Thebe Kgositsile started in the game young, like real young. Under the name Earl Sweatshirt, he has grown to become one of rap’s most alluring figures over the past decade. In his teens, Earl joined everyone’s favorite West Coast collective, Odd Future. In 2010 the single “Earl” gained immediate traction, mirroring fellow OF member Tyler, the Creator’s early style of stock synth and offensive humor, thus skyrocketing a young Earl into the inevitable spotlight.
His self-titled debut mixtape came to be when Earl was only 16 years old. Released on March 31, 2010, it was soon named the 24th Best Album of 2010 by Complex. This project was critically acclaimed by countless media outlets, comparing some of hip hop’s greats to a fresh competitor, for some, a competitor nearly half their age. Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce classified this mixtape perfectly, saying, “The verses on Earl are unspliced one-shots that impact instantly and then peel apart gradually.” My favorites off of this piece are “Luper” and “Moonlight”, both clear indications of the raw talent that was only to improve with time.
A flourishing fan base learned that a year hiatus from music landed the rapper in the country of Samoa, where he attended a boarding school his mother hoped would address the “trouble he got into with friends.” After finally being brought back to the United States by manager Leila Steinberg, the first manager of Tupac Shakur, Earl released his first studio album, Doris, in August of 2013 under Tan Cressida and Columbia Records. Doris cemented Earl’s skill as a genius wordsmith and storyteller. With the help of friends like Domo Genesis, Tyler, Vince Staples, Mac Miller, and Frank Ocean, Earl’s comeback project earned him a perfect score from the Los Angeles Times and The Guardian. Doris’ consistency and tenacity made me join the zealous fanbase, specifically because of the tracks “Burgundy”, “Sunday”, “Hive”, “Chum” (duh), and “Guild”.
Two years later, Earl blessed the fans with the official sophomore project, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt. While Doris helped propel Earl’s career much further, he truly found his voice in this second album. In an interview with Clash Magazine, Earl said, “I’m starting to sound like myself again. Doris is cool, but you can hear the doubt in my voice.” Standouts for me on this project are “Huey”, “Faucet”, “Grief”, “Wool”, and “Inside”, all tracks that I continue to turn to three years later.
At the beginning of November 2018, at Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival in Los Angeles, Earl was a headlining performer, drawing a humongous crowd of restless music lovers to see what he had in store after another long hiatus, the type that had become typical for the relatively illusive artist. While I had the insane pleasure of being at that very festival, I was met with a difficult choice, one that all festivalgoers know too well. “Would I try to see both Earl and Kids See Ghosts from the back of the crowd? Would I skip Earl for the chance to be closer to Cudi and Kanye?” I chose the latter. While I do not regret experiencing the legendary Kids See Ghosts show, the lingering sound of Earl from across the festival will forever haunt me.
Almost four years after his last studio album, the incredible thirst for new music that only multiplies with the passing months, has been quenched. On November 30, 2018, the 24-year old released his third studio album, Some Rap Songs. As for the title, Earl explained its simplicity in an interview with Vulture Magazine:
“It’s been made evident to me that I’ve become kind of obsessed with simplifying shit, which sometimes can lead to oversimplification. People take a lot of liberties, I feel like. Incomplete shit is really stressful to me, and the concept of unsimplified fractions is really stressful to me.
So, with things like the album title, how I structure shit, and even how I write, it was really just like, What is this? The album title was kind of a response to that question.”
Right away, the rumored jazz influence is on display. The repeated phrase, “imprecise words”, comes from author and social critic James Baldwin (1924-1987), and seems to outline Earl’s years away from the spotlight. While he may not have the words to squarely recount his recent experiences and feelings, this track invites listeners to “catch up” with the rapper as the album progresses. I love the pace of this track, simple and melodic in classic Earl fashion. While more complex layers are often appreciated from other artists, Earl’s sheer talent shines without any garish bells and whistles. The song’s strong rhyme scheme is no surprise, exhibiting Earl as the brilliant poet he is.
2. “Red Water”
This track, only 1:44 long, repeats 8 continuous bars over another jazz-type beat, this one being more warped than the previous track. The song is reminiscent of an interlude, as Earl discusses disturbing dreams and his late father.
Earl acknowledges his absence, “The boy been gone a few summers too long from road runnin'”. Continuing to discuss a multitude of topics that seem to have been occupying his time and experiences, Earl delves deep into the themes of drug abuse and depression. Songs like this encompass the human and artist that Earl is; straightforward and real, no time for flashy fakes. The outro, “It is night and like the others I clean my weapons, It is all so familiar” struck a chord with me for whatever reason. However, I can’t find its origin. The deceptive Earl constantly leaves us wondering.
Teased and performed in the weeks leading up to the official release, Earl considers “Nowhere2go” to “closest thing” to a single off of this project. A candid discussion of depression carries into this track as he discusses lacking hope and thoughts of death. Within the verse, Earl mentions a number of close friends that have provided him with valuable camaraderie during the most difficult times. I appreciate the track’s layout, a single long verse, a pattern that will carry on through much of the project’s remainder. The track needs no chorus to keep listeners hooked, as Earl’s robust flow and story carry incredible weight.
