From Odd Future to “Otis,” Finding Beauty in the End of Rap Friendships

By | Posted July 17, 2017
Personal and artistic growth is only possible through separation.
2017-07-17-friendship-in-hip-hop
Photo Credit: John Louhenapessy

Trying to define friendship is actually trickier than one might believe. The deepest connections and experiences within a friendship often stand at the border of indescribable, as what we remember most about our closest friends are feelings and moments, not words. They are the nights in college at 3 a.m., the silence of the night interrupted by laughter, jokes being jabbed at one another, and the sounds of inebriated boys trying to make their way home from the bars. They are the endless conversations on a random Wednesday night between tired but restless souls diving into topics ranging from political to existential, willfully ignoring that time is still moving. 

Sometimes, those moments are farewells to those we may only see fleetingly again. We cling to recounts of the past with a need for normalcy and sameness, just so we don’t have to face the brutal truth of the future. No matter where we were before them, or how far removed we ended up from them afterward, we remember our closest friends because of the unity and beauty we felt in those exact moments, even if they were never meant to last.

We often focus on its most competitive components, with much of the conversation driven by pitting rappers against one another, but at its core, hip-hop is and has always been about friendship. It’s in our very nature to compare, contrast and rank our favorite artists, especially in a genre that thrives on such competition, but that practice is most fun and fulfilling when exercised by friends. Below the surface, moments of unity—however fleeting—are what connect us to the music more than any diss track or artist ranking ever could.

In anticipation of Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy album release next Friday, I recently decided to revisit some of my favorite Tyler moments, and “Oldie” was my first stop. At first, it didn’t hit me why I had chosen an impromptu OF music video that spawned during a photo shoot for the group’s The OF Tape Vol. 2 compilation album. When the video premiered five years ago, I watched it over and over again, reveling in its chaos: Tyler yelling at the cameraman to keep filming, Left Brain rapping his verse with a Thor hammer inexplicably in hand, Earl Sweatshirt shyly being pushed towards the epicenter of the cameras just to destroy everything around him, Frank Ocean calmly drinking a tea mid-verse, and the lingering echoes of “Bumpin oldies on my cellular phone!”

While revisiting the video, nostalgia struck me quicker than I had anticipated, and the next thing I knew, I was smiling uncontrollably. It was one of bittersweet happiness, though, like remembering an old friend you haven't talked to in years. The “Oldie” music video a precious moment and remains the last memory of the once-unified collective.

Since “Oldie,” each of the group's members has taken their own path in music, but none of it feels unnatural. The paths of each member seemingly run parallel with each other; never fully disconnected, but separate enough for them to explore their own careers at a distance. Tyler and Earl, the group’s first two most recognizable figures and the pairing that once felt inseparable, have found their best selves apart from one another. With Earl’s material fundamentally becoming more interesting the deeper he explored within himself, and as Tyler’s reached new heights by expanding the sounds and concepts in his art, everything about their separation, as well as the rest of the members, reminds me of my deepest friendships. As much as I still hold onto those special moments with my friends, the natural separation from those friendships is what has allowed the most personal growth.

Of course, Odd Future is far from the only example of the beauty of friendship shining through a hip-hop group or collective that have parted company. When I think about moments of pure, unfiltered unity in rap, the Dipset freestyle on Rap City or the Roc-A-Fella Freestyle on Hot 97 come to mind. For the former, Juelz Santana and Jim Jones’ incessant hyping up of Cam’ron’s verse over Scarface’s “On My Block” as Cam counts hundreds is as close as three ultimately doomed friends could ever seem in one, four-minute moment. For the latter, it’s JAY-Z’s ad-libbing to Beanie Sigel’s freestyle over “Who Shot Ya” that reeks of unmitigated adoration from one peer to another. Even if Jay was the biggest and most illustrious person in the room, in that moment he and Beanie were just two men enjoying something beyond rap plaques and album sales.

Unity is often finite in its lasting effect, yet the preciousness of the moments it creates stand the test of time. We build friendships with those around us knowing that eventually, that flame of unity and connection could naturally die out. We move to different places, get different jobs, experience different things in life, or just grow apart. In between those natural shifts in the foundation, we embark on experiences in which two individual paths in life converge.

It’s essential to think of hip-hop in much the same way. For instance, take Kanye West and JAY-Z's “Otis” music video, which has the same lingering feeling of finiteness. Since "Otis," Jay has become an introspective, business-minded rapper who's focused on reflecting on the mistakes of his past, while Kanye seems destined to forever push the envelope of hip-hop forward into daring, unexplored territory. Despite their successful collaborative history, alternative life paths dictated the two were never going to last as friends, but that in no way ruins the beauty of “Otis.” Watch the Throne, for them, was much like the American flag they stood in front of; a symbol of undying togetherness that was actually better suited to capture how beautiful a moment of unity can be in the face of perpetual discord.

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Before I started to write this piece, I reached out to our very own Yoh for his guidance. I had a vision for the article but was having trouble piecing together what I truly wanted to say about both friendship and hip-hop. I told him about the “Oldie” video and the way it made me feel to watch similar videos. I described to him the connection I thought existed between the two concepts, but I couldn’t quite explain why until he asked me a very simple question: Do you have any high school or college friends who have drifted away, but years later, you're still holding onto your memories while together?

Finally, it clicked.

Immediately, the memories that shot to my brain were the drunken nights stumbling home in college, the endless talks about nothing and everything all at once, and the goodbyes I told myself were never really goodbyes. I realized that what I remembered the most about my friendships were never the events that occurred in my memories, but the feelings that I remembered from those moments. It was knowing that, eventually, we would no longer share these moments.

The essence of friendship was also captured in now-fallen groups like OutKast and G-Unit, who often made the elation and energy of their relationship feel eternal. I remember “Oldie” less because of Earl’s incredible verse, and more for the way the rest of the group pushed him into the camera. For as much as “Aquemini” is a perfect rap song lyrically, it’s André’s boast of “It’s him and I, Aquemini” and the symbol of togetherness that hits me the hardest.

Eventually, friendships shift and shape the way our individual lives progress, just as those same connections in hip-hop come together and drift apart. We adapt, we grow, and sometimes we move on from the people we loved and connected with the most. Yet, the memories of our closest friends, like our favorite hip-hop collaborators, never truly leave us.

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