Earl Sweatshirt Fights Off Bad Vibes

On Some Rap Songs he finds new ways to be himself.

Photo: Steven Traylor
Photo: Steven Traylor

Ever since the first frames of the grainy body-horror video for the title track of his debut mixtape EARL, Earl Sweatshirt has felt both eerily ever-present and never present. For years, he was the teenage wunderkind you couldn’t see, a rap Golden Child hidden away in a Polynesian retreat for troubled youth as his crew, Odd Future, became the talk of the music industry, both for their deftness as rappers, singers, and producers and for the uncompromising crassness of their lyrical content. Time and counseling sanded Earl’s rough edges. Over the years, the rage in his music has shifted from bloody, ultraviolent fantasy to real internal conflicts like depression and familial dysfunction, but the early mixtape’s cloud of impending doom remains. Sweatshirt, born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, son of South African poet Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile and California law professor Cheryl Harris, has a right to be leery of the future. An undercurrent of loss and pain trails all of his creative breakthroughs. His major label debut, Doris, memorialized his grandmother, who passed away in 2013; 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside chronicled a hermetic period of recovery following a skateboarding accident that left the rapper and producer with a torn meniscus. Music is a space for Earl to vent about his troubles. There is cosmic irony in the younger Kgositsile’s use of intricate wordplay, the family profession, as his tool of rebellion.

When Earl goes quiet between albums and tours, he’s switching the fame light off, reversing the dizzying shunt from seclusion to national notoriety he experienced at 18. When he’s away, it’s Thebe mustering the spiritual and creative juice to be Earl again. When he’s Earl, he is a conduit for fans at shows, on records, and online. It’s work being on all the time; anyone who tries gets a little warped under the heat of the light. Earl might not seem constantly present, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t lurking. This is apparent in his internet presence, which expresses both his great taste in music and his quick, incisive humor on a number of subjects. Like his friends and collaborators Vince Staples and Tyler, the Creator, Earl keeps a Twitter account that’s every bit as bitingly funny as his records are presumed to be suffocating and dark. If you watched any of his scenes from Odd Future’s Adult Swim sketch series Loiter Squad, you know his humor and absurdism also come with keen comedic timing. It’s a mistake to believe that any one snapshot of a person’s interests captures them fully, though. I learned this in a series of conversations with the artist in the weeks prior to the reveal of album No. 3, this week’s Some Rap Songs.

SRS bridges generations of whip-smart cold-weather hip-hop. It’s informed by the wiry, impatient energy and crackling hiss of Doom and Madlib records, the loop wizardry of Dilla, the streetwise paranoia of Mobb Deep, and the wisdom of modern tristate-area torchbearers like Mach-Hommy, MIKE, Ka, and Roc Marciano. Lyrically, this is Earl Sweatshirt at his most optimistic. He’s fighting off bad vibes still — “Stuck in Trumpland watching subtlety decay,” as he says in “Veins” — but there’s renewed zeal for life and pride in pedigree. The new album serves compact, brass tacks rap, all hypnotic loops and life lessons, the kind of epiphanies that hit you when you’ve seen too much of the true human condition, in strength and in depravity. Work on the new music began not long after the last album. The 2016 loosie that fans called “Bad Acid,” which appears here as “December 24th,” is the earliest recording from the sessions. Sweatshirt finished 13 songs — including “Playing Possum,” which samples a recording of his mother speaking about him and audio of his father reading his poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow” — with the intention of springing them on his father by surprise, as a conciliatory gesture, but tragedy struck again when Keorapetse Kgositsile passed away in January, before Earl got a chance to send him the album. What had initially been planned as a few weeks in South Africa with family became a few months. Inching back into the business of being a rapper happened in fits and starts — guest verses and beats for friends, a mysterious “Afroprojection” with Solange and the genre-hopping Brooklyn music collective Standing on the Corner, a monthly Red Bull Radio show. This month’s spirited Camp Flog Gnaw performance and a trickle of great new songs stand as proof that Thebe is ready to be Earl in public again.