The first song recorded for the project, this track came to be in December of 2015. Providing a simple and similar structure to the previous song, his ability to lyrically make every single line count, regardless of pace, is no breaking news, but always impressive nonetheless.
This track is one of the ten that Earl produced himself under the producer alter-ego/pseudonym “RandomBlackDude”. Beautiful guitar chords in the background offer a dreamy canvas for Earl’s freestyle-like verse to flow effortlessly on. Depressing themes of hopelessness continue, but not in a repetitiously negative way. The truth and profoundness of these issues on Earl’s life is crystal clear and sheds light on experiences that fans know little about.
THIS PIANO SAMPLE. Wow. As hypnotizing as Earl’s more classic, deep/dark percussive beats are, this incredible sample offers a far-out melody that forces your ears to perk up. While Earl’s unparalleled wordplay is always apparent, this song takes it to a new level. If I were you, I would read up on some of these references on Genius’ lyrical breakdown. Teased on Twitter in early November, this track marks the first collaboration between Earl and NYC rapper Navy Blue. The two are pictured together in this post’s header.
8. “The Bends”
A discussion that can often be a bit divisive, I absolutely love experimental Earl. The Linda Clifford sample throughout elevates the track centering around reflections on success and familial influence. Earl discusses his own achievements, as well as those of his friends “[coming] a long way from the Dickies and dirty Jansports.” He also reiterates the importance of family, and rocky relationships with his parents that brought him turbulence and regret. Of course, this track has no shortage of puns and double entendres. After all, this is still an Earl Sweatshirt album.
The album’s ninth track is especially illustrative, painting a vivid snapshot of Earl’s time in Odd Future, as well as exposing those that have done him wrong. He likens his own bars to a “soliloquy”, or an act (typically in a play) of speaking one’s thoughts aloud, only to be known by the speaker and the audience. I think Earl’s self-classification is frighteningly accurate, leaving me questioning why I had never heard this comparison before. Being that his late father was a poet, this idea of the soliloquy makes “Loosie” a brief (59 seconds long), but influential statement in the paved road of Earl’s career.
While there’s no argument against this being a solid track, I find the flow a bit repetitive and reminiscent of the songs before it. However, the consistent honesty in reference to his depression, and the creative ways in which he points to and expands upon it, is to be noted and appreciated. If anyone knows the sample running in the background, hit my line.
This track is extremely telling. Upon first listen, I think “Eclipse” best encompasses the consistent themes of exhausting depression and vulnerability in under two minutes. The fragmented pacing forces you to really listen to the words being spoken, further reiterating that Earl is far from a rapper who relies on additions like trap drums and overproduction. The melody is a charming blend of elements evocative of a psychedelic-jazz-sitcom-theme song (what a genre!).
With another graceful sample, this time from the great Curtis Mayfield, Earl slightly shifts his discussion to political commentary of Trump’s America and personal uncertainty for the future of his career. Again, he recognizes his tendency to disappear, saying, “It’s been a minute since I heard applause, It’s been a minute since you seen or heard from me, I’ve been swerving calls.”
This is a special one. I got chills. Real ones, and Earl isn’t even on it. The entirety of the song is a reworked collaboration, utilizing a speech his mother, Cheryl Harris, gave and a poem his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, wrote and recited. After detailing quite the unstable family life he grew up with, specifically with his father leaving when Earl was just six, an older and wiser Earl now turns toward his parents with a sense of gratitude. He revealed that this track was compiled unbeknownst to either of his parents. When speaking to Vulture about the inclusion of his father’s words, he said, “I was gonna just drop that, not tell him, and tell him to send a cease-and-desist if he wanted.” Sadly, Earl’s father died before the project was completed.
His parents’ unrelated works seemed to fit perfectly with one another, like puzzle pieces of relationships Earl only partially understood. Chills were brought on specifically at the tracks close, when applause began. With this track following “Veins”, where Earl notes a lack of applause in his own life, an unequivocal link is revealed. Hearing the voices of these figures that Earl speaks about so often really puts his experiences in perspective and give a “voice” to the names. Harris’ speech and Kgositsile’s poem can be found below.
Through fractured vocals, Earl continues to speak about his complicated family life and the ways in which he was misunderstood, saying he “couldn’t help but feel out of place.” This track and the one to follow, “Riot!”, were the only songs written after Earl’s father passed. The “sour taste” of depression Earl seems to know well was given a new meaning after experiencing death so close to him and the “shock” it brought along with it.
The final line from “Peanut” introduces the audience to “Uncle Hugh”, or Hugh Masekela, a South-African jazz musician and friend of Earl’s father. Masekela also died during this album’s production, only two weeks after Earl’s father. This final track is an instrumental, composed entirely of Masekela’s own music, utilizing the track “Riot” most heavily. Both with the meaningful context, and the song’s sound and production alone, this track offers the perfect “roll credits” moment that this project deserves. “Riot!” feels like an occasion of exhalation, closing a deeply truthful and chilling rollercoaster chronicling the Earl Sweatshirt that had seemingly escaped the world over the past three years.