Home Genres Hip Hop Earl Sweatshirt’s growth and genius in six songs

Earl Sweatshirt’s growth and genius in six songs

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Earl Sweatshirt’s growth and genius in six songs
Image: Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com

At 24 years of age, Earl Sweatshirt has already had a hell of a life.

As an immature but prodigious teenager, Thebe Kgositsile was Odd Future’s ace in the hole—but was whisked off to boarding school in Samoa soon after the release of his debut mixtape, Earl, in 2010. Incensed by the young genius’ conspicuous absence from the controversial rap group, fans led a movement to “Free Earl,” which at its worst, encouraged harassment of Earl’s family, who had made the decision to send him abroad.

After about two years, Earl returned to America, and returned to music. He hadn’t entirely jettisoned the morbid imagination he indulged in Odd Future, but it was clear that he had grown. Over 2013’s Doris and 2015’s baldly titled I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, he widened his sonic horizons, honed his flow and became increasingly open about his longstanding battle with depression and anxiety. And on Some Rap Songs, released late last month, Earl continues to bare his soul and push boundaries, this time into lo-fi territory.

Here’s a look at Earl’s career so far via six songs from six different projects.

“Earl”

This is the song that, at one point in his life, Earl thought he would never be able to surpass. The title track of his breakthrough mixtape, dropped March 2010, “Earl” is a breathtakingly disturbing, quintessentially Odd Future statement from the collective’s most lyrical member.

The song is a good demonstration of the rapper’s preternatural flow, even as a teenager. He draws his vowels out, loading his lines with assonance until they become hypnotic: “Stop screaming, bitch, you shouldn’t be that alarmed / When Big Lips is in the attic, armed with an addict’s arm.” The ultraviolence of “Earl” is difficult to swallow, even with years of distance and the understanding of Earl’s trauma at the time, but his raw talent shines through the song’s barbed exterior.

“Orange Juice”

At their peak, Odd Future dropped mixtapes a mile a minute. On this track from Radical, Earl and Tyler, the Creator went in over a Gucci Mane beat, turning the trap god’s “Lemonade” into something more tart and juvenile: “Orange Juice.”

The song’s both a document of sexual and technical braggadocio—“Let the crowd choose who can fucking last longer / It’s the rap monger, rap monster, Earl Sweat, attack, conquer”—and a friendly competition between Earl and Tyler to see who could get the nastiest bars off. What stands out most about the song, though, in 2018, is how nasally and youthful Earl sounds on it. It’s a good reminder that he was just 16 at the time.

“Chum”

Doris, Earl’s acclaimed 2013 debut, is stacked top to bottom with head-spinning wordplay from both the rapper and his guests (which include Tyler, the Creator, Vince Staples and Mac Miller). It’s a stunning album, and it’s truly difficult to pick just one track.

But “Chum” stands out for the way Earl channeled his considerable lyrical talent into an unflinching look at his own life. He addressed family dysfunctions—“It’s probably been 12 years since my father left, left me fatherless / And I used to say I hate him in dishonest jest / When honestly I miss this n***a, like when I was six”—and how he sought solace in Odd Future, hustling towards success. He even reserved withering bars for the media, who scrutinized him and his family during and after his stint in boarding school, directly addressing the press- and fan-fueled hysteria around him in an unprecedented way.

On Doris, Earl still occasionally explored the morbid corners of his imagination, but he mostly eschewed gratuitous fantasies to deliberate on his own life. With “Chum,” he started to develop his rep for meaty rhymes so realist they were depressive.

“Grief”

“Grief” is the heavy, paranoid heart of I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Earl’s darkest and realest record. Finding himself surrounded by “snakes,” and reeling from the death of his grandmother, Earl withdrew. His isolation was not a product of pretension, Earl told NPR. “It was more about getting fucking forced inside, you know what I mean? And I feel like that’s what ‘Grief’ illustrated so well… ‘Grief’ was when I was telling you it wasn’t funny no more.”

“Lately I’ve been panicking a lot / Feeling like I’m stranded in a mob, scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop,” he raps over a soporific beat that’s hardly a beat. “Grief” is a bracing portrait of the artist at his lowest, but it’s also one of the strongest testaments to his skill—a lesser rhymer would have gotten lost in the fog, but Earl keeps his own momentum, even slowing down to a crawl in the final verse.

“Solace”

“Solace,” a track Earl surprise-released in April 2015, is a bridge between projects and—it feels like—stages in the rapper’s life. Dropped on YouTube a month after the release of I Don’t Like Shit, the ten-minute track veers between spontaneous truth-telling over grainy loops (“I spent days faded and anemic / You could see it in my face, I ain’t been eating / I’m just wasting away”) and bleary, uncontextualized rumination. It scans like a stream of consciousness, captured in a voice memo.

In its musty, nebulous state, “Solace” in some ways presaged the abstraction of Some Rap Songs. But it’s also very much a balm to what came before it: the pain and anguish expressed in I Don’t Like Shit. Earl told NPR that the song was made more for his mom, whom he was trying to repair his relationship with, and he told SPIN later on that it was also very much a song for himself.

“I feel like it’s the most honest in the sense that it is not entirely wallowing, you know what I mean?” he said. “It’s not like I’m just sitting in a depression; it’s the first step to where I’m at now, which was like, taking shit into my own hands and taking control of my own life and making the choice to be happier.”

“Peanut”

On his latest album, Some Rap Songs, Earl hides pearls of crystal clarity in grainy abstraction. The 25-minute-long record is concise, but it meanders, too, thanks to the hypnotic, looping beats, crackly samples and tape hiss creasing the sound.

“Peanut” may not be the most accessible slice of Some Rap Songs—look to “Nowhere2go” or “The Mint” for that—but it might be the rawest. It’s one of the only songs on the album recorded after the death of Earl’s father, the poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who passed before the rapper had the opportunity to reconcile with him.

For Some Rap Songs, Earl experimented with rapping just a little off-beat to aim for a human feel in his flow, as he told Vulture. And on “Peanut,” he lumbers, his lines labored and grief-stricken. “Flushin’ through the pain, depression, this is not a phase, ay,” he spits. “Picking out his grave, couldn’t help but feel out of place / Try and catch some rays / Death, it has the sour taste.”

Stream Some Rap Songs here.