Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Rap Fantasies

Odd Future Mos Def

Odd Future and Mos Def in New York, circa November, 2010. Photo by Brook Bobbins.

For the past two weeks I’ve been participating in the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, which has been a ridiculously rewarding, fun, educational experience. I’ve met so many diverse and talented performers, composers, and industry professionals. There will be more blogs to come about this in the future, but for now I want to talk about the music that’s been occupying my commute to and from Lincoln Center.  It’s been a few years since I listened to underground rap and I figured these train rides would be a good time to catch up on hot albums from the past year or so. Specifically, I’ve been listening to Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, Big K.R.I.T.’s 4Eva N A Day, as well as Return Of 4Eva, Frank Ocean’s new album Channel ORANGE, and Tyler the Creator’s Goblin. I think these albums signify a very interesting direction rap is taking that is unconcerned with commercial appeal or catchy hooks, particularly the Odd Future stuff. In this blog, I’d like to focus on Goblin.

OK, nothing new here, just another white hipster writing about Odd Future. If Tyler gets one thing across in Goblin it’s just how much he hates white hipsters writing about him on the internet (in the title track he says “Message boards are on my dick…they want to critique everything that we, Wolf Gang, have ever released”). My first introduction to Tyler was about a year ago, through articles on lesbian blogs like afterellen and autostraddle discussing Sara Quin’s (of Tegan and Sara) critique of his over-extensive use of the word “faggot.” That was, understandably, a very big turn off, so it wasn’t until the recent coming out of  fellow Odd Future member Frank Ocean, and Tyler’s subsequent twitter support of his friend, that I decided to give his stuff a second listen. Granted, saying demeaning things about women and the queer community is a shitty thing to do. In fact, my girlfriend says the interesting musical things Odd Future does are totally undermined by their less-than-critical pattern of queer-bashing and lady-bashing. I think that’s totally valid, but I found that, even though his lyrics are problematic, there is some undeniably cool stuff going on.

My interpretation of Tyler’s lyrics is that he’s performing a Spank Rock-type exaggeration of the entitled male rap persona, as a technique of critiquing the industry standards of radio-friendly hip hop artists like Bruno Mars and B.o.B., who he lashes into on the popular single “Yonkers:” “I’ll crash that fucking airplane at that faggot nigga B.oB. is in/ and stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus.” In fact, sometimes he makes outright critiques of misogynistic behavior, such as the theatrical “shooting” of the overly enthusiastic Jasper in the end of “Bitches Suck Dick,” for saying things like “punch a bitch in her mouth just for talking shit.” The shooting is largely built up to by exploring the ways that the character of “Tyler” — who spends the album confessing his angry insecurities (largely due to being a young star who misses his mother) to the character of his “therapist” — is exposed to drugs and a fear of mental disorder that leads him to gun violence. Clearly I’m brushing over these plot points but it’s because I largely want to focus in on two phrases from verses in the final track, “Golden.” Tyler refers to himself creating a disturbed musical landscape as a “Charbroiled nigger on these dark beats,” and on multiple occasions also characterizes himself as a devil, or even a demon: “I’m not even human, I’m a body shaped demon.”

I can’t think of a better phrase than “dark beats” to describe the musical content of Goblin. The music is exceedingly minimal (every song only consists of a couple of layers of sound), takes several surprising turns (though beats stay in a regular 4/4 time signature for the most part, patterns are seldom repeated the same way for long), and is dissonant as fuck. Most rap songs can be boiled down to a few chords or notes, and the chords and notes that Tyler’s songs boil down to (if they do at all, because several songs, such as “Goblin” and “Yonkers,” are actually non-pitched), include the most dissonant of intervals: minor seconds, major sevenths, and tritones. Tritones were once called the “diabolus in music,” the “devil in music.” When Tyler paints himself as a demon, or as a caricature of the rap devil, he’s doing it on multiple levels. Lyrically and musically.

The most obvious place to start to make this point is with the song “Sandwitches,” which features a sparse four-note opening filled with extremely dissonant intervals. This pitch combination then goes on to comprise the main beat of the rest of the song:

Sandwitches

Opening notes of “Sandwitches”

Another place one can see this use of dissonant intervals is in “Bitches Suck Dick,” where the notes that comprise the beat for the verses are also a minor second apart:

"Bitches Suck Dick" verse

Notes from verses of “Bitches Suck Dick”

Tyler’s music also never features simple major chords. They’re always minor, augmented, or diminished, and always full of dissonant ornamental tones like major sevenths or ninths (which are usually jazz embellishments, but here they just add to the static, non-hierarchical, non-moving quality of the songs). For example, the chords in “Window” are all minor, are all a major/minor second apart, all feature added 9th intervals, and are all in second inversion. This harmonic structure is very similar to that of Tyler’s second single from the album, “She,” which is also based around this embellished Eb minor chord. In addition, “Window” is weirdly microtonal. I think the tonic they’re trying to establish is Bb but in reality it’s somewhere in between Bb and B.

Chords for "Window"

Chords for “Window”

I wouldn’t call myself an expert on rap, but I feel pretty confident that the dissonant musical elements Tyler is employing are fairly unique to Odd Future. Even Kanye and CunninLynguist (the two artists that I feel are the most likely predecessors of this style — Kanye for his ruthless confessional insecurity and CunninLynguists for their dark concept album A Piece of Strange) keep it pretty tonal and traditional with their beats. These are just a few examples of songs from Goblin that I felt like exploring, but it would be interesting to see somebody take the analysis further. If this breakdown of the traditional tonal structures of rap is going to pan out anywhere near the way that it did in the 20th century of classical music, I am very curious and excited to see where it leads.

I’d love to read your feedback on this article. Please post your ideas in the comment section below! Also, from now on, I’ll be blogging regularly every other Saturday. So expect a the next post on Saturday, August 25th!

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