Tyler, The Creator & Earl Sweatshirt @ Best Buy Theater, NYC 7/26/12

When I entered the Best Buy Theater, I walked past the box office and immediately braced myself as a lanky guy with long shorts, a baggy T-shirt, and a basketball hat trudged toward me with two security guards following attentively. He thrust a leg outward as if stepping over a small fence and smacked an adjacent wall with his fist. I was, for a second, preparing to be starstruck. But no. It wasn’t Tyler, the Creator.

As I stood jotting notes in the lobby, teenagers and 20-year-olds swirled around me waiting for an opener to go on. I searched unsuccessfully for an interviewee as a tiny guy with long shorts, a baggy T-shirt, and a basketball hat tapped me on the shoulder and leaned close as though he had important information.

“Just so you know: I’m a little bitch, all right?” He hurried off, and I caught him murmuring to little clusters of people who were, like me, now in the know: He too was not Tyler, the Creator.

On the way out of the theater after the show, a 20-something wearing long shorts, a baggy T-shirt, and a basketball hat walked right up to the coat check and barked something at the attendant. She retrieved for him a skateboard in a plastic bag. This was also not Tyler, the Creator.

I was surrounded by hundreds of boys in long shorts, baggy T-shirts, and basketball hats — the unofficial uniform of Tyler, the Creator, and his rap collective Odd Future — all of whom were in attendance to see Tyler and OF’s Earl Sweatshirt perform together. However, after some negligible openers, then Asher Roth, then Raekwon, Peter Rosenberg — the Hot 97 DJ whose birthday was ostensibly being celebrated at this concert — stepped out on stage to solemnly inform the audience that he was going to announce a small change in the lineup. We were not going to see Tyler, the Creator and Earl. Not exactly.

All of Odd Future would be performing instead.

Though there are ostensibly a dozen or two members and associates comprising the rap group Odd Future, the two young men at the center of the swirl are unequivocally Tyler and Earl. The blistering ascent of the group and their confusing, intentionally obtuse celebrity rang through the hall on Thursday, the two rappers clearly reveling in each other’s company, finally, and all the funny dissonances of their story ringing through the performance. Earl, now 18 and back from a reform school in Samoa, surveyed the crowd (and as he repeatedly hinted, the prospect of future crowds) hungrily, and Tyler raged — lovingly, in a sense — about Rosenberg’s advanced age and impotence.

The opening rappers and filler DJs are not worth much discussion here: As anyone who’s attended a hip-hop show will affirm, each performed unremarkably and asked, as if on cue, “Does anyone smoke weed up in here?” Yes, the audience would patiently say, we do.

As mentioned, the assonant Asher Roth was the first performer of note, though it was funny for the initiated that he was on the bill at all — he seems not to have moved past Earl’s two-year-old scorching assessment at the beginning of his exceptional debut “Earl“: “I’m a hot and bothered astronaut/crashing while jacking off to/buffering vids of Asher Roth eating applesauce,” referring to an embarrassing clip of Roth drunk on the Internet. It’s a line that can and did visibly drop a jaw.

Raekwon followed, and though he always delivers admirably, there was none of the clamor and chorus of Wu-Tang, and too few martial-arts movie samples. Maybe unfairly, I expected the lyrical novelty and camaraderie of the Wu-Tang Clan to precede perhaps their most influenced progeny yet, but Raekwon — again, admirably, and with verve — presented a roster of hits. As dozens of 16-year-olds tried to properly configure the Wu-Tang “W” with their hands, he performed cocktail in hand throughout.

When Rosenberg reemerged to introduce Odd Future, his tone recalled the awkward, insistent interview he performed with Tyler and Earl in March, on his radio show. His obvious love for the group was constantly overwhelmed, as it was in the interview, by the member’s futzing with microphones, denial of most of Rosenberg’s claims (and sometimes questions), and, of course, incessant insults. But the inelegant rapport between the DJ and the rappers leans heavily on what makes Odd Future’s project truly great: They live to be thorns in the sides of music businesspeople. Or as Jay-Z might say: the music business, people. Their model for art is simply self-design (the design we all know how to perform from Facebook, Twitter, or any number of other social media outlets); anything else is extra, a product of Tyler’s deft manipulation of the hype machine. He’s so good that, as The New Yorker noted, he practically called Steve Rifkind, who’d later offer him a record deal, a pederast via Twitter.

In the Hot 97 interview, Rosenberg goaded Earl about his absence during Odd Future’s ascent: “Were you pissed? Were you annoyed?” But the rapper, and as evidenced last night, the real auteur of the group, knew where Rosenberg was going, and he used the opportunity to be authentic and absolutely prescient.

“Yeah, initially,” said Earl, looking around the studio, “but I also go to fuckin’ see that … all this shit isn’t fun all the time.”

