Earl Sweatshirt
Photo: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

How Earl Sweatshirt grew up in front of our eyes

This post-weird wave, where eccentric is the new normal, wouldn’t exist without the groundwork laid by Odd Future.

  /  12.11.2018

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

This post-weird wave, where eccentric is the new normal, wouldn’t exist without the groundwork laid by Odd Future. Tyler, the Creator spear-headed pop culture’s strangest movement after the apocalypse of the blog era in 2009. Before his tongue pierced the rough hide of cockroach in his breakout video for “Goblin” in 2011, he came across a fan of his music. It was a rapper named Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, who went by Sly Tendencies. Kgositsile found Tyler on Myspace and gushed about being a fan of his. Some back and forth was exchanged and in the blink of an eye, Sly Tendencies was a part of Odd Future. But, the name had to go. Instead, he became Earl Sweatshirt; the reckless, loose cannon who could match Tyler in sheer anarchism.

At the time, Sweatshirt was 16. Tyler was 19. The 11-man Odd Future party was no more than a few years old. When you take the hot, humid air of Los Angeles and bring in a bunch of adolescents seeking to make attention through music, you get the rise of Odd Future. They were a rag-tag collective of hip hop artists that didn’t fit any of the gangster or conscious roles that were being shoved down throats in the wake of Carter III and 808s and Heartbreak era rap. They were geeks and goofs. Sweatshirt immediately fit in because he was all in for the weird aesthetic that they had going on and more importantly, he could rap. Pitchfork’s assessment of Odd Future’s 2008 debut, The Odd Future Tape, says that Tyler is “so far beyond everyone else here that it’s ridiculous.” While the collective was a good after school project that made music on camera phones, if Tyler truly wanted to make noise, he’d have to get others to step their shit up or bring in another anchor. He chose the latter.

In order to watch Sweatshirt’s video for “Earl” on YouTube, you have to confirm that you’re ready to be exposed to sensitive content. After confirming that it’s okay, you’re treated to two equally arresting things. I’ll start with the video that may give some people serious anxiety. Odd Future lackeys mix what looks like weed, a fresh Mountain Dew, and cough medicine and tosses the ingredients for a death martini into the blender. The gooey mix, which resembles snot, is then divided into red cups for each of the teenagers excited to partake in public idiocy. They consume it and immediately begin breaking down. Sweatshirt rushes to the bathroom and throws up. They head out on the town and begin spitting up blood, losing teeth, and pulling their nails out — in that order. If you’re squeamish, it’ll have you upchucking yourself.

The second thing that you’ll come across is Sweatshirt’s grotesque rhymes that might be what sends you scurrying to the nearest toilet. I say second because the sheer chaos on screen will distract you from the words coming out of his mouth. He raps about masturbating to videos of rappers eating applesauce, jamming chainsaws up the poop shoots of monotheistic worshippers, and making stir fry out of a mix of human bodies afflicted with postmortem rigidity and a dash of excrement. His rhymes are dizzyingly good even if they’re downright repulsive. But, when taken into account with the video’s frightening images, there’s no wonder that he was sent off to the Coral Reef Academy in Samoa by his mother.

Earl, his explosive debut on Odd Future, actually dropped a couple of months prior to the video that made him a household name. It was a nihilistic depiction of adolescence — a dark take on the world of teenagers that adults thought they knew, but actually didn’t. It was a lyrically dense album with plenty of poor rhymes than anything else that appeared on “Earl.” He raps about rape candidly on multiple occasions like it’s a trip to Kroger. In hindsight, any track released in today’s tense climate would have gotten him canceled. It’s a miracle that his mother yanked him out of that artistic environment because the road being traversed would have led to an inevitable crash.

It mirrors growth through adolescence that everyone goes through. We just got to see Sweatshirt’s firsthand. His was an exaggerated version where the dark thoughts we think were actually said by him. Earl was the impetus of a kind of growth that’s common, especially when exposed to the problematic tendencies that help one find the light. While in Samoa, Sweatshirt talked to actual rape and abuse survivors. He came to terms with the helplessness he felt when thinking about his relationship with his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, a famed South African poet and political activist. Sweatshirt inherited his father’s ability with words, so the very action of rap reminded him of what his father did. In addition to facing the irresistible urge to say and do anarchic things, Sweatshirt was also wrestling with feeling lost and hopeless. Samoa, where he was initially sent to as a punishment, became a vital step in his emotional progression.

