Earl Sweatshirt - Hive Feat. Vince Staples

Earl Sweatshirt:
Taking Flight

© Tom Johnson

Words by:

Earl didn’t show up. And to be honest, we didn’t expect him to.

A few months back he’d vented his fury towards Columbia Records after they’d unceremoniously rush-released his latest album without his blessing, and so it’s little surprise that the bullshit-averse, road-weary rapper was reluctant to meet us at lunchtime in the swanky West London offices of Sony Music – Columbia’s owners – for an intensive session of questions, photographs and slick handshakes.

Later that day, the label give us an alternative address near Edgware Road. After pressing the buzzer, a teenager with a skateboard clutched by his side appears in the alleyway, unlocks the gate and leads me up to the cramped apartment where Earl is staying. Hunched over his sticker- plastered MacBook, the 21-year-old rapper is shirtless and wearing grey jogging bottoms, with his white sports socks tucked into a pair of flip-flops. He offers his hand cautiously, before immediately focusing his attention back to his laptop screen.

Also in the room are Earl’s DJ Stoney Willis, Odd Future affiliate and pro skater Nakel Smith (who’s been performing hypeman duties on tour) and a middle-aged woman with a warm smile, who is cooking the boys an enormous feast of Caribbean food. It was her, I presume, who stocked up on the comprehensive supply of vitamins which sits on the kitchen table alongside a mess of cannabis paraphernalia. She apologises profusely for Earl missing the interview. Earl got sick last time, she tells me – referring to last year when he cancelled string of US and European festival dates, citing exhaustion. If Earl gets too sick again, then we won’t have a tour at all, she explains. I’ll later realise that she is Leila Steinberg, an influential youth worker who began helping Earl a few years back, and who famously managed and mentored Tupac Shakur during the formative years of his career.

Earl has basically just climbed out of bed, so I wait around for an hour or so while he “comes to earth” – a process which involves him occasionally prodding at his plateful of food, enthusing over the latest mixtape from Chicago rapper Lucki Eck$ and constantly re-lighting a thick, saggy joint. “I fucking smoke too much,” he sighs at one point. “I love weed though, shit sucks.” Eventually, Leila hands his friends some money and sends them off to entertain themselves before soundcheck, then Earl and I are left alone to talk.

“Flow proper, the show-stopper be Bogarting it / Other niggas be going hard, and Early be going artisan”Between Friends

His fatigued condition is a little discouraging at first, but it doesn’t take long for Earl to warm up. As a keen reader who often laments the mind-numbing impact of social media, it’s common knowledge that Earl’s level of intelligence betrays his young age.“I’m still trying to go to school,” he claims. “I want to do psychology, neuroscience. Probably music or literature – but as a second.” Over the years, he’s progressed from willful ignorance to a higher level of consciousness, and his prodigious talent has always shone through his startling rhyming ability. Kendrick Lamar recently declared Earl to be his favourite artist, and that’s by no means an unusual choice. But for all his dexterity, Earl does not – like most discerning rap fans – see less value in rawer forms of hip-hop, where energy, rhythm and emotion takes priority over technicality. “I fuck with the turnt shit because it’s part of the balance, you know what I’m saying? Humans have all the energy that’s being put forward in music.

“Niggas also got to understand where that music comes from,” he continues. “Like a lot of the shit that comes from Atlanta, it’s all paranoid because it comes from these super hostile environments. A lot of niggas are coming out saying they ain’t shit – not necessarily proudly or ashamedly – but just like it’s the truth. And that’s some deep- seated shit, to come to the conclusion like ‘I’m a piece of shit, I’ll rob my best friend’. It’s sneaky, snakey stuff. Fear is the governing tone of a place like a crack house, and the whole energy of the music matches that shit.”

"A lot of my album was written when I'd stayed up all night and it's eight in the morning. That's when you be having bars"

For Earl, hip-hop with integrity is rooted in honesty, and his second retail album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – which was released in March – is an unfiltered snapshot of his life during a difficult transitional stage. Clocking in at a slender 30 minutes, the beats on the album – almost entirely produced by Earl under his randomblackdude alias – are fuzzy, sepia- toned soundscapes with lo-fi, sluggish drums. With an absence of obvious hooks or crowd-pleasing bangers, you’re left with no choice but to listen closely to the words. “I prefer making music in situations where I’ve got to keep it down,” he explains. “In the apartment I live in, the room that I do music in is right above where little girls sleep, so I can’t be like, slamming that shit. That’s the true test of something that’s good to me. If you’re doing something that’s not very loud, but it’s fire as fuck.”

