All hail Earl, the unlikely exile who defined the decade in rap

From Drake to Kendrick, the 2010s haven’t been short on rap icons. But it took a parent-baiting collective from LA to incubate the most intriguing of them all

Words: Dean Van Nguyen
Illustration: Catherine Morton-Abuah

Let me begin this benediction with the ceremonial yelling of “Free Earl!” and a reminder that we must never take the greats for granted.

Before casting our minds back to the mystery of the missing teenage rapper, let’s retreat even further in time. It’s the first flickers of the decade and the coronation of young Earl Sweatshirt (née Thebe Neruda Kgositsile) is toasted over a glass of “death juice”. The video for Earl features members of Odd Future mixing the recreational drug in a blender and the twisted Los Angeles odyssey that follows its ingestion.

It’s guerrilla filmmaking at its most visceral, the fish-eyed lens capturing the stoned crew freaking out, pulling faces, flaming off their skateboards onto the hard LA concrete. A lot of creative thinking goes into what you can do with blood capsules. Meanwhile, Earl raps from a beautician’s chair, lobbing densely packed bars with nimble internal rhyme patterns and snappy one-liners to bend the brain. He’s 16 years old. Nobody has ever been this good, this young. Earl will become one of the most influential rappers of his generation.

Anarchic shock tactics and an ability to harness the growing power of social media helped Odd Future ascend to the top of the cultural zeitgeist. Tyler, the Creator’s jazzy piano chords, robotic melodies, and rigid drum machines formed the backdrop for songs that were punchy but with the brevity of a Tumblr post. Kids gravitated to the unruly personalities and chants of “kill people, burn shit, fuck school”, but this parent-baiting masked songs that were honest about suicide, depression and overbearing elders. At the turn of the decade, Odd Future captured the desperate condition we call being a kid. Their outrageous displays of teen lunacy and subversion of rap norms promised a brave new hip-hop landscape that years later would be populated by a Cobainian icon in Lil Peep, plus the young stars of SoundCloud rap who made rusty music that bottled adolescent unruliness.

The quantum mechanics of hip-hop tells us that there must always be a stylistic tension between East and West. Earl and Odd Future’s warping of traditional rap was in contrast to what was going on in New York, where cats like Joey Bada$$ – another teenage talent – adored classic boom-bap. The Beast Coast collective lived their lives in the spirit of bohemian b-boys and the God MC Rakim. Their focus on lyricism seemed extra sharp when compared to the to-the-point bars of Southerners like Waka Flocka Flame, but failed to maintain the level of interest Earl and his fellow Odd Future alumni have.

Isn’t it crazy how history has a way of repeating itself? Just as New York was being heralded as back by rap traditionalists who approved of its old school ethos, Los Angeles entered its second great era by worshipping the gods of its past. Assisted by the city’s jazz virtuosos and beat scene kings – Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Terrace Martin – and revelling in region-specific sounds without ever sounding as nostalgia obsessed as the Beast Coast revival, LA was as happening as the days of DJ Quik steering his Caddy around South Central. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was indicative of the bounce coming back to the wild, wild west, giving voice to the #BlackLivesMatter generation in the process. YG and DJ Mustard were the new Snoop and Dre. SchoolBoy Q made music that scraped the darkest corners of LA gangster rap. And then there was Earl. With his sonic proclivities ignoring Cali’s pastoral grooves for something more cold and sinister, Thebe’s ideology seemed to run counter to his fellow Angelinos.

Earl’s rise hinges on his removal from Los Angeles. The mystery of his disappearance was all the more gripping in an era of instant accessibility to all stars at all times. It’s a story that will be etched in the official hip-hop history book. Earl’s mom, concerned that her teenage son was on the wrong tracks, sent the young rapper to Coral Reef Academy, a retreat for troubled boys in Vaitele, outside of the Samoan capital of Apia. There, Earl dried out, read the work of Richard Fariña, swam with whales and worked with victims of sexual assault.

What returned was an artist with a thickening voice, more personalised writing process and no interest in commercial compromises. Chum, Earl’s comeback release, offers a bleakly honest detailing of his painful feelings towards his absent father, his ponderings on racial identity, and a loving acknowledgement of his “big brother” Tyler. The flow was still there – try wrapping your mind around a line like “his sins feeling as hard as Vince Carter’s knee cartilage is”. But Chum saw the maturing Earl lay down a lyrical and musical marker that countless rappers have drawn inspiration from since.

Who rivals Earl in terms of pure influence? There’s Drake, of course. The 6 God’s pop-rap ethos and soap opera dramatics make him Earl’s natural counterpoint. A scene built around Drizzy’s “Toronto sound” – itself largely cribbed from Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak – never really materialised and his culture vulture transgressions make him a clown prince who would be king. Future’s sumptuous psychedelic mumbles were aped with such regularity that he pretty much became a sub-genre. No sane person would call Lil Wayne a “2010s rapper” but the shockwaves of his legendary 2000s run continue to reverberate. Wayne’s spiritual offspring and acknowledged disciple Young Thug has been a transformative figure as his idiosyncratic tics, once looked upon as singular and other, became a vital text studied by a small army of rappers in his wake.

It’s Earl’s name I find myself regularly reaching for most when describing the sound and/or ethos of new rappers though. We close out the decade with a small conglomerate of rising artists – Mike, Medhane, Adé Hakim, Slauson Malone, Caleb Giles – offering the most interesting thing happening in New York rap by making music that’s best described as “Earlwave”. Hakim even contributed to 2018’s Some Rap Songs, which pulled Earl’s sound into even stranger places. The expression “King of New York” meant nothing in the 2010s but despite a lack of geographical roots, maybe Earl is the young monarch.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that Earl is still only 25 years old. The kid who started the decade claiming he’d been “sent to Earth to poke Catholics in the ass with saws” ends the 2010s as a hip-hop vanguard. After 10 years of strange new personalities, hundreds of microscenes and few obvious narratives, one of the certainties of rap’s future is that Thebe’s influence seems destined to spread even further.