Hopping aboard the Odd Future hype train in the early months of 2011 was exhilarating, and maybe inevitable. As a music fan, it’s not often you realize you’re witnessing a revolution in real time. I was 27 when Odd Future popped off — too old to think of them as my peers, but young enough to tap into that old teenage excitement about a transformative force sending shockwaves through popular music. Tyler, The Creator’s obsessions were plainly evident — Eminem and the Neptunes, Jackass and Adventure Time, skate videos and streetwear brands — yet he and his crew were taking these elements somewhere unmistakably new. People followed. Looking back, you can see parts of Odd Future’s ethos imprinted on a whole generation of cool art kids, visionary outsiders, and aspiring next big things. In the moment, it just felt like rupture. The electricity surrounding the group in those days was impossible to deny, a breathless escalation that arguably peaked with the release of Tyler’s official debut album Goblin 10 years ago today.
Ever since Tyler released his Bastard mixtape on Christmas 2009, the edgelord hypebeast skateboarders known as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All had been gradually building buzz, accumulating a devoted core of rowdy disaffected teenagers and gawking music critics in search of the next big thing. Subsequent releases like Earl Sweatshirt’s EARL, MellowHype’s Blackendwhite, and the full-group showcase Radical accelerated their momentum, as did Earl’s disappearance just as he and his friends were becoming an underground sensation. We’d later learn Earl’s mother had shipped him off to boarding school in Samoa to distance him from an environment that had him rapping cavalierly about rape and piling drugs into a blender in music videos, but at the time his absence accented the burgeoning Odd Future hysteria with a note of mystique.
OFWGKTA was less a hot new band than a whole alternate universe to be immersed in. They had developed such distinct chemistry, such a clear point of view, and such a fleshed-out internal logic that comparisons to Wu-Tang were inevitable. As Andrew Nosnitsky later explained in a Billboard cover story, the distinct lo-fi sound and meticulous iconography were “effectively made in a vacuum by a bunch of hyperactive teenagers… Odd Future was a fully formed and self-sustained entity before anyone in the music industry had even heard of it.” At their tangled network of social media pages and their notoriously chaotic live shows — particularly one at NYC’s Webster Hall in November 2010 that reportedly packed in the tastemakers and A&R reps — the group was making converts at an impressive pace, Kanye West among them. And then, one week in February 2011, the excitement surrounding the group went nuclear.
How many times did you watch the “Yonkers” video? For me it must have been at least 100. I probably screened it for at least a dozen friends too, just giddily loaded it up and waited to see how they’d react. Published to YouTube on Feb. 10, “Yonkers” made it clear that 19-year-old Tyler Okonma was capable of much more than the grimy lo-fi beats and grisly baritone grumbles that first caught people’s attention. The production here was raw too, but — despite a lack of hooks and Tyler’s claims that he made the beat in eight minutes as a joke — also bright and piercing and professional: a low end that cracked and rumbled like the best New York boom-bap, a squealing synth melody like DIY G-funk, shrill high-pitched stabs out of a horror movie. The lyrics were a similarly sharpened take on Tyler’s usual material, a mix of wounded reflections on his absent father and spiteful one-liners designed to provoke any and everyone. Eyeing the ascendant pop stars of the moment, he promised to “stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus” and waved off B.o.B with an anti-gay slur — crude Marshall Mathers mimicry that did not exactly scan as a stroke of genius. Yet when accompanied with its self-directed music video, “Yonkers” felt like a masterpiece, a compact audio-visual manifesto for Tyler’s whole enterprise.
The black-and-white footage amounts to little more than Tyler sitting on a stool in his Supreme hat, doing his damndest to be charismatic and creepy. The camera moves in and out of focus as he ominously toys with a cockroach, eats it, and begins coughing up puke. He unbuttons his shirt as the jazzy piano chords kick in and he insists for the umpteenth time in his young career, “I’m not gay.” (Ha.) His eyes go completely black as if to suggest demonic possession. When he realizes his nose is bleeding, a noose appears from above. He climbs atop the stool and hangs himself, letting the shot linger uncomfortably long on his dangling legs. It is entry-level shock-rap presented with the breathtaking vision of an auteur — repulsive and completely fucking magnetic.
“Yonkers” set the music world on high alert. That anticipation would soon be multiplied by one of the most thrilling televised performances I’ve ever seen. Less than a week later — on the same day Odd Future served up Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape, the hipster-baiting pop-R&B smörgåsbord Nostalgia, Ultra — Tyler and Hodgy Beats descended upon Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to perform another Goblin single called “Sandwitches.” On record, “Sandwitches” sounds like sputtering heavy machinery, like an evil robot that might keel over any minute. Backed by the Roots and powered by adrenaline, Tyler and Hodgy drew out new dimensions of aggro menace in the song, launching Studio 6B into a state of punk-rap anarchy. What began with the rappers rocking ski masks, surrounded by creepy statues and characters, soon evolved into Tyler marauding across the stage in his knee-high tube socks with no regard for social boundaries, until Fallon’s other guests were thoroughly disturbed and legions of kids at home were shouting “WOLF! GANG!” back at their screens. In the end, Tyler popped his ballcap on Fallon’s head, climbed on the host’s back, and wagged his tongue directly at the camera.