Earl has always let pain seep through his lyrics. Even when he was engaging in the adolescent pursuit of offending for fun, the anger directed towards his absent father (he once referred to himself and members of OF as the “product of popped rubbers”) always exposed his vulnerability. But with prominent themes of addiction, anxiety, the fake friends who circle around his fame and the loss of his grandma, I Don’t Like Shit… sees Earl treat the recording booth like a shrink’s couch more than ever. “If you spell out the root of the problem, you shed light onto anything that could be a mystery as to why you’re feeling the way you are,” he explains. “But if you shed light on it all and you still don’t do anything, that’s when weird shit starts happening to you, I swear.”

I Don’t Like Shit… was created during an intense month of debauchery while Earl had a break from touring in LA. Having recently broken up with his girlfriend, he spent his days having casual sex, drinking Hennessy and getting high with his friends. It was a process in which he learnt a lot about himself and found creative clarity after emerging from the darkest depths. “A lot of shit was written right in the moment, or if I’d just stayed up an entire night and it’s like, eight in the morning,” he recalls. “That’s when you just be having bars. Cause you’re tired, so you’re kind of discombobulated and you’re not as quick to throw up the defences that you subconsciously throw up during the day.”

“That’s what my goal is now,” he declares, “just being able to fuckin’ remove those obstacles without being in a weird space, whether that’s staying up ‘til 12 the next day, or smoking until you’re not high. You know that? You ever smoked weed until you’re not high? That shit is crazy.”

“Disappear again, reappear bearded / On top of a Lear, steering it into the kids’ ear again”Hive

It’s hard to think of any other career trajectory which resembles the story of Earl Sweatshirt. And in order to fully connect with his current lyrical content, it’s important to understand why he’s carrying more emotional baggage than the average 21-year-old. The rapper was publicly inducted to Odd Future with the track Assmilk on Tyler, The Creator’s Bastard mixtape, which first appeared online in late 2009. On the track, Earl – then 15 years old – declared himself the “reincarnation of ’98 Eminem” and competed with Tyler to come up with the most absurd, gruesome and morally reprehensible imagery possible in a succession of back-and-forth verses that were interrupted by the sound of the duo play-fighting in the studio. The Earl mixtape came a few months later, and the articulate horror of the rapper’s bratty skate-rat manifesto was summed up on the tape’s lead track: “Go on, suck it up; but hurry, I got nuts to bust and butts to fuck and ups to shut and sluts to fucking uppercut / It’s OF buttercup, go ahead – fuck with us / Without a doubt, a surefire way to get your mother fucked”. The track’s now-legendary video went viral, galvanising the ascent of OF while stirring debates about the relationship between morality and art.

But by this point, Earl was already gone. For over a year and a half, Odd Future fanned the flames of curiosity about Earl’s absence while remaining tight-lipped about his whereabouts. On the digital flyer they posted for an early gig at LA’s Key Club in July 2010, Earl Sweatshirt’s name was crossed out with a note that read “will not be there due to mom”. The words “Free Earl” were included in lyrics, chanted by ever-expanding crowds and printed onto merchandise. The accepted narrative seemed to be that Earl’s mother had objected to his lyrical content and Odd Future’s corrupting influence, and had coercively deprived him of his chance at success.

"The Odd Future fanbase is what makes touring hard for me, straight up"

Complex magazine first blew Earl’s cover by leaping over the boundaries of ethics with an article entitled Complex Exclusive: We’ve Found Earl Sweatshirt, in which they posted photos they’d painstakingly searched for that proved Earl was at the Coral Reef Academy a reform school for at-risk youths in the Pacific island nation of Samoa. Once the story was out, The New Yorker published an 8000 word article about Earl’s situation in which they relayed emails from him via his mother. “I’ve still got work to do,” Earl was quoted as saying. “And don’t need the additional stress of fearing for my family’s physical wellbeing. Space means no more ‘Free Earl.’” The New Yorker’s piece also reached out to Earl’s father who, it transpired, is the famous South African poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile.

