The two big stories from last night's Odd Future show at the Hammerstein Ballroom were the return of 18-year-old Earl Sweatshirt, and Frank Ocean, Coldplay's new opening act, showing up to take part in the Golf Wang festivities. While there's no denying their appearances at the gig were important, I left that teenage-angst-and-Axe Body Spray-filled space speechless over the performance given by Tyler, The Creator. Since Day 1, he's been the most visible member of the crew, but not once did I ever think of him as anything more than just the most popular one. Never had I really associated him with the label "front man," because that's a term rarely used when describing rap acts. After last night, however, there's no denying the accuracy of that label.
One might take this to mean he dominated the show by always being out in front, overshadowing his lesser-known comrades. Quite the contrary: After watching him perform, it's apparent his real strengths lie in what he does to make those around him better. Sure, when he's got the microphone and it's his verse, he raps louder, jumps around more violently, and commands more overall attention than the rest of the pack, but when some of the non-Tyler/Earl/Frank members of Wolf Gang hop on the mic for their songs, he does whatever it takes to make them look and sound better.
As for his two all-stars, older brother Frankie and little brother Earl, he seems to like nothing more than watching them shine. When Frank took the stage, sat at the piano, and sang "White," Tyler got out of the way, pulled out a camera, and started taking Polaroids of his bandmate and quasi-mentor. As for Earl, this was the moment Tyler (and the rest of us) have been waiting years for. Tyler, extremely aware of this special moment, let Earl absorb a great deal of the love from the crowd usually reserved for him and him alone. And he couldn't have looked happier doing it. The night was Earl's.
As the show made its way to the final song, the 10-minute, full-posse track "Oldie," each rapper got his moment at the front of the stage, doing his verse, while the rest of the Wolf Gang milled around the stage, occasionally ad-libbing into their microphone.
For the beginning of Earl's verse — the second to last one — it was no different. About a minute in, however, Tyler orchestrated a highly supportive and theatrical moment by rounding up everyone onstage to stand behind Earl as he finished his turn. Everyone. It was quite a sight, the littlest (and arguably most terrifyingly talented) one, out there having his coming-of-age moment with his crew of older siblings behind him. Regardless of how you feel about their lyrical content, politically incorrect outbursts, and overall brash behavior, this was a rare, tender hip-hop moment that gave those watching a glimpse into how much these friends really love each other. And creating that moment was all Tyler's doing.
Having previously set the stage for Earl, he also gave himself an appropriate backdrop, as front man, to deliver the phenomenal last verse of "Oldie," standing in front of the entity he helped create. While the crew stood behind Earl as a show of support, they now watched, in awe, as their leader made a declaration about himself and his family. Lyrics like:
"OF, shit that's all I got"
"I was 15 when I first drew that donut.
5 years later for our label, yeah we own it.
I started an empire, I ain't even old enough to drink a fucking beer
I'm tipsy off that soda pop"
And the final line of the song, and the show:
"So instead of critiquing and bitching, being mad as fuck
Just admit, not only are we talented, we’re rad as fuck."
This is what Tyler has become: the fearless leader and the even more fearless cheerleader.