And just when you thought that the demands of the market meant that there was no place for real life mavericks in music anymore, we got Odd Future. The nerdiest, most foul-mouthed kids on the block, they’re not exactly clean cut commercial prospects. And just when you thought that hip-hop couldn’t get over the controversial peaks of its own past — the guns, the bitches, the bling, The Dreaded ‘N’ Word — we got Odd Future. They rasp and giggle through ultraviolent verses full of misogynistic rape fantasies and mega bigoted homophobia. What are our stuffiest or most earnest cultural critics gonna make of this madness? And just when you thought that the only people who could really get away with that sort of thing were Joycean emcee Lil’ Wayne, thinking man’s chauvinist The-Dream, or loveably self-loathing Kanye, we got Odd Future. Their humour is more demented than that of Dr. Octagon or Gravediggaz. The beats and bleeps of their tracks are weirder than those of the Antipop Consortium. Theirs is a world of pure nihilism and fragmented nightmares, and head honcho Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin documents that ethos best.
At over an hour in length, Goblin covers a lot of stylistic and lyrical ground in the course of its 15 tracks. It goes from deliberately difficult ramblings (“Goblin”, the seven-minute rant “Radicals”) to warped space junk (“Yonkers”, “Sandwitches”). But, contrary to what you might have heard, Goblin is no frothing murderous diatribe. Instead, it’s the transcript of Tyler’s zany attempt at performing self-psychoanalysis, written in self-defeating jottings and absurd cyphers. It isn’t something that we can qualify according to the good music/bad music binary. We can’t come up with a neat little judgement about it. Hell, it’s difficult to come to any sort of comprehensive description of it; we can’t realistically ponder over all the nervy unconscious details or chop through the jungle of ideas with our critical machetes. But maybe that’s just what Tyler wants. After all, what we really find on Goblin is a document of Tyler, The Creator’s general sense of confusion and neurosis and insecurity. And we can all relate to that, right?
Indeed, Tyler clearly does a whole lot of thinking, and Goblin sounds like a dog-eared notebook full of impenetrable poetry and doodles of vaginal skulls on fire. He thinks up bizarre monstrous creatures, like the rapacious fish-man creature on “Fish”, or his own schizofeline alter-ego on “Tron Cat”, before reverting to proper horror conventions on “Transylvania” and “Nightmare”. He also does a lot of thinking through the medium of his own genitals, as evidenced on lusty R&B crooner “She”, the heart on sleeve sponsored self-doubt of “Her”, and the charming “Bitch Suck Dick”.
Tyler does a lot of thinking about himself, too. You can’t ever really be sure if what he’s saying qualifies as rigorous self-analysis or intense, public self-berating. The album is framed by “Goblin” and “Golden”, two tracks which replace the call-and-response crowd interaction of early hip-hop with the talk-and-chin-stroke relationship of the psychiatrist’s couch. Here, Tyler voices a pitched-down version of his own therapist. He’s present throughout the album, interjecting with oddly non-judgmental qualifications of Tyler’s own lyrics, acting out our own startled reactions to the extremity of some of what he says, encouraging him out of some of his more despairing turns. It’s pretty harrowing. But, then again, Goblin is a harrowing album.
The great big glaring problem with Goblin is that it never once demands that the listener choose to like it, love it, or lump it because of what Tyler has intended it to be. Instead, it’s left to the ears of the beholder, and we’re supposed to swim through all the media drool so we can make up our own minds about it. Indeed, the media are the main problem with any attempt to make a critical judgement about Goblin. On the one hand, we ask whether it is as bilious as a million slobbering magazine articles would have us believe: is it really a mess of incitements to rape, pillage and murder some unspecified set of victims? On the other hand, you’re gonna hear gleeful apologies for these supposed crimes from exactly the same sources. And yes, inevitably the act of listening to an album is framed by its own criticism and commentary. But rarely does such commentary consist of such tedious sensationalism. It’s that sort of shameful thing that would prevent us from seeing Goblin for what it really is: a massive spoonful of marvelous hip-hop medicine, of the most unnerving, hyperreal humour you may well ever hear.