By Eóin Donnelly
In today’s hyper-connected cultural economy, accessibility is at an all-time high: fans are one Instagram follow away from quite literally knowing what their favourite artists had for breakfast. Social media forms a direct line between creators and their fans, therefore the demand for new content is higher than ever. On Rap Twitter, one of the most prolific corners of conversation on the platform, artists are flooded with requests to release new music on a daily basis. Travis Scott knows all too well how far this can go, as the clamour to “drop Astroworld” eventually grew so loud that it became a meme. As is, the industry model encourages constant content. Too much music is never enough. Not for record labels at least.
Mystique is an attribute in short supply in the streaming era. There still exists intriguing figures who can command attention in the shadows, but they are an endangered species hurtling towards extinction in an oversaturated industry. Of them, one name stands head and shoulders above the rest. His name is Earl Sweatshirt, a prodigious rapper who cares little about proving it. Born Thebe Kgositsile, Earl is the son of South African poet and African National Congress political activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, who was exiled to the United States of America during the apartheid era. From the moment Earl emerged as infamous hip-hop collective Odd Future’s teenage lyrical miracle, Earl Sweatshirt has defied easy categorisation, carrying his father’s poetic baton into an entirely different era in an entirely different way. His words were razor-sharp, offensive and vile, but the appeal of his rhymes were always in the piercing delivery, evocative imagery and intricate rhyme scenes rather than the insulting content. From before he could legally drive, the precocious Earl rightly carved a reputation as one of the genre’s cleverest lyricists. A memorable sequence of Sweatshirt bars on one of Odd Future’s early mixtapes goes like this: “Dig this, I’ll get a shovel and strike sisters/And kick them when the handle starts diggin’ in my blisters/Sick, cynical, cyanide spitter/So when I kick rhymes, my victims die quicker/I’m broke, no cheese, my ho’s cracker/Snort third verse of Pigions, I’ll show you a dope rapper/I’ll shit on a ni**a with no bladder/Then throw it in his face to show him he don’t matter”.
Earl’s talent to make the explicit sound eloquent was reminiscent of prime-era Eminem, with a relationship with his mother- and his father, for that matter- that was equally if not more problematic than Marshall and Debbie’s to boot. The parallels with his father go deeper than their shared talent for weaving magic with words. Shortly after the release of his debut mixtape Earl– and just as Odd Future were beginning to attract mainstream attention- Earl’s route to childhood stardom was over before it really got going. Unbeknownst to the public, Earl was excommunicated to a boarding school for misbehaving youths in Samoa by his disapproving mother, allegedly for the lyrical content of his raps and other behavioural issues. It’s often taken for granted how ludicrous a concept fame is, but when fame interacts with the bizarre beast of the internet it’s an altogether deadlier recipe for tragedy.
An entirely online phenomenon, Odd Future were viral sensations before they even had a record deal, but adulation comes with a whole lot of bile. For simply enjoying your music, fans can feel not just emotionally invested in but emotionally obligated to intervene in your life. The internet made Earl Sweatshirt famous, but it also tore the already fragile foundations of his family apart. As Odd Future’s rapid ascent continued, Earl remained AWOL, and the ‘Free Earl’ quest to discover his whereabouts became obsessive, soon morphing into a malicious campaign against his mother. “Time progresses and the fanbase gets bigger and the ‘Free Earl’ chants get louder but now with the ‘Free Earl’ chants come a barely indirect ‘Fuck Earl’s Mom’ and in the blink of an eye my worry changes from ‘will there still be this hype when I get back’ to ‘Oh shit I just inspired a widespread movement of people who are dedicated to the downfall of my mom”, said Earl on the issue. “We found Earl Sweatshirt”, went one creepy Complex exclusive, a full investigative report prying into his whereabouts published over a year after his disappearance. The ‘journalism’ that followed was typically lacking in tact, sensitivity and social responsibility, particularly an interview with a fellow attendee of Coral Reef Academy in Samoa where it was callously reported without evidence that Earl referred to his mother as “a cunt and a bitch” for sending him there. Needless to say, the furore and scandal of Earl’s almost two-year exile in Samoa put his family ties under even greater strain, so it’s no wonder that he was an entirely different artist by the time he finally released his debut album Doris over three years after his breakout mixtape. The new Earl was still capable of juvenile punchlines, but treated the limelight like a vampire at sunrise, retreating further and further into himself with coded self-examinations atop beats that move as slow as Friday afternoons.
