After being released for free download on the Odd Future blog in 2010, MellowHype’s breakthrough project BlackenedWhite was repackaged (with a slightly altered tracklist) as their debut studio album through Fat Possum in July 2011. It remains one of the most assured, straightforward statements in the OF catalogue. Left Brain’s production hovers between abrasive synth brass sounds that nod to Flockaveli (“Left Brain is my Lex Luger / Bitch I’m Waka Flocka”) and vaporous synth textures that illuminate the duo’s stoner tendencies (unlike Tyler, Hodgy and Left Brain are far from straight edge). Hodgy’s vocals are equally versatile, displaying a thrilling energy that combines hardcore frontman chops with precise double time on one track, before retreating to a pocket as comfortable as a couch groove on the next. While not all of the first wave OF material has stood the test of time, BlackenedWhite is a reminder of what was so special about the early releases.
Goblin was perhaps the most anticipated release in the Odd Future catalogue; the first official album released following the wave of hype that came from their free music. The peak of the mania around the group came with the show-stopping “Sandwitches” performance on Jimmy Fallon as well as the iconic “Yonkers” video, each serving as promo for Tyler’s debut on XL recordings. While the two pre-release singles hinted at a more accessible direction for the project, it was clear from its opening 7-minute meditation on fame—which doubles down on the therapist concept from Bastard—that this was not the lean crossover attempt some were expecting. In fact, the 73-minute project is as dark as it gets. Tyler’s use of gay slurs and grody misogyny as shock tactics are as prevalent as ever, and they’re far from defensible, but the extremely talented and endearingly vulnerable teenager at the center of the project is what keeps it afloat despite its often difficult-to-swallow subject matter. Over some of his most dissonant, deconstructed production, Tyler wrestles with his lack of a father figure, the whiplash from his overnight success, and his inability to express his feelings outside of a vocal booth. Even his sweetest moments leave a bitter aftertaste, as we see on songs like the stalker-ish ballad “Window.” “Love? I don't get none, that's why I'm so hostile to the kids that get some,” he snarls on “Nightmare,” suggesting that this anger stems from the loneliness many of us feel as adolescents. On his later work, it’s clear that this anger has subsided, but this feels like Tyler’s own way of working through those growing pains.
##OFWGKTA: Odd Future Tape Vol. 2
Odd Future’s final release as a collective is also the last hurrah before the inevitable splintering of the group. After achieving an overwhelming amount of publicity—both positive and negative—and releasing their debut retail solo projects, Tyler and company came full circle to do a proper sequel to one of their earliest recordings: The Odd Future Tape. This time around, roles of the less prominent figures are better defined: Frank as the lone-wolf soulman, Syd and Matt Martians as the left-field R&B experimentalists, Domo Genesis as the sharpened lyricist, Hodgy Beats as the rock solid brute-force vocalist. Meanwhile, Tyler and Frank’s “Analog 2” is a welcome sunny moment following Tyler’s debilitatingly dark path on Goblin, and would go on to be the blueprint for the pop-leaning summer confessionals they would collaborate on across Tyler’s later material. Of course, “Oldie,” the 10-minute closer, remains the greatest summation of the group’s appeal as a whole. Featuring Earl’s first on-record appearance following his departure to Samoa, the cypher-like record wipes away the cloud of anonymity used on OF’s early material, allowing the true charisma of its performers to shine through. Much like the “Sandwitches” performance that introduced them to the world, the song, and especially its perfectly spontaneous video, prove OF were at their best when we caught a glimpse of the grins behind the ski masks.
Odd Future’s cryptic rallying cry “Free Earl!” was finally brought to fruition when the group’s youngest member returned from a stay at a therapeutic retreat school for at-risk boys in Samoa. Prior to his “disappearance,” Earl introduced himself as a ferocious 16-year-old rapper with a sharp sense of humor and a sharper tongue in the video for “Earl,” which would lead to his slap-in-the-face debut of the same title. By the time he was able to release the follow-up Doris, 3 years had passed. His music was cleansed of the immature shock humor, and his voice had dropped into a gravelly register not unlike his mentor Tyler, sounding not as demonic but equally embattled. Doris is nearly as economical as Earl, clocking in at just under 45 minutes, but it plays more like a ’90s indie rap tape, somewhere between Black Moon and MF DOOM. Earl’s rapping is still supremely technical, but it’s more off-kilter, as his internal rhymes often leap from the grid of the beat to freely somersault above it. The style calls for assonant streams of consciousness, but Earl’s verses are still peppered with raw admissions, particularly on lead single “Chum,” in which he contextualizes his previous anger directed at his absent father, as well as pulling the curtain away from the “Free Earl!” saga, which ultimately caused further tension between himself and his mother. Earl keeps a decidedly low profile throughout, letting his guests open many of the tracks, including the opening cut—which feels like a deliberate step out of the spotlight. As he’s pointed out time and time again, he never asked to be “freed,” and the “Free Earl” mantra eventually became a confinement in itself. Doris is Earl taking the reins back on his own narrative—what’s more freeing than that?
