Rapper Earl Sweatshirt lets his angst hang out
Fame is weighing on rapper Earl Sweatshirt and he's letting it all hang out in his new album
Earl Sweatshirt is in a foul mood. He's lethargic and maybe even agoraphobic. To paraphrase the title of his cuss-dotted new album, he doesn't like (anything) and he doesn't go outside.
If he's to be believed throughout the 30-minute work, the rapper and producer born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile has mostly been dealing with a break-up, fighting with Xanax, smoking marijuana and lying real, real low. His only connection to the outside world, it seems, is his front door's peephole and maybe the pizza deliverer.
Even by Sweatshirt standards, this is grim stuff - no small feat considering that on the title of his very first track he described himself as ugly, that in his 2013 debut studio album, Doris (after a couple of breakout mix tapes and releases with the Odd Future collective), he cast a side-eyed glare at his increasing renown and worked hard to diminish expectations. On the new record, I Don't Like …, I Don't Go Outside, he's not hiding his grumpiness: "I've been like this since the Motorola Razr." Considering he's just 21 years old, that is more than half his life.
This is a different brand of darkness, though. Filled with barbs at former friends and verse-long defences of his culpability in a recent break-up, Earl's portrait of the artist as a young man reads as a kind of poetically executed tirade at both the world and himself, one tempered by his acknowledged good fortune.
"Good grief, I've been reaping what I sow," he raps on Grief, the first single. "I ain't been outside in a minute/ I been living what I wrote." All he sees out there are snakes - "Mama taught me how to read 'em when I look" - so he's staying in. He characterises his grandmother's death as when she "drank the mud".
This relentless insight, consistently sharp skills as a writer, and casually crucial delivery are key reasons Earl has been so doted upon by both the hip-hop cognoscenti and fans of the written word. Yes, his back story is fascinating, but even without it his fans would be clamouring for new work.
Any excitement accrued after his remarkable rise as a teenage member of the Odd Future hip-hop collective and son of accomplished parents - one's a UCLA law professor, the other an admired South African poet and political activist - seems long gone. Lyrically black and grey with the occasional "crimson leak" of blood (and lots of marijuana green), the album has a Nick Drake-quality patina.
Within these sparse, Rothko-esque works, the artist dedicates deep, unflinching energy to documenting and hopefully exorcising his woes (or at least understanding them), delivering lines with wondrous cadence, zipping with a sing-song musicality that illuminates what surrounds it. "Lately I've been panicking a lot - feel like I'm stranded in a mob," he raps in Grief. "Scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop/ Never getting out of hand, steady, handling my job."
Even his BMW is colourless: "I'm in that ash-grey Beamer/ We'll be calling that the pigeon coupe," he explains during Mantra as an echoey bass drum kicks and a distorted Portishead-suggestive guitar tone cuts through the midrange. Elsewhere he describes his "face getting grey from the ash/ But I'm laughing".
For all his contemplation, though, Earl certainly has been busy, evidence that the torture's doing some artistic good and that the storm clouds may pass. Why would someone so defeatist, after all, dedicate energy to producing nine of these 10 tracks when he has a buffet of producers at his command? Why delve so deeply into the psyche while building ethereal, humming beats in his home studio when he could be sitting on the couch, counting his money and revelling in an autonomy that any artist would sacrifice an ear for?
These are the kinds of questions Earl addresses on I Don't Like …, I Don't Go Outside. Despite the shuttered windows, he explores his lot, his fortune both good and bad, his mixed emotions, and his new and old relationships throughout the record. But his isn't the travel-the-world kind of searching.
Unlike Los Angeles' anointed king of hip hop, Kendrick Lamar, Earl's not advocating, isn't delving into his people's musical past to make connections, and shows little interest in addressing big-picture ideas such as the recent racial turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. Rather, Earl documents his days spent "drinking and missing my grandmother", spends others "plotting on my neighbours, asking God for favours". Granted, Lamar is six years older than Earl and didn't release his debut album, Section 80, until he was a few years older than Earl is now.
Only a few guests stop by, and when they do, it's as if they're storming Earl's apartment unannounced and casting sunshine on a cowering vampire. Long-time Long Beach compadre Vince Staples opens the album-closing Wool with a relentless drive. On DNA, rapper (and pro skateboarder) Nakel Smith offers a terrific verse in the form of a love letter to a long-gone relative while a heartbeat rhythm pumps.
Earl's wariness and weariness shouldn't be surprising given that for nearly a quarter of his life he's been in the spotlight, growing up while surrounded by "a gaggle of a hundred … thousand kids who you can't get mad at when they want a pound or a pic/ Cause they the reason that the traffic on your route was quick and they the reason that the paper in your trousers so thick".
The artist entombs these verses within minimal, bass-heavy beats, down-tempo and dotted with flashes of melody and sparks of skittering high-hat. These productions are foggy things and reveal a man busy in his bunker working stuff out.
He may say he's wallowing and bitter, but within those walls, Earl has been building, examining, acting his age and contemplating. He's been dealing with conflicts, separating the leeches from the snakes and making music.
Los Angeles Times