Over a decade after Odd Future permanently altered the rap landscape, the group’s debut album/mixtape has mostly aged poorly even as it captures an impossible crossroads between creativity and youthful abandon.
The one assuagement for the torture of adolescence is often what makes the art associated with it so beautiful; it doesn’t last forever. In the music world, it’s one significant reason why we romanticize youth. So many of music’s most enduring moments come from people sustained by gifts endowed from young adulthood: namely, a nascent sense of agency and the fickle, irrepressible life force that drives it. The emphasis, however, rests on “romanticize”. Even those of us lucky enough to experience the highlights of adolescence still live tumultuous temporary existences, likely without the self-awareness necessary to appreciate just how fast those moments may pass.
Like every punk group before them, Odd Future weren’t built to last. You can’t carry the energy they demonstrated at their peak, raging en masse at self-curated festivals and buoyed by seas of moshing teenagers, even into your late 20s. Similarly, the ideas on which they raged were just as destined for ephemerality. Gleeful offensiveness only works if you’re internally shielded from the consequences of your words, and that’s harder to do as your sense of empathy matures. The easy camaraderie of group friendship also gets more difficult as that same maturity draws you towards committed relationships and family building, coinciding with the fading novelty of random sex.
Nowadays, ask the average adult American, and they likely won’t recall Odd Future, even though the national hand-wringing over the blatant misogyny and homophobia embedded in their music did bring them to momentary infamy in the early 2010s. But they likely will have heard of some of the artists that once comprised the group. Tyler, the Creator grew up, came out, and blossomed into a flower boy. Frank Ocean grew up, came out, and changed R&B forever. Earl Sweatshirt, meanwhile, grew up; the rough, rancorous version of horrorcore he spat at 16 he’s now refined across a slew of fantastic albums bridging the gaps between the mainstream and the underground. The common thread between these people is that they eventually transcended the group’s juvenescent limitations. They and everyone else, regardless of the level of success they managed to achieve since seem overall hesitant to revisit the material.
Part of that may be because of how badly some of the songs on The OF Tape Vol. 2 have aged (more on that later). But another part of it may be that, like any teenage friend group, distance has taken a toll. Odd Future’s most alluring aspect, which has secured their legacy, was how they made their internal dynamic part of the product in ways that only modern technology could allow. In an era where the most generous public figures among us pass out pieces of themselves in perpetuity, it’s easy to forget that when Odd Future were constantly uploading pictures and videos to Tumblr of themselves just fooling around, no one else was doing it. Their approach to PR lined up serendipitously with the growing ubiquity of social media among teenagers and young adults. That would also line up with the burgeoning phenomenon of Internet-based parasocial relationships.
The impact of the group’s efforts can’t be understated. It’s been acknowledged before: Soulja Boy may have pioneered the independent-rapper-as-entrepreneur, and Lil B may have altered our perception of prolificacy, but Odd Future’s breach of the artistic looking glass inspired an entire generation of young upstarts looking to bypass the traditional confines of the industry, a force that only ever proved parasitic for most Black artists. Their unceasing efforts to self-promote the dense culture they fostered around them, the festivals they curated, their dedication to interweaving fashion and multimedia into their image, and how they somehow circumvented the brand of self-consciousness typical to their mean age. On these merits, the group’s fingerprints show up all over today’s hip-hop environment.
There’s no better evidence of Odd Future at their height than the music video for “Oldie”, which remains one of hip-hop’s finest visual feats. On it, you get a glimpse – rare for some, but certainly not for them – of the process behind their power. There’s a discernible blueprint for the video, one that would see them interlaced with jump cuts and contrived revelry that would likely make it interchangeable with one from any other rap act. But Tyler actively dismantles the plan, ordering one of the cameras to stay on the group for ten minutes as each feature pops in and out to say their piece. Whatever coordination is present between them feels conjured out of thin air. Part of the live audio is left layered over the song, capturing the group’s live response to the rigor of the shoot. What might be cut out of a traditional final product, like the moments where the group breaks to joke around or doesn’t even pretend to lip-sync, are also left in whole. Together it’s a stunning document of inner-band chemistry, full of candid laughs and sharpened by a collective focus, that would not be possible without the ability to share it independently on the Internet.
“Oldie” remains the strongest song on the tape and not just because of its video. Ten minutes is an eternity for any song shooting for the charts, but not a second is wasted because each of its verses forms its own personal best. Tyler’s bookends boast his most concise wordplay, while Domo Genesis, who overall owns the record alongside Hodgy Beats, spits corkscrewed lines over what would typically be well-trodden tropes. After years of radio silence, Earl Sweatshirt’s return to the mic represents the tape’s greatest moment, as he spends a triumphant two minutes reminding us of his surrealist lyrical mastery. But it’s the way each verse is set up that gives the song its hidden power. Notice how Frank Ocean’s breezy laconic feature chills the mood until a hilariously terrible line by class clown Jasper sets Earl up for his spike, or how Left Brain’s relatively simple drawl on weed and women is closed in by Domo and Hodgy’s fleet-footed bars.
