography are ripe for critique and outrage, then imagine how the lyrics of Tyler, the Creator are going to be construed by a talking head making a point about violence in music.
To anyone who criticizes his music for its excessive-to-a-fault violence, sadism and radically absurd content, Tyler has the constant rebuttal that his music is not for listeners to take seriously. Speaking of his critics, he told The New York Times: "They don't know me; they don't get it ... Weren't they 18 years old at some point, just having fun?"
While Tyler may be just having fun on Goblin, what he has created is dangerous. It is dangerous because it has become such an in vogue topic to write about. The New York Times spent enough time with Tyler to create a roughly 2,000-word profile. The New Yorker just posted an 8,000-word article about his cohort, Earl Sweatshirt, who has taken exile in Samoa. This high profile attention draws the attention of a lot of people, some not as thoughtful as others.
Odd Future is no longer just some alternative rap group making mixtapes and releasing them for free via the Internet. Goblin was released on XL Records; Sony imprint RED has distribution rights to all future OFWGKTA work. With this kind of mainstream success and attention from large, intellectual media outlets will come a major backlash to the content of their music from the mass media factions who cannot simply look past the lyrical content.Instead of using a cultural critique couched in obscene language when criticizing rap music, pundits will now turn to the verses of Odd Future to prove a point. "Fuck tha Police" will be replaced by Tyler's inane verses about rape and murder: "Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome / You gotta fuckin' deathwish? I'm a genie it'll get done." (From "Tron Cat" on Goblin)
With Tyler there is no commentary, just more fuel for the fire against rap music because of its violence and poor messages. And that is dangerous, because Tyler is threatening the credibility of the art people like Common make with his pointless drivel. The difference between N.W.A. and Tyler is not fine, between Tyler and Common the difference is more striking. Yet, at a time when we should be celebrating the fact that an artist like Common has been invited to attend an event at the White House, we are instead watching the punditry misconstrue his commentary for their own cause.
When (not if) the Fox News and CNN's of the world report on the violent nature of Odd Future music, like Goblin, rap music will once again come under attack. Who will stand up for rap then? Will there be a Jon Stewart to defend the artists? My guess is that there will not, because Tyler's lyrics have no intrinsic value.