Frank Ocean's Odd Past with Odd Future
Now that the long wait is over and Frank Ocean has dropped two new projects, Blond/Blonde and the visual album Endless, I felt it would be a good time to take a look back at Ocean’s past as a peripheral member of the influential and controversial rap collective Odd Future. Led by the prodigious and charismatic Tyler the Creator, the Los Angeles collective became underground sensations between 2010-2011, largely due to the strength of Tyler’s 2011 mixtape Goblin and Earl Sweatshirt’s 2010 mixtape Earl. The group made waves because of their youth (Tyler, Earl, and many the Odd Future members were teenagers at the time), talent, and chaotic creative energy. They also became controversial cultural figures due to their ultra-violent and homophobic lyrics (1).
A rap or rock group causing controversy with offensive lyrics is certainly nothing new or unique, and many of the criticisms made against Odd Future were exactly the same as those made against Eminem a decade earlier. But what was different this time around was that Odd Future included two LGBTQ members, arguably more LGBTQ artists than the rest of mainstream rap/R&B combined. At the time, their producer/engineer was Syd tha Kyd (2) who identifies as lesbian. Frank Ocean was about to open up about his own sexuality and become the biggest rap/R&B artist to come out as LGBTQ, or at least not straight (Ocean himself has yet to publicly put a label on his sexuality). In the summer of 2012, Ocean published a letter on his Tumblr where he opened up about how at age 19 he experienced his first, and ultimately unrequited, love, and that the object of his love was another man.
“4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I'd see him, and his smile. I'd hear his conversation and his silence. Until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It changed my life.”
This has led me, and many others, to try and reconcile these two opposing narratives surrounding Odd Future. The first presenting them as supporters and close collaborators of LGBTQ artists, and the other as producers of some of the most violently homophobic lyrics in the industry. When I first had the idea for this post and started investigating the question seriously I naïvely thought there was an easy story here. That direct causes and explanations could be found on how and why certain Odd Future members used derogatory language and clear connections could be made between Ocean’s coming out and changes and growth within the members of Odd Future. However, the truth, unsurprisingly, is a lot more complicated.
The success of Tyler the Creator’s 2011 album Goblin propelled him and Odd Future into the spotlight. Receiving almost equal parts praise for its lush and intricate production, unique sound, and balance of absurdity, humor, and introspection, and harsh criticism for its violent, homophobic, and misogynistic content. NME reported that Tyler used the word f****t 213 times (3) on the album. And Sara Quinn of Tegan and Sara wrote “While an artist who can barely get a sentence fragment out without using homophobic slurs is celebrated on the cover of every magazine, blog and newspaper, I'm disheartened that any self-respecting human being could stand in support with a message so vile." Indeed, when one hears the line “rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome” on “Tron Cat” it’s tempting to paint Tyler as nothing more than an immature producer of shock-rap. However, in fairness to Tyler, I only counted 12 instances of f****t on the album, and while there are frequent descriptions of rape and violence, the more prominent focus of the album is self-reflection, expression, and discovery. Tyler raps frequently about depression, thoughts of suicide, and the agony/anxiety he experiences over his relationship with his missing father. If there is a main theme of the album it certainly isn’t one of hate, but of following ones dreams and being true to oneself no matter the circumstances. There’s a lot to love on Goblin, but it’s also more than understandable to see how its offensive language and violent content leave many would-be fans feeling excluded and insulted.
So how has Tyler changed over the last five years? Has the public scrutiny and Frank’s coming out had any effect on his music? There is still vulgarity and offensive language on his latest studio album, Cherry Bomb, but references to rape and ultra-violence are almost entirely absent from the album. However, it is unlikely that this change is specifically due to the influence of Ocean or in response to backlash from his previous albums. Rather, Tyler is no longer a teenager and has matured some. He also isn’t in the same dark place he was when he recorded Goblin. In response to a fan who criticized Cherry Bomb for being so far removed from Goblin Tyler wrote,
“why cant i share my joy with the world? ohhh, it was cool when i was raping girls and telling you how sad i was on records, but when shit changes and im feeling great and i fuck with myself you cant deal with it?... dude, that was in 2011. its 2015, if he really thinks that 4 years later i would still be living on my dead grandmothers floor, and still be sad with all these amazing things happening around me, then he is stuck in 2011. and i dont mean that in a bad way, when you have a favorite artist, you tend to grasp onto an era, trust me i do that with artist that i love but i also know they grow and see new things and change and mature and all of that. im sorry that im not in the same place to talk about those things that were happening in 2011. i dont know what to tell you, my life is in a different spot right now and like on every album, i talk about whats going on in my life AT THAT MOMENT. shit, that would be sooo sad if i was making the same album over and over again.”
