At the end of the final night of the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, a couple of weeks ago, at a Billboard magazine-sponsored showcase at the large venue Buffalo Billiards, I got a chance to check out two very different visions of hip-hop's future.
Taking the stage at 11 p.m. was Meridian, Mississippi's Big K.R.I.T., a lone street poet/hustler type consciously repeating the path of lyrical Southern rap acts like Memphis' 8Ball & MJG or earlier Mississippi-bred breakout star David Banner. Following K.R.I.T. at midnight was Odd Future — short for Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All — a collective of Los Angeles teenagers who come across as something like a skate-punk answer to East Coast crew the Wu-Tang Clan.
Big K.R.I.T. and Odd Future are two of hip-hop's most exciting new artists, both emerging last year via free, Internet-only download albums (in Odd Future's case, several albums spread among roughly 10 members) and both have garnered massive press attention (Odd Future was on the cover of Billboard) and large fan bases without ever releasing any for-purchase, record-label-connected product.
But despite that connection, these two artists couldn't be more different, a contrast that grew even starker seeing them take the same stage in consecutive sets.
The stocky, muscular K.R.I.T. was a surprisingly polished live performer for a new rapper on the ascent. Starting with just his DJ and opening with the anthemic "Return of 4Eva," K.R.I.T. has an intense, focused, no-frills performance.
After a few songs solo, K.R.I.T. brought out a five-piece band, Griot, for the second half of his set. Leading the band through standouts "Neva Go Back," "Hometown Hero," and "Just Touched Down," he seemed more than ready for the big time.
Ludacris, and Houston's Bun B and lyrical references to early Outkast, K.R.I.T.'s second free-download album, Return of 4Eva, released this week, is his purchase on Southern rap tradition.
Odd Future, by contrast, are on their own path. The contrast between these two acts is greater than even Mississippi vs. Los Angeles. It's traditional vs. avant-garde. Aspirational vs. punk-style negation. Street-realistic vs. Eminem-inspired outlandish wordplay.
For all the references to absent dads and loathed pop-culture figures, Odd Future's music exists in a world of its own making. It's treehouse rap, created — by teens who vibe "fatherless children run amok" — in something of a cocoon until the world came calling mere months ago. The safety and insularity of its creation coexists with a total lack of self-censorship and an adolescent delight in thumbing their noses at good taste. In essence, these are kids often saying the craziest stuff they can think of on record, and hormonal teen boys can think of some bad stuff.
Gangly rapper/producer Tyler the Creator is the ringleader — the black-and-white video for his single "Yonkers" has topped 4.3 million YouTube hits since debuting in February. But the most talented pure rappers in the group are probably Hodgy Beats and the even younger Earl Sweatshirt (still a high-schooler, the baby of the group).
Earl wasn't on stage with the group at SXSW. He's been missing for a while. As the story goes, his college professor mother made a late discovery — many hundred thousand YouTube hits late — of her son's extracurricular hip-hop activities and packed him off to boarding school. But the last thing anyone heard from Earl — the one-off single "Fuck This Christmas," which appeared online last winter, days before the holiday — captures the effect of the whole Odd Future thing. Earl opens with this: "Welcome to my home/The place that I hate/The place that I love/The planet of the apes/The place that I loathe/Boy minus father equals boy minus heart/Always test the mama." He segues seamlessly from that achingly real intro to id-fueled slasher-flick scenarios to surreal rhyme-for-rhyme's-sake wordplay.
Though wrestling with their often outré content is complex and inseparable from what they are, any hip-hop fan is right to be excited by Odd Future on musical and aesthetic grounds — their rattling beats and sharp rhymes, their enormous output and self-reliance, a punk-derived attitude that eschews the material trappings of mainstream hip-hop culture.
At Buffalo Billiards, the band was playing their "official" showcase, but it was their sixth show of the festival, and it fell apart.
They opened with only DJ Syd (the group's lone female member) on the bare stage and the mosh-inciting opening beat of "Sandwiches," the song they performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Soon Tyler and Hodgy Beats hit the stage — the former in a ski mask, unleashing the comic threat/boast: "The Golf Wang hooligans is fucking up the school again/Teaching you and yours that breaking rules is cool again."
Tyler was riveting and colorful throughout, but the real showman ended up being Hodgy Beats, who commanded the stage with a feline physicality, dexterous flow, and mischievous charisma.
But Tyler cut the song off, complaining that the crowd — going nuts up front, full of curiosity seekers in the back — wasn't as intense as others they'd played to that week. They re-started "Sandwiches" and made it through one and a half more songs — the half being "Yonkers" — before Tyler stopped the show completely, praising the moshing crowd up front but lashing out at the back of the room and his showcase host, Billboard. ("I don't even read that shit.") And with that it was over.
If I had paid to get in or waited in line for a long time, as some apparently had, and if it hadn't been my last show before a long drive home the next day, I would have been more bummed about the show being cut short. As it was, what I saw — part concert, part happening, part public meltdown — was enough to confirm what an already dense recorded catalog had suggested: Odd Future are major artists already, but with a perhaps paradigm-shifting future that holds no guarantees.