Graffiti declaring “Free Earl” has recently been popping up in elevators across the Emerson campus.
Anyone confused about the meaning of these Sharpie scribbles may take comfort in the fact that even those who put them there don’t know the full story behind the phrase. Los Angeles-based rap consortium Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All wants it that way.
Odd Future knows how to cause a reaction: The crew, composed of 11 pals between the ages of 17 and 20, has spent the last two years prompting delighted shock as they juxtapose childish shenanigans (like watching cartoons and eating cereal) with very “adult” descriptions of drug trauma, bizarre fetishes, and, frequently, assault — sexual and otherwise.
And though they’ve been secretive about the fate of member Earl Sweatshirt (revealing to LA Weekly only that he’s not currently making music with Odd Future), it hasn’t stopped fans from responding in a similar enthusiastic fashion, taking any chance to pimp the “Free Earl” rallying call under the assumption that he was sent to boarding school after his mom discovered Odd Future.
In spite of — or perhaps because of — the cringe-inducing vulgarity, Odd Future’s popularity has rocketed over the last few weeks, in large part due to a horrifying hit music video and a raucous television debut.
Now, leading up to some major festival appearances, the gang is coming to terms with their rapid rise: a quick skim through the Twitter feed of Odd Future leader Tyler the Creator (whose full name is unknown at this point) reveals a young man astonished by chances to meet Justin Bieber and to have MTV follow Odd Future on tour.
What’s more, the group is beginning to discover that it can get a reaction from people with more than simple shock value.
Odd Future kicked off in 2009 with collaborative effort The Odd Future Tape. In the vein of the Wu-Tang Clan, the crew puts out the occasional release under the Odd Future name, but the majority of their catalogue (available for free through their Tumblr page) consists of the various members’ solo records, which always feature verses and production from others in the crew.
The first release to prompt serious blog murmurs was Bastard, the confessional debut record from Tyler. With the album, the 19-year-old former film student creates a distinctly tormented persona. Over bassy synths, Tyler bears all to a high school therapist, revealing himself as a hyperactive misfit tortured by the absence of his father and by problems with female (occasionally non-consensual) partners.
Though critics have embraced releases from other Odd Futurers, Tyler remains most clearly poised to propel the group to higher success. In addition to the bassed-out production and ominous verses he contributes to pretty much every Odd Future album, his recent deal with label XL Recordings means his forthcoming record Goblin, due in April, will be the first commercial record to come from the group.
And fans are already flocking — the video for Goblin’s first single, “Yonkers,” surpassed 1 million views after just two weeks on YouTube, handily eclipsing anything Odd Future had put out beforehand.
Directed by Tyler himself, the stark and startling video displays the young savant’s artistic side. Shot in black-and-white, Tyler sits on a stool and spits the song directly to the camera. As Tyler transforms into a half-goblin freak, the hideousness of his lyrics personified, he’s left with no choice but to hang himself. Yikes.
Once you get past its eeriness, though, “Yonkers” reveals Tyler’s willingness to refine his crew’s repulsive effect while maintaining its force.
Compared to last year’s “Earl” video (which presented the gang convulsing and stifling vomit after downing a sludgy blend of drugs), “Yonkers” is downright menacing: Tyler gently toys with a cockroach, staring at the bug affectionately as it traipses across his hand — until he bites its head off.
With violence, too, Tyler tries out a “less is more” mentality. Near the end of “Yonkers,” the single drop of blood that trickles from Tyler’s nose, randomly and inexplicably, ends up twice as alarming as any of the group’s previous mischief — what the hell has this kid been doing?
Until now, some major hype machines had been hesitant to wholly embrace the Odd Future boys — it’s as if the blogs fear committing to these young’uns in case they end up just a flash of unfocused potential.
If the “Yonkers” video is any indication, Odd Future will spend 2011 correcting that mindset. If they don’t succeed, no matter — they’ll just go back to “stabbing any blogging… hipster with a Pitchfork,” as their lyric goes.
Odd Future’s catalogue can be downloaded for free at OddFuture.com. Tyler the Creator’s second album, Goblin, will be released in April on XL Recordings.
Photos: Above: Members of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All are experiencing a wave of viral notoriety thanks to their graphic videos and hip hop beats. Below: Tyler the Creator is widely regarded as the group’s vanguard, after achieving success with his own releases.