The Internet – Ego Death
Once upon a time there was a collective known as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, a bunch of L.A. kids who straddled the line between punk rock and hip hop. They did their own thing, composed their own beats, rapped about whatever came to their heads. At one point, after finally being picked up by mainstream news organizations following a long period of internet-driven hype, they were tipped to be “the next Wu-Tang” and the “Voice of the /b/ Generation”. Much like the Wu, they didn’t put out a huge amount of work as a collective, preferring instead to provide an umbrella to a number of groups and solo artists operating within the collective. Five years later, some of these have flourished, while others have languished. Frank Ocean is the obvious breakthrough act, although Earl Sweatshirt has done okay for himself as well. OFWGKTA’s “leader”, Tyler, The Creator, has fallen off since his highwater mark of 2009-2010; Domo Genesis was never much more than a second-tier Wiz Khalifa; Left Brain and Hodgy Beats have been simmering in the background since forever, never really coming to the forefront at any point.
Then there’s The Internet, the jazz/R&B/soul outfit helmed by the coolest of OFWGKTA’s secret weapons, producer/singer Sydney Bennett, aka Syd Tha Kid, and backed up by Matt Martians. The Internet have been releasing albums as long as OF has been a thing, but they were always of lesser quality to albums like Bastard or even Rolling Papers. That changes completely with Ego Death. Freed from being an adjunct to the OF universe, Syd and Matt have crafted an album that is as subtle, smooth, and mature as Tyler’s own Cherry Bomb was abrasive, awkward, and juvenile. This is an album awash in sultry vocals and thick, bouncing bass lines, an album that revels in the humidity of the high summer and makes sweat seem as sexy as anything else. Expanding the group’s sonic pallette has made for an exponentially expressive voice, letting the duo talk about love and sex in all of its myriad shades. Unlike their first effort, Purple Naked Ladies, there’s nothing tiresome or immature about the sex-jamming on display here – it’s first rate R&B all the way.
There’s been a lot of talk about “neo-soul”, which is really a catch-all term for moving urban music away from the synthetic pop it became synonymous with in the mid-2000s and injecting it with more shades of the past. This has produced some stellar albums – Black Messiah, To Pimp A Butterfly, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets – but there are moments on Ego Death where it feels like The Internet might be the only R&B group progressing the genre towards the future. It’s hard to remember here in 2015, but that was the original point of Odd Future: to break the mold and craft something different. Some of the formerly key players may have gotten lost along the wayside, but Syd and Co. seem to get more on point as the years roll on.
Tyler, The Creator – Cherry Bomb
In the run-up to his new album, Odd Future leader Tyler, The Creator promised everyone a new Tyler, one who was more mature and willing to go forward. This was by and large greeted with muted enthusiasm, since the OF schtick has worn a bit thin in the years since the world picked up on Bastard. Bastard was fresh and exciting; Goblin dropped off after a couple of listens: the best that could be said for Wolf was that it was hit-and-miss. With Cherry Bomb Tyler had the opportunity to step forward and take his game to the next level.
Sometimes he does that, but a lot of the time he doesn’t.
“DEATHCAMP”, the opening track to both Cherry Bomb and Tyler’s chaotic Coachella set, is a great kick-off. The N.E.R.D. vibe that he nicks here is no accident; in the middle of his second verse he raps “In Search Of… did more for me than Illmatic“. It’s a line that marks a clear divide between him and the old guard of hip hop, and it reminds me of an uncomfortable conversation I had not long ago where I discovered that there was, in fact, such a thing as dad rap. Then “BUFFALO” comes on and it’s about as perfect a Tyler track as you can get. After that, though…
As it turns out, Tyler’s take on maturity is that it involves R&B tracks with some off-kilter melodies. “FIND YOUR WINGS” is where he tries this and fails; “FUCKING YOUNG/PERFECT” is where he manages to pull it off. The noise that makes “DEATHCAMP” so much fun is taken to its extreme on “CHERRY BOMB”, which sounds like nothing so much as an early Wavves track, from back when he thought that heavy clipping made tracks sound cooler. As an artistic statement I think that “CHERRY BOMB” succeeds, but taken into context with the rest of the album it highlights the biggest problem: everything here feels completely unfinished. God knows no one was rushing Tyler to complete the album; either he felt he needed to compete with Earl Sweatshirt or he actually thought that a badly mixed, unmastered album made for good hip hop.