Since Doris, Earl has continued his habit of disappearing. Before Some Rap Songs, his last album was in March 2015, the suitably titled I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, a dark and gloomy project which surpassed its predecessor in introspection, lyricism and maturity. The album has a strangely gorgeous sadness about it, with one guest verse delivered directly after its author received word that one of his closest friends had been shot dead. With Earl by now covering the majority of instrumentation under his production alias randomblackdude, it was the moment he began to emerge from the Odd Future umbrella and become his own voice. Since IDLSIDGO, the reclusive Earl has almost stopped releasing music altogether: apart from the short and sombre EP Solace he released shortly after his second studio album, he has appeared only sporadically with guest features. Even in the silence however, his return has been so highly anticipated that a 23-second interlude on Vince Staples’ latest album had the rap world clamouring for more.
They got their wish, with Some Rap Songs released exactly four weeks later. SRS is a polarising album likely to divide critics and fans alike for years; partly a soundtrack to Earl’s grief over the death of his father this past January, SRS is also the next uncomfortable step in evolution for an antisocial introvert who is too damned talented not to attract attention. The album title is misleadingly casual and off-the-cuff, as if to intentionally bely the magnitude of effort that went into it. To call these offerings ‘rap songs’ is also a misnomer. From the moment you press play on ‘Shattered Dreams’, conventional song structure is an afterthought, with only two of the fifteen tracks exceeding a two minute runtime. Earl’s latest album is a collection of bleak vignettes that diarise his downward spiral further and further into depression. There’s no solace, no light at the end of the tunnel and no end to his pain. Far from enjoyable in an orthodox way, like the album artwork Some Rap Songs is deliberately unsettling, spooky and off-putting, with an off-kilter and distant sound of grimy pianos, spooky sampled loops and lo-fi jazz that mirrors the feeling and experience of depression itself. “Middle finger to the help/When it’s problems, I don’t holler, rather fix ’em on myself”, rapped Earl on ‘Inside’ from IDLSIDGO. He shares a similar feeling this time round with ‘Veins’: “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.” With Some Rap Songs, however, he has found the ideal production style to pair his isolated lyrics with, making his harrowing bars that bit more impactful. On ‘Veins’, the standout cut on the album, Earl sounds utterly submerged in sadness, burying himself under muddy jazz samples with the repeated lament: “Sittin’ on a star, thinking how I’m not a star.”
Moreover, in a highly pressurised public environment where every celebrity seems desperate to pit themselves against the President in increasingly ingratiating and transparent ploys for favourable publicity, Earl’s casual summation of the state of America is one that will stand the rest of time: “Stuck in Trump Land, watching subtlety decayin’.” There is no longer room for debate on any issue, and it’s not just in America. With the political spectrum as polarised as it is, the art of language itself is now an object of abuse and mistreatment. When we disagree on any one issue we reach straight for the emergency bag of retorting arguments: racist; bigot; misogynist; homophobe; misogynist; leftist; alt-right; the list goes on forever and ever of scary words that neutralise the subtlety of debate in 2018, with gender seemingly the only category afforded a broad scope of interpretation. Extremities of language dominate conversation in the public sphere, and to try and traverse the thorny middle ground between today’s naively simple personifications of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is an act of intellectual courage that more often ends in public career suicide. We are all entrapped by language in some way, and intent or malice doesn’t seem to matter when you say something even slightly askew of what’s deemed publically acceptable. It’s with some poetic irony that Earl’s bar is reduced to a line about alt-right racists on Genius, thus proving his entire point on subtlety. For Earl, quoting the words themselves do no justice to the delivery. Earl has never been a boisterous or flashy rapper, and in the hands of a less capable lyricist his monotone style would be a chore to listen to (ahem, Drake!). Earl, however, gives off the impression of a rapper on the verge of giving up on rhyming altogether, just barely keeping pace with beats that trudge along like a limping turtle in quicksand. No wonder Earl Sweatshirt is Kendrick Lamar’s favourite artist right now; but the inspiration is clearly mutual. Content and tone-wise, much of SRS is reminiscent of ‘FEEL’ from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. last year. Both artists are talented wordsmiths aware that the truth is never simple and rarely pretty, but does today’s America still have room for the kind of uncompromisingly real, unflinchingly honest and loquacious rap that both revel in? With both artists only tentatively touching on the state of America on their latest records, it seems not even they think so.