Tyler’s first words on stage recalled the first roar at a hardcore show, and he didn’t bother to pace himself. It was nothing short of beautiful to watch him and Earl interact; even Tyler’s early warning of the unnamable things he would do to New York’s anus landed a smile on Earl’s face. This was so obviously what the two of them have been waiting for — Earl seems to understand Tyler’s lampooning of contemporary rap on a deeper level than the rest of the group, and he bounded around the stage behind Tyler, laughing at his jabs at the audience, at his bandmates, and especially at Earl.

The show exulted the group’s friendship and togetherness from the beginning. Earl and Odd Future hugged and dapped throughout, and the set started off warmly, with a sweet nod to Earl’s return from the opening song, “Couch”:

Was always smart-mouthed and quick-witted
But something was always missing, like six digits.

It may or may not have been the nature of a theater in Midtown, but I found none of the terror and mayhem from either their records or public persona on view. They sailed from “Rella” to “Sam Is Dead,” both from their second release as a collective, The OF Tape, Vol. 2, and seemed to delight in each beat coming on, as though remembering, “I love this one!” Tyler stood front and center on stage, certainly in command, though he and the others — even the typically quieter, sheepish Earl — would trade posts to go stomping around the stage like any good rap crew, though more in the style of punk frontmen, or skankers, than rappers.

When they reached “Earl,” the song that hooked millions of listeners virally in 2010, Earl falteringly took the lead. He held the microphone to the audience for many of the first verses, and even though smiling hugely throughout, was emphatically not Tyler, the Creator when handling the public. Earl does one thing grippingly, live or on record, and that is: rap.

Where Tyler worked the audience, Earl had a blast in the background, observing everything to appropriately determine his next move (Odd Future has no stage decorum whatsoever, and no synchronized formations; the chaos is gripping because of it) and delighting in fits of fist-pumping. And in the middle of “Earl,” I bore witness to a heartwarming, well-earned stage dive. The rhymes from “Stapleton,” also from Earl’s debut, though not performed, resonated even in a mainstream theater:

Your rhyme’s rentals — give ‘em back to they owners
At the end of the bar, I spit with the permanence
Learn: I’m a curb-stomping person
Like third-strike-verdict-dropping, jaw-dropping verses.

Even with the cacophony of a theater PA system in effect, Earl’s total dominance of language shone through each song. In the verse from “Stapleton,” he quietly enunciates the lack of rhyme in the first couplet, and during the set, he only briefly lost that incredibly sensitive linguistic surprise, recovered as soon as he understood where the microphone volume had leveled out. Though he performs with a more demure panache Tyler and the rest of Odd Future, it is clear that his style is going to, as he says, proceed “with the permanence.” It’s a delight to see in person: he really is as good as the records.

I followed the entire group — Frank Ocean had joined them onstage (though silently) after his performance at Terminal 5 earlier in the night, with only Mike G and Syd The Kid apparently absent — to Williamsburg’s 285 Kent, where they went to see fellow Californians Trash Talk, the hardcore band and Odd Future’s signees. There, out in Brooklyn, was the mood of the records that has captured public attention — a wash of young adults, denimed to the teeth and crammed like bouncing piano hammers under a fog of evaporated sweat.

Here, at 1 AM, the influence of hardcore punk and especially horrorcore precedents like Gravediggaz finally oozed out. I walked in with Tyler and Frank Ocean, though they seemed a little nettled, and rightfully so: The crowd began moshing to the set-up music before anyone started performing at all. Tyler and Domo Genesis, however, milked it like veterans as soon as they got on stage. In a sense, the Trash Talk show — replete with audience members diving from five-foot-high speakers, Tyler swinging from pipes on the 20-foot-high ceiling, and dancers accidentally obliterating beer cans and cigarettes — offered the heart of Odd Future’s ethic. Hardcore has long held a resilient place in the trajectory of difficult music. It’s at once dazzling (even though dynamic range is not foregrounded) and sort of stunningly inaccessible: If you can’t spend time in a pit of what appear to be shaved gorillas, try another concert. For instance, the audience spent minutes before the show tossing one of those enormous industrial plastic trash cans — a great visual pun — amongst themselves in the pit.

At 285 Kent, the comments given to me by every interviewee at Best Buy finally shone through: Fans love Odd Future because they are uncompromising; the beats and flair are just a bonus. Trash Talk seared through their set in much the same way, and when they performed a song from The OF Tape, Vol. 2 with members of Odd Future, it blew everyone in the audience to thrashing, laughing shreds.

Odd Future will continue to fascinate because they make no compromises for pleasure. Live, they are all pleasure, a group of young people who inspire because they seem simply to do precisely what they want to do, something of a rarity in the lives of young people, much less in the music business. It’s a brutal but ultimately exuberant glossophilia, and the Trash Talk show confirmed it for me: They prefer the clamor of everything at once, even the ugly.