As a poet’s son, Earl is serious about the stewardship of the oral tradition. Rappers are descendants of the African griots, Sweatshirt reasons. He worries about the ramifications of the generational disconnect that’s rending a schism between rap fans in their 30s and 40s and fans in their 20s over modern vagaries like triplet flows and trap drum sounds. In our first talk, which happened on a tense, uncertain Election Day afternoon, Earl was both miffed about a Twitter row where rap fans scoffed at Genius head of A&R Rob Markman’s suggestion that the Texas vet Scarface is a top-five hip-hop talent and excited to link the fun-house grunts and ad-libs of Playboi Carti’s Die Lit back to the climate of amateurish discovery at the dawn of hip-hop. Division is a two-way street; Earl wishes younger hip-hop fans had a greater interest in the classics, and he thinks older ones have a responsibility to behave more responsibly. (Asked about the year in Kanye West and Eminem media gaffes, Earl offered a withering line: “You can tell who really just started using the internet.”) When I caught up with him again a few weeks later, he opened up about the tough year in his family, the change in his creative process, and his dueling appreciations for Dilla and OVO production. You’d be hard-pressed to find another rap diehard with the same depth of knowledge and even-handed sense of intergenerational connectedness in 2018. “I only get better with time,” he promises in “Azucar.”

Where’ve you been this year?
I’ve pretty much been at home. I was in South Africa in the beginning of the year doing things for my pop, and being with my family.

How long did you end up staying out there?
I was out there about a month, month and a half. Almost two months.

Most of the winter, then?
I came back in like mid-February. It was a good chunk of it. Then I came back — I actually kinda got yanked back trying to put the album out because this thing has been done for a minute.

When did you start working on it?
I started working on it immediately after I Don’t Like Shit. I mean, really, that’s when I started trying to make another collection of shit, I guess. I’d say I first touched ground, like, December 2016. That’s when I really did the first one that I was like, “Yeah.”

Who did you end up working with?
It was just people that I was around. The first one that I did was “December 24th.” It was a beat that Denmark gave me.

Denmark Vessey?
Yeah. He’s just a prolific dude, a big brain that’s been inspiring me since I heard the dude. Then I got beats from my friends, my brothers … Sage [Elsesser]. That’s who I really spent most of my time and shared space with. Navy Blue’s on that album. He’s on “The Mint,” and he did the beat for “The Bends.” Yeah, him, my man that DJs for me, Black Noi$e, who is also really incredible. Just, like, too versatile a person, musically. The rest of it … I did a bunch of production. Sixpress from sLUms did “Nowhere2Go,” and Gio from Standing on the Corner helped me mix and master the whole thing and also did cover design and back-cover design with me.

Did you pay attention to any of the response to “Nowhere2Go”?
I didn’t. I paid more attention to what people were saying on my social shit. I didn’t read so much because, honestly … I feel guilty holding the album. I need people to listen to the whole thing. I feel like that’s the shit. If I read anything, will be responses to the whole thing.

You’re really calling it Some Rap Songs?
Yes, sir.

How did you arrive at that title?
Just the concept of brevity. I’ve become … It’s been made evident to me that I’ve become kind of obsessed with simplifying shit, which sometimes can lead to oversimplification. People take a lot of liberties, I feel like. Incomplete shit is really stressful to me, and the concept of unsimplified fractions is really stressful to me. So, with things like the album title, how I structure shit, and even how I write, it was really just like, What is this? The album title was kind of a response to that question.

Do you feel like people are gonna hear it and have that question?
Like, “What is this?”

It’s a bit of a detour for you. You’re getting a little bit closer to the thing — like, the independent rap, early 2000s, “We didn’t have a label; we did it ourselves” kind of thing. I feel like there are going to be people who hear it expecting polish, who won’t get it.
Yeah. I’m anticipating that a little bit, but I hope what people take away is … I guess just brevity. I’m always trying to whittle this shit down … I have to be really thoughtful of what I’m doing. Music is a really powerful thing, and the people that I feel, like, get applauded for the subtlety are the people that care and are aware of the powerful shit that they’re wielding. I’m aware of the fact that [Some Rap Songs] is kind of a hissing thing. There’s a lot of technical imperfections. The track list has gotta be perfect, and the song gotta loop perfect, and I gotta exit before … I really dedicate a lot of myself to not over-rapping.

It makes me think about Dilla. He didn’t program so cleanly. It was a lot of human time, and I feel like your approach to the lyrics and your approach to the production in this new stuff is getting toward that. It doesn’t have to sit perfectly on beat, which is interesting because you’re a very technically sharp rapper, but it makes me more conscious of your lines when you’re not.

I think about the intentional line when I hear it kind of not sit where it was supposed to.
It takes the discourse up a notch. It’s not for the sake of exclusivity. It’s not to alienate anyone, but it does demand a kind of basic musical knowledge, whether it’s intuitive or learned over time. Yeah, it’s more human. Sometimes it takes people more time to get into that human bag. I always just revert back to when I was younger because that’s when you haven’t learned so much, and all this bullshit hasn’t become, like, calloused on your brain. I go off what would make me soar in my room by myself as a child. And it’s often more complex than what you’ll do sitting there taking yourself seriously as some smart adult. Just, like, some fucking technical wizard or scientist, you know what I mean?