Loquacious may be an unfair assessment of Earl’s music at this point. Words are still his bread and butter, but unlike the superfluous ending of this sentence Some Rap Songs is an outstandingly effective exercise in concision and efficiency. “Bad apple, daily clashin’ with my kinfolk/Bad acid did damage to my mental” goes one despondent pair of lines on a song (‘December 24’) that sounds a million miles from your typical Christmas Eve. Don’t confuse Earl’s jaded approach for nonchalance. Earl may sound as lethargic as a zombie with a Xanax prescription, but if you’re not catching the bars then you’re the one sleeping. Earl’s rapping style is straightforward, but far from rudimentary. Extreme attention is played to how his monotone delivery and his choice of words interact. For example, in a rare moment of something approaching clarity and acceptance, the faux upward turn ‘Azucar’ ends with a slightly more positive outlook for Earl: “See the ghost of where I was, lonesome as I was.” Up until its conclusion, the track is lyrically all over the place, with Earl warring with his conscience in one couplet (“Face looking like I stumbled out of bed, hundred dollar jet/I piss problems out, the bottle empty”) and happy with his identity (“Mama said she used to see my father in me/Told her I was not offended”) the next. Discombobulated and bewildered with where to go next, yet with the hint of a silver lining, the lyrical approach of ‘Azucar’ perfectly matches the dissonant soul sample. For the 24 year old- born just three days before me- peace of mind never lasts long, and he is already freefalling back into the abyss from which he briefly emerged by the time the next track (‘Eclipse’) commences: “Say goodbye to my openness, total eclipse/Of my shine that I’ve grown to miss when holding shit in/Open my lids, my eyes said my soul is amiss/The signs say we close to the end.” Elsewhere, ‘Red Water’ with its repeated mantra sounds like a cross between a performative exercise in exhuming writer’s block and a Satanic interpretation of modern-day trap, while ‘Playing Possum’ combines public speeches from both of Earl’s estranged parents in an eerie tribute that was intended to be an olive branch. Sadly, his dad passed away before getting to hear it. As always, Earl’s only catharsis is penning verses in vain to piece together his broken life.
Earl is not Thebe, and Thebe is not Earl. Thebe is a child star scarred by the dark underbelly of fame before he had the chance to become a man, while his pseudonym is his effort to reconcile that pain with who he is as an artist. On his latest and best album yet, the line is more blurred than ever, and it is telling that billboards preface the work as “Thebe Kgositsile, professionally known as Earl Sweatshirt.” This generation’s lonely stoner likes the volume turned to -11 and the temperature even lower. With the smoke blowing round him, he sounds about comfortable down there. There is a kind of voyeruism that goes along with digesting somebody else’s pain, and worse than that a masturbatory self-indulgence that seems to drive the growing trend of sad rap. Unlike say the late and controversial XXXTENTACION, Earl Sweatshirt is a rare kind of rapper who dives deep into his mental health issues and comes ashore with interesting results. Some Rap Songs isn’t melancholic for the sake of satisfying a trendy mood or aesthetic; it will put off most fans of hip-hop and Earl alike, but the album is all the better and more authentic for it. As the darkest hip-hop album since Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, SRS is a weird and murky portrait of a tortured artist that becomes more discernible with repeat listens. What makes it all the more impressive is that despite the candor and honesty of Earl’s latest, his mystique remains wholly intact. I’m still some way from understanding what makes Thebe Kgositsile who he is, but I’ve never been more engrossed in the story.
The strangely comic irony in the fanaticism that follows Earl Sweatshirt is that he has always pushed them away. “Now you surrounded with a gaggle of 100 fucking thousand kids/Who you can’t get mad at, when they want a pound and pic/Cause they the reason that the traffic on the browser quick/And they the reason that the paper in your trouser’s thick”, he rapped on 2015’s ‘Mantra.’ It’s no wonder he has trouble embracing popularity- the horrible fate of being misunderstood in the public eye has ruined his life. As the man himself says on the brilliant ‘Ontheway!’- which ends on one of the most gorgeous sample flips I’ve heard in a while- “closed lips make the mouth breathers frown.” Even the most straightforward Earl lyric rarely carries only one meaning. The first words we hear on Some Rap Songs after all are from the legendary writer James Baldwin’s ‘The Artist’s Struggle For Identity’: “imprecise words.” All over Some Rap Songs, Earl Sweatshirt is haunted by the spectre of “imprecise words”: from the meticulous struggle to articulate himself correctly; to the death of subtlety in Trump’s America; and to the painful internal monologue that accompanies the process of grief, Earl is clearly an artist who cares deeply about discovering and presenting meaning as linguistically exact as possible. Segue to a fun fact: Earl is an anagram of real. Now back to this article, I’m nearly done promise.. To quote another legendary author, Charles Bukowski once said that “the problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” With the world more and more obsessed with sabotaging itself by oversimplification and an overabundance in content that inevitably declines in quality as demand by far exceeds the level of effort put into it; Earl Sweatshirt is a shy and conscientiousness servant of the dictionary, a cryptic source of quiet wisdom and a refreshingly unassuming alternative to the incessant noise of idiots. I won’t be part of the mob demanding another album. Be as silent as you want and take your time, Earl. Precise words make it all worthwhile.