By Jose Mujica
March 17, 2019
Thebe Kgositsile, better known as Earl Sweatshirt, has always stood out even amongst the motley crew of irreverent eccentrics known as Odd Future. When they made their debut almost a decade ago, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All took the rap world by storm with their surrealist music videos, offensive content, pastel-colored fashion, and undeniable talent. With full cognizance of the brilliance that fellow members such as Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean and Syd the Kid have demonstrated since their OFWGKTA days, it’s all the more impressive that Earl was considered the most prodigious talent of the group. At the young age of 16 he was already one of the most hyped lyricists emerging within the scene.
Since those early days, Earl’s solo career has only further bolstered his reputation as a profound and pithy wordsmith. His first two projects, DORIS and I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, reveled in the dark, moody, and depressive sound that Earl made his signature style. In an era where performative depression and mental illness has become a popular marketing tactic for artists, Earl’s struggles with those afflictions have never seemed anything less than sincere and authentic. He’s never clamored for the limelight or chased the clout. If anything, he seemed to resent his fame and the ever-present obligation to produce content for his waiting fanbase. This cynical and disaffected front covering a sensitive and affected soul resonated with his audience. With these projects, Earl cemented his place as one of the most thoughtful hip hop artists in this generation; a breath of fresh– albeit depressing– air in a genre that has been criticized for growing increasingly thoughtless.
IDLSIDGO dropped in 2015 and Earl’s fans waited patiently for three years for his follow-up project, wondering what would come next for the rapper. In November 2018, their prayers were answered when Earl released his third solo album Some Rap Songs. This time, however, he used his real name, Thebe Kgositsile, to promote the project. It was a departure from the “Earl Sweatshirt” moniker, destroying any stylistic remnants from his Odd Future origins. Instead of the complex multisyllabic rhyme schemes over dark skeletal beats, Some Rap Songs presented an all new style and a more distinct, experimental sound than any mainstream hip hop. The unique production on it is the most striking development. All the beats are chopped up, glitchy, psychedelic samples evoking and uneasy, dreamlike atmosphere where one is not really sure what’s real and what isn’t. Earl’s rap style was the other surprise as it deviated from the cold and calculated rhymes prevalent on his first two LPs.
On Some Rap Songs Earl sounds less angry and more comfortable in his sadness; one can even make out a bit of hope somewhere in the madness. Contrary to the virulent rage present in IDLSIDGO, Earl seems to have resigned himself to the darkness of the world around him, and now comfortably cruises within the cacophony of chaos as if he were bored with it all. While it was a departure that caught a lot of fans and critics off guard, Some Rap Songs dropped to much critical acclaim. It’s another testament to Earl’s or, in this case, Thebe’s, artistic integrity and development as he matures into a poetic renown that has always seemed like his natural birthright.
From a teenage prodigy into a reclusive rapper entering his mid-20s, Earl Sweatshirt has remained one of the most interesting rap artists to follow in the last decade. Effortlessly talented, genuine and incessantly critical of himself and the world around him, his music is an intellectual and emotional catharsis that resonates with some of the toughest hip hop critics and strictest purists.
Earl Sweatshirt will be in Charlotte at The Underground on March 25.