It looks back to the experience of people just talking over drums. That stuff wasn’t quantized, wasn’t matched perfectly.
Automatically, what you do when you’re doing the Dilla thing, and you see what it makes people do, it makes people glitch. People that can’t comprehend it, they flip the fuck out and then they have to like … box that shit. But it’s a wavy line, not a linear, staccato thing.

It reminds me, in that respect, of the stuff that Dev Hynes is doing lately. I talked to him about the last album, and he said he was trying to get at this in-between keys feel, that doesn’t feel like it’s actually the right sound.
It’s been empowering to define what’s normal for me, because … I can get swept up in other people’s shit. Like, if niggas’ head bops at the show are too fucked-up, and I get too invested in it, like, you’re gonna fuck me up. I’m really an energy-sensitive person.

I’m curious you felt about the response to the new stuff you played at Camp Flog Gnaw.
Man, that shit was better than I expected. Performing in this little window of time while the album hasn’t been out has been kind of difficult because I have had to muster up whatever to go out and say a lot of this pretty dated shit that I don’t feel connected to. So, the new shit is always, like … very liberating for me. It’s closer to real time. It makes it easier for me to trust myself and put out energy that’s gonna get people energized more at a show. I’m just more present and not, like, rapping my way through some time.

Talk to me about feeling disconnected from your older raps. Is it difficult to perform stuff that you made when you were in an angrier place?
Yeah. Some of the stuff. I mean, I’m 24, bro. The shit that I’m performing spans from when I was 18 to now. So, there’s a difference in perspective and the information I had and the fuckin’ attitude, the way I wrote even. You say you noticed the difference, how I wrote more technically? I’ve had to relearn some of these tongue twisters that I left for myself. So I’m really excited to be performing new shit, because it provides a more honest and whole picture of the person that is standing in front of people, because I can actually be myself in real time. I don’t have hits to fall back on. I got to go into, like, a personal bag. So, I only rely on meaning what I say.

How do you feel like you’re different now? Are you in a better space? Earlier in the year, we got word that you canceled some tour dates, and you were saying there was depression. Is that something you’ve worked through?
I’m working on it, man. It’s a day-to-day thing. For a long time this year, I was still kind of in shock and still can be shocked by the fact that my dad died. That shit really threw me the fuck off.

It’s something you don’t plan for, and it’s something that can take months to understand. I lost mine at the top of the decade, and it’s not normal. It’s not a thought process that you get used to. And especially at your age.
Yeah, it really fucked me up. We make movies in our heads, you know? Where this happens. And then this happens as a result of that. It’s kind of like … having faith, I guess. It’s like, I know this is going to happen. So, then when that shit happened with my pops … I talked to my brother, who I saw was doing better. He’s about eight years older than me. He was at a different place with my pops, and I remember asking him like, “Yo, how do you — you know — we know the same nigga, like … how are you not as mad as me?” This nigga was like, “Because I had to come back as an adult and spend time with him as an adult.” I did work with the intention of being able to come back literally this year, at the top of this year. I’d finally pledged, like, “I’m going home. I can do it. I can see this.” And he died. Going through that existential thing, plus other existential elements of my pops, him being a public figure, the public figure that he is. And then being Earl Sweatshirt on top of it?

That’s a lot to process.
At a certain point, I put my head down, and we did our shit and buried our father. I’ve just been figuring it out. But at a certain point, all of the pressures just kind of broke me. Just the idea of having to perform while I was kind of in this weird space, it was like, no fucking way. Why would I risk it? That’s not some dice I’m trying to roll. I need to process and heal some things for myself before I can be presenting myself.

Listening to the new record, the way your dad comes up … there’s a pride in it that hadn’t been present in some of the older stuff.
I recorded all that shit before he died. Everything except for “Peanut,” I’d recorded. “Peanut” and “Riot!” And “Riot!” is my uncle Hugh [Masekela], who died two weeks after my pops.

Oh, man.
Yeah, “Peanut” and “Riot!” were the only two I added. But that album, even the shit where my dad is speaking, I was gonna just drop that, not tell him, and tell him to send a cease-and-desist if he wanted.

So, you were working through the relationship in your head and in your music, and you were just going to present it to him. Did he ever get to hear it?
No. It’s rough. It was a crazy one, bro.

That’s rough, having things to say to people that you don’t get to say to them anymore.

