The rebirth of Earl Sweatshirt
Thebe Kgositsile can't sit still. During a recent video call from his home in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles, the rapper-producer known as Earl Sweatshirt is pacing nonstop, walking from room to room, trying to go about his day. His partner is headed out for a bite; before she leaves, he puts in his order, an In-N-Out double-double with lettuce, tomato, ketchup, and mustard with a chocolate shake on the side. Then his son, a toddler, ambles over, merely wanting to hang out. The child gets fussy during our hour-long chat, but Kgositsile never loses his patience. He adheres to the whims of the young boy, taking to him with the utmost care, all while answering questions from a journalist over Zoom. This is a new Kgositsile, a new Earl Sweatshirt.
Just two years ago, Earl wouldn't have been as tolerant or selfless. He was struggling with alcohol addiction then, stuck in an endless loop of self-harm and isolation. Today, though, he's honest enough to acknowledge his shortcomings, having used them as the basis for his new album, Sick! (out Jan. 12), on which he delves into the pain he put himself through since the release of his last project, 2019's Feet of Clay. Like Clay and its predecessor, 2018's Some Rap Songs, Sick! is somewhat inscrutable; Earl tends to rap cryptically through one-liners that take a stoical ear to decipher. But the rhymes and beats are pared back just slightly here, allowing more space for the narrative to stick.
"The hardest thing for me is not being selfish," he says of the album's impetus. "I'm used to being real low maintenance, out of the way. I can't do that s--- no more. Because there is nothing that will time travel you like alcohol." In fact, he was scared to be a father at first. "The first question I asked was, 'Why?'" he recalls. "Maybe because I didn't think I should be in charge of a n---a's life. These past 10 years, I've been conditioned terribly for this."
Sick! also makes sly nods to the pandemic. The cover art depicts a silver bust of Earl with a surgical mask just below his nose, hugging his chin. And on the title track, he juxtaposes his own flaws against the current state of society: "Can't go outside no mo' 'cause n—as sick," he deadpans. Meanwhile, on "2010," Earl hearkens back to another time of uncertainty, when the Odd Future rap crew, of which he was a part, was on the rise and fame was just around the bend. Ultimately, he largely enjoyed it from the sidelines; when his mother learned of his music and drug use, she sent him to a boarding school in Samoa. "Came home end of 2011 … ain't know where none of this s–t was headed," he raps on "Titanic."
This reflective theme represents a new path for an artist who's inspired a generation of like-minded lyricists to spin their feelings, no matter how bleak or morose, into melancholic streams of thought for mass consumption. These days, Earl embraces his new perch as a father and musician with a legion of hardcore fans. More than a decade into his career, he's just getting comfortable in his skin. "He's moving forward," says billy woods, an Earl collaborator and one-half of rap group Armand Hammer. "Each project represents different eras, phases, and techniques. It's pretty impressive for an artist so young to have grown so much."
Earl attributes his recent breakthrough to fatherhood — not just his new life as a dad, but the lessons his own father, the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, taught him before his passing in 2018. "What I learned from my father is the utility of the word," Earl tells me. "You're supposed to call a duck a duck. That's what poetry has always been. Say what it is, tell the truth, move on." Death and grief have been consistent themes in his work, from the passing of his grandmother, which darkened the corners of 2015's I Don't Like S—t, I Don't Go Outside, to the ghostly presence of his uncle, the famed South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, on 2018's Some Rap Songs.
Sick! finds Earl trying to break old habits. Recorded during lockdown as Covid-19 took hold, it's actually the second album he recorded in the wake of Feet of Clay. He had been working on a project called The People Could Fly — named after the Virginia Hamilton book his mother used to read with him as a child — but ended up scrapping most of it after people literally couldn't fly on airplanes due to the pandemic. Conversely, Sick! not only speaks to a public sagging beneath the weight of a mysterious illness, but acts as a personal diary for Earl's rise to stardom.
"People have been watching me figure me out for 10 years," says the 27-year-old rapper. "I'm someone whose issues didn't start with being selfish. They started with me casting myself aside."
Kgositsile first gained prominence as a member of the L.A.-based Odd Future collective, then as a solo artist whose groggy vocal tenor and pitch-black beats enticed similar rappers to make equally claustrophobic music. Across several albums, including 2013's Doris and I Don't Like S–t, it sounded as if the walls were closing in; the world had grown exhausting and he desperately needed solace. That's because he never had space to grow into his legend.