Wolf was a transitional album for Tyler, as he expressed in a 2011 interview with SPIN. “Talking about rape and cutting bodies up, it just doesn't interest me anymore... what interests me is making weird hippie music for people to get high to,” he said. In many ways, Wolf does find Tyler looking toward the light as he fleshes out his production with glimmering synth tones and punchy basslines. The project also solidifies Tyler and Frank’s chemistry on “Slater” and “Bimmer,” two heart-on-sleeve soundtracks to summer nights that point to Tyler’s vibrant work on Flower Boy. It’s the last of his albums that attempts to keep a tight concept through interludes throughout, tying it to Bastard and Goblin, but never quite feeling like the conclusion to the trilogy it was envisioned as. Given that the new directions explored on the album are its strongest moments, it’s for the best.
Ego Death is the project that finds Syd The Kyd and Matt Martians’ sometimes-spacey R&B at its most reeled-in and refined. The project added guitarist and producer Steve Lacey to the group and solidified the lineup with bassist Patrick Paige II and Drummer Christopher Smith, a combination of musicians who are as impressive live as they are on record. The songs on Ego Death aren’t necessarily simpler than the outfit’s previous material, but the many pieces of the arrangements move together more fluently, allowing Syd to step forward and give her strongest and most dynamic vocal performances with the group to date. Syd’s songwriting reveals her to be as much a student of N.E.R.D’s In Search Of… as Tyler, though her influence comes primarily from Pharrell’s airy melodies. However, the female subjects of Syd’s songs are more fully formed than those of her male peers. “Girl” is a word uttered 34 times across the album’s 12 tracks, and it’s almost always used to speak directly to the women it addresses. If Ego Death is the "complete loss of subjective self-identity,” The Internet makes a case for the value of shared experience.
After delivering a cautious, low-stakes return with Doris, Earl took a more immersive approach to “brushing the dirt up off [his] psyche” with I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Producing the majority of the project himself under his randomblackdude pseudonym, Earl eschews the already loose structure of Doris in favor of insular loops that compliment the dark humor of the title. After spending the first half of the album holed up on his own, Earl invites some like-minded friends by; he welcomes Da$h, Wiki, Na’kel and Vince Staples to his dark and cerebral, but never self-serious, space. There’s a common misconception that being extroverted and outgoing is the best way of expressing your true self, and ultimately being happy. It’s the same attitude that would lead to the assumption that Earl’s titular mantra is coming from anywhere but a place of inner peace. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside finds Earl playing by his own rules and keeping his circle small, resulting in what might be the best music of his career. Maybe it’s time to take notes.
Like Earl, Frank Ocean had a considerable hiatus between projects. Following the critical success of his debut album Channel Orange, which boasted vivid storytelling and influential production techniques, Frank disappeared, leading to demand for the follow-up reaching meme status among fans. 5 years after Channel Orange, Frank shared Blonde, a considerable departure from his colorful debut, built on incredibly spare arrangements of delicate guitars and keys. Though featuring Easter egg-like contributions from the likes of Beyoncé, Jazmine Sullivan, Amber Coffman and Yung Lean, Frank is in full focus in almost every frame. From the hypnotic vocal manipulation on “Nikes,” to the commanding hook of “Solo” (“Inhale, inhale, there's heaven”), Frank’s versatile voice is as transfixing as his unique songwriting. Though the best attribute of Blonde may be establishing an almost ambient mood. It’s an album you can soak yourself in for hours or weeks at a time. It was worth the wait.
Domo Genesis may hold the title of the greatest transformation in Odd Future history. His debut free project Rolling Papers was a consistent batch of heavy lidded weed rap, driven by some of Tyler’s most ethereal beat concoctions. Domo was capable and charismatic, if not overly ambitious. Somewhere along the line, Domo’s guest verses started to get viciously technical, and pretty soon he was out-rapping most of his pals on a bar-for-bar scale. After hanging out with Alchemist and sharpening his punchlines to battle rap standards, Domo took on a new challenge: crafting a well-rounded debut album. 2016’s Genesis is just that. Taking a step back from blinding double time to craft a collection of personal, memorable songs, Domo teams with a number of collaborators who bring out his now-many strengths. Da$h joins for the gritty thrills of “Questions,” Wiz Khalifa (who also named his album “Rolling Papers”) supplies the kush rap co-sign, and Anderson .Paak helps Domo achieve something we’ve never heard from him before—a crossover hit in which he channels jiggy era Mase to glowing results.
Following her captivating performance on The Internet’s Ego Death, it seemed it was only a matter of time before Syd felt the need to release a solo album. Fin, one of three impressive projects from members of the band released in 2017, challenges Syd to define her place in R&B, but it’s not a full departure. "This album is not that deep, but I feel like this is my descent into the depth I want the band to get to…” she told NPR. Track 1 matches her with Hit-Boy, the ambitious producer behind Kanye and Jay Z’s “N---as In Paris” and Nicki Minaj’s “Feelin’ Myself,” resulting in a retro-futuristic ballad that manages to hang onto the DIY feel of the singer’s early material. From there it’s a mix of new and familiar faces. But whether it’s Beyoncé collaborator Melo-X or Syd herself behind the boards, the robotic mid-tempo funk remains constant, while Syd’s vocals are whispery in a delicate way that recalls Aaliyah’s later work. If this is what’s next for The Internet, we’re all for it.