I wanted to ask you about Mac Miller because I saw a tweet that you sent a couple of weeks ago where you said Mac’s spirit was making you feel more confident in your music. I wondered what you meant by that.
I was just remembering, man. You know, people pass, and they get in your head, if you spent enough time with them. I think the night he passed, maybe it was the next day, I don’t know. I was listening to all the joints that me and him did. I don’t even remember the timeline. All I remember what that nigga was always on with me and Vince [Staples]. Just like, “Yeah, all right, y’all the best.” Like, “All right, fuck what you’re talking about. This shit hard.”

And just every story that you hear about him from anyone is like, “He always made time.” He always checked up on people. I don’t know where he found the hours in the day to do that.
It was ridiculous. A concept I’ve been on super heavy is … You know in the old pirate movies, how they gotta throw all this shit off the ship so it goes faster?

Yeah, let loose some cargo.
Malcolm was one of those niggas like that, bro. He was moving real fast. A lot of the shit that we hold on to that slows us down, that makes us care about different shit and makes us second-guess? It can make a man complacent.

He absolutely did move faster than most people I know. I had the luxury of interviewing him this past August. He was just talking to me about concepts for cover art for new stuff.
Yeah …

So, today is the tenth anniversary, incidentally, of The Odd Future Tape.
Yeah. I wasn’t even on that.

They didn’t pick you up until a year after, right?
I came in after that. I was like in eighth, ninth grade. Whatever grade I was in, that shit set that grade on fire, boy. It was like, oh shit.

I have a question from way back. This is 2011, when you first started getting flack for your lyrics. You could have just been like, “Hey, we have all these different members in our midst who have all these different orientations,” but everyone just kind of ate the criticism, let it ride. I was always curious what the thought process behind that was.
I don’t know. To be honest, when that shit first really, really, really started, your boy was still Coral Reef Academy’d down, you feel me? I was still in Polynesia.

Disconnected and not even really privy to what was going on?
Yeah. I had no way to really judge it.

It had completely taken over the press that year, and you had just, like, no idea.
That’s what I’m talking about. My mom and my therapist were trying to tell me, and I knew it must have been crazy because of the severity of how it was being dealt with. Not in terms of coming down on me super hard, but just like how … You know when you’re a kid, and you’re like, “Okay, y’all are like being real cautious”? Like, this is crazy. Like this is not a game. My auntie would be over and be like, “So, where are you going to college?” And then before I answer, my mom would be like, “Oh, he’s going to be a rap star.” I’m talking about before I left, on some sarcastic shit. Like, “He’s gonna be a rapper.” I’d just, like, storm out. Then, fast-forward, and this shit is crazy. I had no way of really understanding. It took me years of being back. I still am just now kind of coming into some sort of comfortability with the shit.

How did you feel about that “Free Earl” thing? It got a little hot when they got mad at the family. It got a little weird.
Once I really understood the scale, then that penetrated any defense that I had, from the content to the “Free Earl” shit. In the one little interview I did while I was out there … My mom was crying on Skype, like, “Yo, people drive by the house. I can’t get dressed. I’m scared. Physically scared.”

That’s spooky.
People emailing her, people calling her.

They were very intense about you guys. Still are. Do you get a lot of grief from kids who grew up on the Earl stuff who want more of that sound?
There are people that want everything. But we’re moving forward. I don’t say that like the goofy way everybody be saying that in 2018. It doesn’t mean I’m going to download that Pi’erre [Bourne] kit, even though I did download the Pi’erre kit. Holla at me if you need slaps, nigga. I got the SoundCloud slaps. I just mean like, come on, man … Everybody an expert now, bro. Everybody knows. Like, “Bro, you should …” “You should …” All right.

What producers are you into now outside of the ones we already know you work with?
OVO 40 is crazy. Let’s just get that out of the way. Alchemist forever. Madlib forever. Rawiya [Kameir, of Fader] showed me Tirzah’s shit. That shit is crazy. I’m loving the loops.

Your new record is really just a lot of intense loops.
It’s infinitum. It’s the snake eating its tail. I keep locking in the loops. To write something complete to a loop, I feel like it takes a lot.

It feels like the promise of the early hip-hop, taking something and making something else of your own out of it. Like, collage art.
Exactly! And you have to be potent for that shit to matter. If you ain’t got shit to say, niggas really are not gonna want to hear you on a loop. You can get away with it when the beat is changing and showing you when the emotion changes. But that loop, that’s just a background.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Earl Sweatshirt Fights Off Bad Vibes