Odd Future emerged as a rabble-rousing crew with an iconoclastic motif that rankled older listeners while beguiling younger ones. They kicked and screamed and wore skater gear, raising middle fingers to conformists who dared criticize their approach. In that way, they were no different than the Wu-Tang Clan or Eminem before them. Yet the worst thing you can do to an aging rap head is compare new kids to their faves. As a result, Odd Future faced undue shade. "We were loud, super abrasive, and kind of trolled out," Earl says.
The exposure was bittersweet. Being out of sight in Samoa made him a cult figure; messages of "FREE EARL" appeared across the internet, cementing his stature even further. He wasn't prepared for the onslaught. "Not only was I young, but I also missed the natural ascension and information that you pick up on the way up," he says. "I just came out up, like 'What the hell is this?' It was embarrassing."
As fans chanted his name, he recoiled even further, releasing albums that traded cohesion for perplexity. Some Rap Songs was a dense, patchwork blend of jazz- and soul-inflected loops with odd time signatures that often overpowered his voice. The album was a sharp contrast to his previously beloved work, dividing listeners who wondered if Earl Sweatshirt's music was becoming too arcane. They weren't used to hearing him amid such opaque production, where it took a few listens to absorb the narrative, if they understood it at all. That didn't compare with Rap's follow-up album, Feet of Clay, a psychedelic mix of eclectic loops and impenetrable rhymes that made the rapper sound weary. It felt like a series of unfinished sketches made on purpose, unfurling atop tightly coiled samples.
Because Earl tends to speak in jazz terms, think of it like this: If Doris and S–t were his Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, two cornerstone works from legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, Rap and Feet are Bitches Brew and Live-Evil, equally viable records of vast experimentation that confounded fans. That was Earl's attempt to challenge himself, and his listeners, to reconsider what rap could entail.
But Sick! represents a slight return to his older aesthetic, an attempt to make something more "listenable," he says. A sports fan, he uses basketball as an example to unpack how he views himself versus how his fans do. "I see myself as Bradley Beal, an old-school quiet killer," he says, comparing himself to the all-star Washington Wizards shooting guard. I mention that his fans, as ravenous as they are, see him as Stephen Curry, the decorated champion and all-time great long-distance shooter with the Golden State Warriors, who's become a folk hero in the NBA. He agrees with the outside viewpoint, but offers this retort:
"I feel like that's what catches people off-guard with me. I don't necessarily do the most, and I feel like some people walk away underwhelmed because that's not my trick. I'm going to come with the one that might stick you a little bit later, a little sleight of hand. Not the most athletic, but with a real sneaky drop step. You look up at the end of the game, that boy put up 22 points."
That he still sees himself as an underrated upstart is part of his superpower. His resume says he could easily go pop, but he'd rather work with those who share his creative values. During our call, he gushes over rappers like Mach-Hommy, Denmark Vessey, Quelle Chris, and Mavi. These are the sorts of musicians he vibes with, and he doesn't believe he's influenced what they do. Earl is a music nerd first; he sees them as having inspired his recent sound. "All these people have been creative siblings with me at one point or another," he says. "And I'm grateful for that. I think the important thing is community."
woods, who features on the Sick! track "Tabula Rasa" with ELUCID, commends Earl's ability to pivot through various styles without losing sight of his artistic center. "He hasn't regressed despite his fame," woods says. For others, like Michael Bonema, a Bronx-born rapper and producer recording under the name MIKE, working with Earl is still awe-inspiring, despite being close friends and collaborators. Having toured with him, Bonema has seen first-hand the adoration Earl gets on the road. "There's a variety of Earl Sweatshirt fan," he says. "There are the older people who appreciate his intelligence and others who appreciate his viewpoint. He proves that you don't have to be a superstar, you can be a rapper with integrity." But, low key, Bonema declares, "Thebe is a f---ing superstar."
Toward the end of our call, Earl settles into his home studio and opens up about all sorts of topics: African proverbs, the murkiness of old-school jazz, the swag of '90s hip-hop. Ultimately, this is who he is: thoughtful, conversant, his head in the clouds yet grounded in reality. His cadence is unhurried; answers arrive casually — in broad, abstract remarks. It's as if everything he's learned is coming through at once, each answer a thread to other observations.
Though he's not fully sober, he says he's been drinking less than he did a few years ago, with the occasional non-alcoholic beer when it's hot outside. And while it took some doing, he is finally ready to welcome the "superstar" superlative. All he needed was fatherhood and personal hardship to help him to recognize his stature.
After all these years, he understands what it means to be Earl Sweatshirt.
"I'm ready to embrace all of this," he says. "I believe I'm ready to feel it. I feel fuller. I'm less confused. Like, 'Yeah, let's go to the studio. Let's go on tour.' I wasn't developed enough to fit the mold all those years ago. I'm ready to be in the league now."