If nostalgia is at play now after an entire decade (as it is, poignantly, on Ocean’s “White”), we could take “Oldie”, its video, and the comparative success of Odd Future’s biggest players and leave most everything else behind. But we’re covering an album here, and regrettably, there’s a great deal on The OF Tape Vol. 2 that feels better left in the past. You could potentially count the tape’s truly enduring tracks on one hand. It’s no coincidence that Ocean is on most of them. There’s “Oldie”, “White”, and the tender “Analog 2”, which bears a formula Tyler would later perfect on his late 2010s works. “Rella’s” beat is grimy in a comforting way, and “Forest Green” is Mike G’s singular moment even as it brings to mind Wiz Khalifa’s verdant schtick.
Everything else feels either tired in proximity to the last few years of Soundcloud rap – a field that, to be fair, Odd Future helped sow – or weighed down by the group’s usual derogatory slings. Hodgy Beats and Domo Genesis, more than any other members, take over the tape in featuring on a full two-thirds of its songs. While they each provide some of their best material across their careers, the material mainly feels stale. On “Bitches”, they volley bars with zeal, but the energy is the tracks’ only significant component. The same goes with “50”, where Hodgy and Left Brain, credited as MellowHype, rage unsteadily. It doesn’t help that they’re backed by a bevy of undercooked beats, which once carried a sense of underdog charm but wilt in a retrospective light.
Elsewhere, those who would later release far more laudable works are still audibly developing their craft here. For the way his presence lifts the tape every time it surfaces, Ocean is still honing his songwriting ability: note how his short refrain on “Snow White” doesn’t layer properly over the track’s chords and ends on a sour note. Likewise, the Internet‘s sole contribution is lightyears away from what they would eventually conjure on 2015’s GRAMMY-nominated Ego Death. Until its more even-keeled conclusion, “Ya Know” coasts on a tepid drum beat and a series of off-kilter chords that don’t mesh well with Matt Martians’ vocals. It’s also repellent content-wise: a tale of drunken lothario behavior displaying neither the levity nor satire required to dampen its creepiness.
“Ya Know” punctuates a particular aspect of the tape the group’s members seem eager to leave behind: the rampant misogyny laced into what feels like every moment. There’s the usual handful of cheap racist and homophobic shots taken because that was always Odd Future’s MO, but the misogyny feels explicitly amped up to a maximum. If we’re going on pure numbers, the word “bitch” is uttered roughly 120 times over the hour, and while not all of those utterances are pointed, it doesn’t help when a handful of songs here bear titles are. “Real Bitch” is particularly egregious, as Hodgy, Domo, and young upstart Taco run down a laundry list of preferred qualities in a mate as if dictating a nice guy’s stream of consciousness. It’s all played for laughs – albeit the kind that might regularly surface on r/im14andthisisfunny. However, a decade after the shock factor has died away, the gang’s one-note focus on cheap hits reads boring at best, unconscionable at worst, and cringe-worthy most everywhere else.
Time, it turns out, has not been kind to Tyler’s parts. Here as on Bastard and Goblin, he plays the raucous ringleader, leaning fully into offending as many people as he can think of while making a meal out of the splashy headlines of the day. Listening back now, his “spot the reference” verses pull us back into the hot topics of the early 2010s, and even for the era, some of their inclusions feel shoehorned in. Remember Casey Anthony? That Sean Kingston jet ski accident? Did you know Hodgy Beats ghostwrote for Bow Wow, and how much does it matter now?
Convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky shows up on two different songs, each reference dropped like a supposed bomb but instead representative of Tyler’s rare lack of imagination. Similar to Eminem‘s celebrity obsessions on The Marshall Mathers LP, these references were fated to be infirm, notable now only for the spindly wordplay forming their scaffolding. With the additional knowledge of how Tyler has outgrown his more gremlin-like impulses, he sounds far too eager to shock here. The result is far more eye-rolling than pearl-clutching.
The OF Tape Vol. 2 need only be remembered for its highest highs, which also can’t be replicated without building a time machine. Your mileage may vary, but those who can push past the outrage will find some guilty laughs scattered throughout. “White” portrays a young Frank Ocean on the cusp of R&B superstardom. And “Oldie” endures because it captures an impossible moment, where youthful abandon meets unlimited creativity. For a short moment, Odd Future were on the frontier of rap. What we forget is how much of that success was wrapped in the presentation, allowing the music to mostly fade out of the foreground. Perhaps, in a sense, that’s yet another tick for the group’s enduring influence.