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Review Roundup: Is Tyler the Creator All Shock and No Substance?

As hard as this is to imagine, considering the amount of ink and pixels that have been devoted to OFWGKTA in the past several months, the collective’s first commercially available release just came out today. Despite all the think pieces out there, Tyler the Creator’s Goblin is the first Odd Future album that the mainstream press is actually reviewing. The responses are mixed — but not for the reasons you’d think. No one seems especially scandalized; in fact, the debate centers mostly around whether Tyler’s ratio of shock to substance justifies his meteoric rise to fame.

Spin gives Goblin an 8 out of 10, the A.V. Club praises it as “a deliberately crafted work of art, one of the densest and most provocative statements that independent rap has produced in years,” and John Caramanica at The New York Times calls it “shockingly good.” What’s more interesting to us, however, are the many ambivalent and negative reviews, many of which get at the contradictions inherent in Odd Future’s brand of “shock art.” From pointing out that Tyler needs an editor to pointing out that he’s second-guessing himself to arguing that we don’t have to like his work to agree that it counts as art, we’ve posted excerpts from some of our favorite reviews after the jump.

At the LA Times, Randall Roberts thinks the album is lazy and repetitive, if also occasionally revolutionary:

The problem is that Tyler, the Creator should get better at being Tyler, the Editor. Half of these 15 tracks could have made for semi-interesting free downloads, but to include them on his first proper album is a mistake. There’s no escaping that, for example, “Radicals” is one of the dumbest, laziest songs of the year — and that’s track No. 3. Anyone who declares themselves radical over and over again doesn’t get it, and if he’s being ironic he hasn’t figured out a way to express that level of nuance.

Allison Stewart at The Washington Post has plenty of kind words for Goblin but is ultimately disappointed:

Closer in spirit to punk forerunners such as the Sex Pistols than to the Wu-Tang Clan, the album supplies a vital new energy, badly used. Ultimately the disc’s carnival of grotesqueries and grievances overwhelms what’s good about it, and “Goblin” winds up being more shock than art.

New York‘s Nitsuh Abebe writes an ambivalent, nuanced, list-style review in which he admits that he isn’t Tyler’s target audience and includes the following zinger:

One time Tyler tweeted the following: “I Want To Scare The Fuck Out Of Old White People That Live In Middle Fucking America.” (He says the same about most everyone whose life he imagines is more comfortable than his.) I wonder if he realizes that several of his transgressive Yes I Said That misogynist-monster jokes — e.g., “Goddamn I love bitches / Especially when they only suck dick and wash dishes” — would actually fit in just fine among certain old white people in middle America?

Our friend Marvin Lin at Tiny Mix Tapes has published an extremely thorough dissection, eventually coming down on the pro-Tyler side while raising some perceptive objections, including the following:

It’s disclaimer after disclaimer, apologetic to the point of embarrassment, a sort of postmodern poetic to meandering youth and its signifiers that keep on floating. Listening to his music is no longer about reconciling your morality with what may have seemed like an ‘authentic’ reaction to the world or, at the very least, some sort of demented representation of it. And it’s no longer about his magnification of subversive language in an attempt to castrate it. Obviously, Tyler doesn’t consider himself to be homophobic, misogynistic, or racist. Hell, he tells us as much on tracks like “Tron Cat” and “Goblin.” And yes, he uses the word ‘faggot’ as an insult, but he also calls all of his new fans on Twitter faggots. He’s even called himself a faggot. Syd, the collective’s in-house engineer, is reportedly a faggot, too. The question, regrettably, becomes whether or not their transgressive lyrics are funny, whether they’re ‘appropriate’ in a world where we’re hung up on identity politics. This difference is significant, and it’s precisely here where our reaction to Goblin becomes less weighted: if it’s all in jest, who really cares about the relationship between his lyrics and our values?

John Doran of The Quietus turns in our favorite review so far, calling Tyler’s attempts to offend “pedestrian transgression” and musing, “The gay Wu Tang Clan. Now that’s something that would stop everyone dead in their tracks.” In one highlight, Doran calls Tyler out for limiting himself to the injured-teen-nihilist sphere:

But, y’know, Tyler had an absent dad, or his dad beat him or something. He was perhaps lacking in firm moral guidance and now just look at his desensitization. Look at it! Dude, he’s waving it in your face! It’s palpable! Tyler always reminds me of the Cali punk coughing up blood after a hashed liquor store robbery in Alex Cox’s Repo Man: “The lights are growing dim. I know a life of crime led me to this sorry fate. And yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am”. Just to have Emilio Estevez tell him: “That’s bullshit! You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” Except Tyler is a black, suburban middle class skater. He is a brilliant rapper. He is genuinely miles ahead in his field. It’s just that this is the fairly narrow field of teen nihilism: his medium is getting upset about having to tidy his room. He’s Tracy Emin in a green balaclava…

And in a conclusion we’re comfortable calling “brilliant,” Doran agrees that we have to consider Goblin art before asserting his right to ignore “rape rap”:

Goblin is art in the same way that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads or Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero are and to deny it such a status, could reasonably be seen as racism. Rather than feeling sorry for Tyler however we should recognize that he’s exploiting a loophole more than creating something for the ages. It’s ‘Art’ but it’s relatively artless, like Sarah Lucas positioning a kebab on a soiled mattress to look like a vagina, then running an eye listlessly over the column inches that throb in its presence. The thing is though, I’m not even remotely interested in being entertained by rape rap, no matter how clever or dumb, which is why now that I’ve said how sonically intriguing and pretty decent this album is, I’m going to delete it permanently from my hard drive. After a day of listening to it, I’ve had enough of it and the bad taste that it leaves in my mouth. The truth of the matter is that there’s every chance the word “faggot” will probably become completely acceptable soon in the same way that “bitch” did in the 1990s. Rape jokes are once again acceptable to most. Language use change is inevitable and organic. My participation in these processes isn’t.

So, readers, where do you come down? Do you particularly agree with any single review, or do you feel all of these writers have missed something about Goblin, Tyler the Creator, or Odd Future as a whole?

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