Odd Future, at the Oya music festival in Oslo, Norway, in August. (Kyrre Lien / EPA )
If you know the Los Angeles anarcho-hip-hop collective Odd Future from its infamous song “Radicals” -- with its chorus advocating murder, arson and truancy -- you might have done a spit-take at the sight of the Flog Gnaw Carnival on Sunday at Club Nokia and in an adjacent parking lot.
The group set up an honest-to-goodness Ferris wheel, a swing-set ride and a Whack-a-Mole (alas, retitled as an unprintable invitation to knock MC Earl Sweatshirt in the head) for its big hometown show. It was, dare we say, wholesome fun.
Is Odd Future getting soft? No, but Sunday’s show did reveal that the collective known for chaotic stage shows is finally cohering as a live act that can keep its carnival tendencies off-site.
Flog Gnaw sported a bevy of OF-associated acts throughout the day and night, including DJ Syd the Kyd’s experimental R&B duo the Internet and the first signing to the collective’s Sony imprint, the Sacramento hard-core band Trash Talk.
Their range was proof that the group’s ethic of rowdy, self-aware antagonism extends across genres and subcultures. The variety of young misanthropes on the Ferris wheel (skate rats, hip-hop heads, hipsters and some tweens who probably lied to their parents about their night-out plans) mirrored Odd Future’s mashed-up visual style, with its rap-scene in-jokes and riffs on Internet troll culture.
But the main event was a searing showcase for the charisma and skill that have kept Odd Future the most exciting hip-hop ensemble since Wu-Tang Clan stalked Staten Island’s Shaolin.
At the group’s previous L.A. shows, Odd Future sometimes struggled to keep its sets on track, with more than half a dozen members rapping, screaming or flailing at any given time. But at Club Nokia, the group finally figured out how to work its revolving door for maximum impact.
The group tore through an early volley of singles drawn from its collective enterprises -- Tyler, the Creator’s mixtape hits “French” and “Splatter,” Domo Genesis’ “Rolling Papers,” Mellowhype’s “50.” Even those now-familiar tunes were made new by the kinetics of Odd Future's stage presence -- Tyler bulging his eyes and punching at the heavens; Left Brain laconically mulling about in a donut-themed sweatshirt; the long-awaited Earl Sweatshirt in a straw boater cap jeering at anyone crossing his path.
It wasn’t quite the Beatles returning from Hamburg, but anyone who dismissed their early sets as a shambling mess could believe they sold their soul to Satan for a great live show (and got some sweet “666” basketball jerseys as a loan-singing gift).
The rap world moves quickly, and while other crews have risen in OF’s wake -- A$AP Mob, Black Hippy and Kanye West’s disappointing G.O.O.D. Music, among them -- OF’s newer tunes showed scads of promise for future re-invention.
MellowHype’s “La Bonita” had a hazy seductiveness and infinitely hummable hook that feels like a pop hit; Tyler dedicated a new song to his mom because he claimed she liked it, but the tune’s acidic boil was as potent as any he’s made yet. Earl Sweatshirt’s return has clearly invigorated the group as well. Tyler’s the kingpin, the absent Frank Ocean is the romantic, Syd the Kyd is the mystery, but Earl’s probably the best pure rapper of the group, and he raised everyone’s game for being there.
Even a surprise cameo from Lil Wayne at the set’s closing didn’t especially escalate the star wattage. The whole ensemble (and most of its hangers-on) rushed the stage to wild out on Wayne’s “No Worries,” French Montana’s hit “Pop That” and, with Trash Talk as a backing band, OF’s “Radicals.”
Wayne’s presence implied his blessing as a fellow skate-punk rapper with a loopy streak. But surrounded by that much feral energy, Wayne looked like more a pater familias while the real carnival spun all around him.