The other problem, of course, are the lyrics. We were promised maturity, and what did we get? Liberal use of the word “faggot” despite the slow-crawl backlash he’s received against it, and cringe-fests like “Blow My Load”, which finds him writing lyrics like he’s still 16. In a way, he is. He’s still that kid from the promo shot of Pitchfork’s “/b/ Generation” article, flashing his dick to the photographer with his friends around him. Earl has started the path to being a grown-ass man – a bitter one, to be sure – but Tyler is still running around like it’s 2010 and Odd Future is still the Next Big Thing. I mean, sure, he managed to get both Kanye and Lil’ Wayne on “SMUCKERS”, but who still takes the guy seriously at this point? Far from being OF’s breakout star, he’s seen his star eclipsed by both Earl and Frank Ocean, and he’s not doing anything to try to change that.
Everyone knows that when you hit the drinking age in America, it’s time to leave /b/ for better forums. Everyone except Tyler, anyway.
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Earl Sweatshirt – the son of South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile – has come a fairly long way from when he jerked off to videos of Asher Roth eating apple sauce at the age of 16. Those were of course the heady days of L.A.’s skater-rap collective Odd Future, when Tyler, the Creator still packed an emotional punch and Frank Ocean was just the group’s hook man. Since then, he was ushered off to a boarding school halfway across the planet by his worried mother, UC law professor Cheryl Harris, was the subject of a wide-reaching internet meme (“Free Earl!”), came back and released one of the best hip hop albums of 2013, Doris.
Two years later the scene is different. Tyler fell off, and Frank Ocean has become a breakout star in his own right after channel ORANGE conquered airwaves across the globe. Earl dropped the fact that he had a new album coming out in our laps about a week and a half before it actually happened, giving up the weird, slow-pitched single “Grief” as a sample. “Grief” is divisive in its oddity: down-pitched drums, draggy samples that resemble witch house instrumentals, and lines about drinking and drugs that are more “coping with depression” than they are “partying every night”.
There is a line in “Grief” that I find more interesting than the rest: “Step into the shadows, we could talk addiction”. Keorapetse Kgositsile published a poem in 2002 entitled “Random Notes To My Son”, and the first part reads “Beware, my son, words / that carry the loudnesses / of blind desire also carry / the slime of illusion / dripping like pus from the slave’s battered back / e.g. they speak of black power whose eyes / will not threaten the quick whitening of their own intent / What days will you inherit? / What shadows inhabit your silence?” For Earl, the silence lies between the lurching, chopped-up beats on this album, and the shadows are legion: the rigours of touring, the rootless, homeless feelings he has now, the steady toll of liquor, drugs, and casual sex, the death of his grandmother in 2013, the feeling of distance he has now from his former Odd Future compatriots. His verse on “Mantra” says a lot: “You know you famous when the niggas that surround you switch / And if they hated in a passive tense / And now they hound your dick / And you ain’t ask for this / Now you surrounded with a gaggle of a hundred fucking thousand kids / Who you can’t get mad at when they want to pound a pic / ‘Cause they the reason that the traffic on the browser quick / And they the reason that the paper in your trouser’s thick”. His lost feeling comes up on “Faucet” when he says “I don’t know whose house to call home lately / I hope my phone breaks, let it ring”. “Inside” talks about how he missed the first big wave of Odd Future’s popularity: “Got a tape? Catch a wave, now you in the industry ocean, missing out on your boat / I been figuring out my own fish, home gets distant”. It’s a lonely, paranoid sort of existence, although in the end, on the last lines of “Wool”, he talks about the $50 bills falling out of his pocket like baby teeth and makes disparaging comments about not caring about what the “loser niggas” are doing.
Earl handles all the production here as well, aside from some very limited work from fellow OF alum Left Brain. It’s all very rough and lo-fi, as though the beats were hand-crafted in a dank hotel room somewhere on the road. This is a compliment, of course; too often people feel that hip hop production has to be slick, and there is a loss of authenticity along that route. These beats are real – cut-up, stained with whatever drinks were spilled on them, smelling like used latex and day-old ganja. They’re beats that are lived-in, used and abused, and they fit the shadows that Earl has taken to inhabiting perfectly.
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is a grimey, depressive album that sounds like the courtyard of a trashed motel after the lights go out. After the high-concept jazz-funk of To Pimp A Butterfly and the balls-out maximalist experimentalism of The Powers That B, it’s actually really refreshing.