Doris released a year and a half after he came back from Samoa and split his fanbase down the middle. While Sweatshirt showcased his growth as a lyricist, Odd Future’s fanbase was curiously immature. They wanted the misogyny, the sexual violence, and the nihilism. Instead, what they received was an 18-year-old’s desperate plea to be understood, as he was slowly changing, even if still involved in some of the group’s lyrical tendencies. Lead single “Chum” was stripped of surprises, opting for a deep-dive into his disdain for fame and his frustration at the lack of relationship with his father. While Odd Future grew progressively weirder, but decidedly tamer due to the changing social awareness of the United States, Sweatshirt moved further and further inward. His voice was deadpan, his rhymes delivered with glazed-over eyelids. Some fans left in droves, others settled in for the brilliance. But, Sweatshirt didn’t care. When he performed “Burgundy” on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” in 2013, his peculiar performance bordered on anticlimactic with him half-whispering the words with his eyes closed. His performances were obligations for the record label. His music was purely for him. Everything else and everyone else was meaningless.

If Doris was an album about honesty, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside was an LP about doubt. Sweatshirt switched the name from the previously announced Gnossos, which was inspired by the counterculture classic novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me by Richard Fariña. The title seemed like a dead ringer that his days of face planting onto the cement with Tyler and the gang were truly gone. The tracklist backed it up, as well. Aside from Odd Future affiliate Vince Staples — his former collective, who highly touted him as the group’s best lyricist — their unicorn hadn’t appeared for the first time in his career. Their breakup seemed like friends parting ways because one refused to partake in hard drugs anymore.

As Tyler, the Creator’s music grew flashier on releases Wolf and Cherry Bomb, Sweatshirt showcased a determination to do more with less. His verses became even more streamlined than ever before at a drastically slower pace. The lyricism became even more on the nose to offset the changes, yet it wasn’t a compensation. “Faucet” explored the different mindset that he came home from Samoa with three years before with Sweatshirt rapping, “I feel like I’m the only one pressin’ to grow upwards” toward his former crew. The sound was messy and unfocused with multiple points of entry to find a cohesive sound. But, there was no cohesive sound. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside was honest in its insecurities and unfocused nature. The slips of alternative trap and messy synths scattered throughout the tracklist was another indicator of a conflicted man firm in his indecisiveness.

In the age of contemporary celebrity, transparency makes you a magnet for trouble and attention. Sweatshirt, not a fan of either, at least in recent years, avoided this transparency after I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside dropped. He dropped a few songs in 2016 (“Wind in My Sails,” “Bary,” “Skrt Skrt,” and “Death Whistles”) to keep fans satiated. But, he was focusing on a different collaboration, one with his father on an emotional level. In a recent interview with Vulture, Sweatshirt revealed that he was to go visit his father and work on building a relationship earlier this year. Unfortunately, his dad passed away before he got the chance. Sweatshirt battled depression afterward and canceled some shows to contend the reality that it was a relationship he’d never be able to physically fix.

Some Rap Songs arrived ten months after his father’s death and sounds like the full realization of adulthood pushed on by life-changing circumstance. It can’t get any more bare-bones than this. The title undersells it nicely because once turned on, it offers an experience seemingly designed to disappoint. Once you enter this world of gloom, it makes sense. Some Rap Songs demands that the listener becomes comfortable with the jittering loops, and distorted samples and slips of rhythm by unenthusiastic vocals that occur in between. It’s lo-fi hip hop that is almost synonymous with purposefully bad. Except it’s not. Sweatshirt’s album, lyrically, delves into his faults for catharsis. He quits alcohol and admits his serious battle with depression in the intro track’s (“Shattered Dreams”) opening moments. Sweatshirt spills about his father’s death and his contemplation on what if he’s next. Coping with the death of his grandmother and knowledge that his brain’s forever fried because of a bad acid trip weigh heavy on the artist’s head. But, the ease and openness of how he spills about his darkest moments mirrors how Earl captured his teenage self’s anarchic wishes equally and candidly. Sweatshirt’s new album may be in a niche for many. But, it’s nearly as open and thematically inclusive as his first.

The reason that Some Rap Songs is so scary is because listening to it is like watching the final season of “Family Matters” and seeing all of the childhood actors well into adulthood. The world became transfixed and ultimately disgusted by Sweatshirt when he was only 16 years old. He was a rap prodigy with lyrical skill escaping people twice his age, even if his lyricism was more immature and crass than anything Bow Wow spit at 14 years old. But, since then, the intense fascination with Sweatshirt has exposed the world to nearly every winking detail about his life; from death to isolation and finally, depression. We’ve watched him mature through each of these world-ending issues while he’s utilized his music — instead of in tabloids — to chronicle his journey. Relationships may have been nixed and rekindled along the way. But, the journey appears to have been worth it. Without his tenure with Odd Future and his exploration into various vices, Sweatshirt wouldn’t have the commanding sense of self that comprises his actions and his self-confidence in his music choices. Without those, we wouldn’t have Sweatshirt’s captivating music that’s always a breath of fresh air. There aren’t too many artists who feel as open, accessible, and understood as Sweatshirt— especially without countless scandals decorating their Wikipedia entries. Some Rap Songs could be a conclusion or could just be another entry in Sweatshirt’s growing musical and emotional catalog. Either way, it’s a fitting entry. He’s more complete than ever before.

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