Even more than the urge to hear Goblin, this instilled in me a powerful desire to witness the Odd Future live experience for myself. I got my wish. In March, Tyler and friends were booked to perform several shows at venues around Austin during SXSW. I was there to cover the festival for my local weekly newspaper, a luxurious assignment that now feels as anachronistic as the rap blogs Tyler puts on blast at the start of Bastard. Attending SXSW is like stepping into internet hype manifested in physical space, and in 2011, it seemed all anyone wanted to talk about was Odd Future. I arranged my whole itinerary around their afternoon show at Scoot Inn, a dusty outdoor venue in East Austin. It was everything I could have wanted — a nonstop onslaught of stage-diving rappers and sun-baked fans screaming their lyrics back at them. It was GOLF WANG, it was FREE EARL, it was HOLY SHIT CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING.
After that much buildup, Goblin was going to have to be an all-time classic to live up to expectations. For a while, it seems like it could become that, even though Tyler makes sure to undercut those expectations right away. Goblin opens with its title track, a sequel to the combative therapy session with “Dr. TC” that kicked off Bastard, set to a creeping deconstructed backbeat and dramatic MIDI strings. “I’m not a fucking role model,” Tyler begins. “I’m a 19-year-old fucking emotional coaster with pipe dreams/ Since Kanye tweeted telling people he’s bumping all of my shit/ These mothafuckas think I’m ‘sposed to live up to something? Shit.” He proceeds to lay out his whole situation with surprising perspective. He admits his transgressive bars are all talk: “Okay, you guys caught me, I’m not a fucking rapist or serial killer, I lied.” He laments the ways success has altered his lifestyle, despite the financial support he can offer his mom: “I don’t even skate anymore, I’m too fucking busy, I can barely kickflip now.” He gets real about self-doubt: “What the fuck you mean I’m not talented? You see the shit that I’ve been doing? I mean, I’m not that great of a rapper but as a whole, I’m pretty cool, right?” He sighs, “I wish Thebe was here.” As both an introduction to the album and a time capsule for that moment, “Goblin” works wonders.
The sequence of tracks that follows includes some of the most iconic music in Tyler’s catalog. There is “Yonkers,” extended to include a third verse promising to “stab any bloggin’ f****t hipster with a pitchfork.” (Um, sorry?) There is the eerily clattering “Radicals,” which sandwiches the shout-along refrain of the Odd Future catalog — “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!” — between a disclaimer requesting that listeners “don’t do anything that I say in this song” and a vibed-out three-minute outro that begins with further ass-covering: “I’m not saying just to go out and do some stupid shit, commit crimes/ What I’m trying to tell you is do what the fuck you want/ Stand for what the fuck you believe in/ And don’t let nobody tell you can’t do what the fuck you want.” There is the woozy stalker narrative “She,” on which Ocean shows up to spit bars and affix sweet melodies to lines like “The blinds wide open so he can/ See you in the dark when you’re sleepin’.” It’s one of many songs that feels unsettling at face value but plays more like a winking prank on an album that never ceases to poke and prod its audience. No matter how much of it was supposedly in jest, the rampant misogyny and homophobia in young Tyler’s music was understandably a turnoff for some.
Even for those who looked past the hateful content in the lyrics, shrugging them off like sole female Odd Future member Syd, Goblin was a challenging listen for reasons that went beyond the messaging. The original tracklist stretches to 15 songs and 74 minutes, and beyond that sterling opening run, much of it comprises queasy insular lo-fi beats and emotionally fraught outbursts — an uncompromising creative expression that worked as a litmus test separating dilettantes like me from the true believers. Even experiments like the house-inflected “Analog” start to blur into the monolithic whole. By the time Odd Future lieutenants like Domo Genesis and Mike G are getting their spotlight moments on the nauseous and lethargic eight-minute sprawl “Window,” I often found myself in a daze. I had even forgotten that Tyler freaks out on his therapist and murders his friends on closing track “Golden” because Goblin is an album I have often started but rarely finished. What is so gripping at first eventually curdles into an ugly slog.
For a while, it seemed that would be the trajectory of Tyler’s career in general. With each successive solo album, his energy seemed to dissipate. Odd Future splintered and eventually dissolved, but not before Earl returned from boarding school for the triumphant posse cut “Oldie.” He and Frank distanced themselves from the group as they ventured out into their own kinds of compelling maturity. Meanwhile Hodgy publicly feuded with Tyler onstage at the 2015 Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, a festival that — along with his GOLF fashion line and other ventures — suggested Tyler’s true calling might be a vibe curator than a musical artist. Yet all along the way he was commanding the attention of huge crowds, imprinting his aesthetic preferences on a devoted swath of fans.
The transition from brilliant young shit-stirrer to seasoned veteran was rocky. But if 2017’s Flower Boy was the sound of Tyler emerging from a chrysalis, 2019’s IGOR found him soaring, turning his formidable blend of hip-hop, funk, and R&B back outward into full-fledged pop music. Without scaling back Tyler’s quirks, the album spun off radio hits and earned Tyler a Grammy. By that point he could look around and see his disciples scoring #1 albums left and right, from Brockhampton to Billie Eilish to the late XXXTentacion. His influence continues to percolate, and his next project will arguably be his most feverishly anticipated since Goblin. That era is long gone, but in a sense it persists; even those who missed Tyler’s incendiary rise are living through the odd future.