“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”Mantra

© Tom Johnson

Earl left LA as a barely distinguished bedroom rapper and returned as a world-famous, mythologised icon. His lengthy verse on Odd Future’s victorious posse cut Oldie came as a thrilling surprise – it was widely believed that the group were legally restricted from using Earl’s voice on for-sale music until his 18th birthday in February 2012 – around a month before the group released The OF Tape Vol 2. During Odd Future’s sold out gig at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom a month later, Earl made history by joining his friends – who were now an experienced, globe- trotting live unit – on stage. The crowd roared when they heard the distinctive piano loop of Orange Juice – an early OF track that captured Earl and Tyler’s fraternal chemistry. But Earl’s voice could barely be heard, and his big moment was muffled. Online footage showed that Earl was holding the microphone too far from his mouth. It was an awkward blunder, but who can blame him? After all, this was his first real show.

The reunion had plenty of glorious moments, and Earl seemed excited to be recording with the group’s members again, but things could never be the same as they were before he left. Friendship groups can grow in different directions during adolescence, and something inside of Earl Sweatshirt had fundamentally changed in Samoa. During his time at Coral Reef, he worked at a victim’s support centre which served young people who had been sexually assaulted, and since then he’s appeared embarrassed and remorseful about the shock-tactics of his old material.

But Earl insists that the time spent in Samoa was a necessary sacrifice; a self-imposed exile to help prepare him for the pressures Odd Future might bring. “I could have been out of there,” he says, still playing with his now-cold plate of chicken with rice and peas. “But I spent a year there fighting. I spent a year not moving forward. And time is your most valuable asset. That’s a year that was gone, that’s a chapter out of my book. Bro, I noticed that my mind doesn’t even acknowledge 2011 as a year. I don’t know what happened in 2011. When I was fighting over some shit, that if I’d seen how over [Odd Future] I was just a couple of years later…” he shakes his head in disbelief.

OF’s gradual dissolution has been no secret, but a couple of days before our interview, a cycle of online news articles had generated after Tyler had tweeted that Odd Future are “no more”. Earl was callous in his response: “no sympathy for male virgins who’re in their feelings about Tyler pointing out and solidifying the obvious,” he tweeted. Is he really trying to distance himself from the eternally immature demographic that worships him? “Oh so fucking badly bro,” he exclaims. “It’s what makes touring hard for me, straight up. Last night in Bristol, there’s two dudes in the front like “Fuck Odd Future! Earl, fuck Odd Future!” That’s the most Odd Future thing you do,” he says, cringing.

"There’s going to be a point where I disconnect from the generation that’s prevalent in music. "

“I started thinking the way I do now the last time I came to Europe,” he explains. “I was playing cutty ass places, like weird towns in Germany. And it was the worst that I’d seen it, the fanboy shit. Or just the head-to-toe [merchandise], like, you look like shit. But you can’t get on someone’s head because they’re trying to be like you. And when I told myself that, I was like ‘ohh fuck’ So you gotta repent, know what I’m saying?

“And I went back home with that, and I brought that to fools at OF. It’s a difficult position to be in, to sympathise from the management side of OF. It’s difficult to get seven or eight people together in a collective consciousness, but it was easy for me. I was just like ‘fuck that, I’m not going to drive myself crazy.’”

“Searching for a way to state it right / Young, black and jaded, vision hazy strolling through the night”Knight

Earl Sweatshirt’s honesty may seem brutal, but there’s something to be respected in his determination to seize control over the false reputation that constantly threatens to define him, to shed a fanbase he’s outgrown despite the financial incentive to just grin and bear it all. He’s constantly steered his career off-road, and he’s shown no desire to fit the mould of restrictive hip- hop stereotypes.

Towards the end of our conversation, he expresses his disrespect for the wheezy middle-aged rappers who still cling on to the industry by regurgitating fantasies of a lifestyle they led decades ago. “But you know what would be some interesting music?” he ponders. “Fucking disgruntled 40-year-old man music, music that really captures the abyss that might be someone’s middle-age. There’s so much depth to all these characters, but for some reason, everyone’s playing the same character.”

And then there’s the question of Earl’s longevity as a touring rap artist. It’s hard not to feel a little concerned about the extent of his physical and mental exhaustion. Does he ever worry about his own future? “Sometimes,” he admits. “But I just trust my gut feeling about shit, I know I’m going to be rapping for no super long-ass time. It’s not like I’m waiting for it anxiously, but there’s going to be a point where I have to depart from doing shit publicly – to succeed where the people who are older than me failed. There’s going to be a point where I disconnect from the generation that’s prevalent in music. Im’ma fucking sign off right there. You feel me?”

I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is out now via Tan Cressida / Columbia Records

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