Now, Tyler hasn’t completely cleaned up his act. He still uses f****t un-remorsefully. On “Buffalo” Tyler lampoons this issue rapping “Cabbage was made, critic faggots was shook; So I told 'em that I'll exchange the word "faggot" with "book"; And all them "books" is pissed off and had their page in a bunch.” Tyler claims that his use of the word is not offensive and even invokes his relationship with Frank in his defense. He told Arsenio Hall “Frank is gay and I use that word all the time. He doesn’t care because he knows me. He knows when I say that word I’m not thinking of someone’s sexual orientation. It’s just another word that has no meaning.” Tyler argues that he is trying to reclaim the word and remove its power, that since when he uses it he is ‘not referring to someone’s sexuality’ the meaning of the word is changed and it no longer becomes a slur. Whether there is any merit to this argument (South Park made a similar point in the 2009 episode "The F Word") or it is simply a post-hoc justification to allow self-professed ‘non-homophobic’ people to continue to use homophobic language without need for self-reflection or change is beyond the scope of this post (I will say I personally find this argument lacking).
Since Tyler hasn’t really fundamentally changed his views on offensive language we can ask how or if this issue has affected his relationship with Frank. Frank seemed to leave Odd Future sometime in 2012 and split with their longtime shared management team of Christian and Kelly Clancy in 2014. However, these moves seem to be strictly business and Frank and Tyler still appear to be close friends and collaborators. In 2013, Frank headlined the Odd Future Carnival with Tyler. Tyler is also listed as a contributor on Blond. On the reflective final track of Blond, “Futura Free”, Frank takes aim at the ‘new friends’ he finds himself surrounded by “Remember when I had that Lexus? No; Our friendship don’t go back that far; Tyler slept on my sofa, yeah; Niggas go back that far.” While Frank calls out these new friends for not knowing him that long he gives a shout out to Tyler, one of his oldest friends.
When I started this post I thought I’d have something profound to say regarding sexuality, music, and language. I thought I might find an answer as to whether it is acceptable or not to use slurs like f****t in music in 2016. At the least that there would be straight-forward story to tell. That examining Tyler’s musical evolution would show that his relationship with Frank did affect how he viewed and used offensive language. Or perhaps if Tyler showed no such change, then maybe the issue contributed to Frank’s departure from Odd Future, and might lead to him distancing himself from Tyler. But after hours listening to the music, reading interviews, blog posts, and tweets I found there were no easy answers to come by. We can’t look to or try and use Frank Ocean to justify one position over the other. Whether or not Tyler’s music is homophobic must ultimately be decided by each listener. The same applies to Frank. He can't be boxed in or defined as the 'gay rapper' or 'gay R&B singer.' Trying to fit these artists into a single narrative robs them of their individuality and complexity. So while I have been guilty of this type of thinking myself, I've become content to sit back and enjoy Tyler and Frank as they are. And I would advise you to do the same and be grateful for genre-bending beauty Frank Ocean has given us on his new album. I'll leave you with the fantastic opening track from Blond, "Nikes."
1. In August 2015, Tyler the Creator was denied entry to the U.K. and banned from entering for 3-5 years because his work 'encourages violence and intolerance of homosexuality' and 'fosters hatred with views that seek to provoke others to terrorist acts’.
2. While Frank Ocean is the primary focus of this post, I wish I had more time to discuss Syd as she is amazing in her own right. Her 2015 album Ego Death is fantastic. Check it out if you haven’t yet.
3. A note on slurs: When writing in my own voice I have made the decision to censor slurs. However, when quoting artists or others such words will be left uncensored.