In many respects I think of Earl Sweatshirt as an extension of outsider philosophy achieving mainstream popularity. His early and prominent affiliation with the Odd Future collective was just the beginning. Thebe Kgositsile was always going to come out different even if he hadn’t befriended Tyler, the Creator. He was born the child of a law professor and a South African political activist who separated when he was only six years old, which seems like exactly the recipe a laboratory scientist would concoct to create a child who was intellectually gifted and emotionally troubled. Even his first rap alias “Sly Tendencies” hinted at the turbulence beneath the surface. It hinted the future Mr. Sweatshirt was never going to show you his hand. He would always keep his true intentions closely guarded from the world. Even those nearest to him would never know the whole truth.
“My grandfather spoke 13 languages
Somehow never had nothing to say”
From the earliest days of his solo career to the present day release of “SICK!” the adventures of Kgositsile the Ruler have been equally fascinating and mystifying. There are times on songs like the Alexander Spit laced “God Laughs” I’m certain that the veil has been lifted and a young man frustrated by his upbringing and the state of the world is baring his soul. At other times on tracks like “Lye” (prod. The Alchemist) the point is hidden within multiple layers of meaning. The song’s intro and outro refer to the practice of straightening the curl of African hair, but the bars are more like the protagonist from a video game trying to complete a quest without being told which items to collect or even what direction to travel in.
“You know what it is, don’t overreact” quips Sweatshirt on “Lobby (Interlude)” and that’s healthy advice. You should never decide what Earl Sweatshirt is about on the first listen, second or even the third. His short songs and albums are meant to be replayed multiple times, each time teasing out a little more of the meaning. While many rappers of the present generation make short songs because they have nothing to say beyond how rich they are or what drugs they take, Sweatshirt rarely wastes time bragging and his pharmaceutical choices aren’t glamorized. Even the title of his album “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside” reflects he has no need to show off or stunt. As much as any rapper ever Earl’s music seems meant for him alone, and he’s chosen for his own reasons to let us listen to it.
“I ain’t know where none of this shit was headed
Intellect not gon’ protect me”
Listening to “SICK!” may leave those unfamiliar with the Earl Sweatshirt catalogue mystified and frustrated. Even those who are will find that 24 minutes isn’t a long time to tease out answers — especially when a lot of those minutes aren’t Earl’s. “Fire in the Hole” has a long and beautiful piano outro, but on such a short album that time is a high percentage of it where Mr. Kgositsile isn’t speaking. The same can be said for the Theravada & Rob Chambers produced “Tabula Rasa” featuring Armand Hammer (the duo of Billy Woods and ELUCID). It’s the album’s second longest song at 4:11 but Sweatshirt purposefully chose to share that spotlight. The track’s intricate beauty makes it impossible to complain about that choice.
And that seems like as good of a place to end a review of an Earl Sweatshirt project as any. Even when you don’t understand his choices, you can’t argue with them, because you know they are coming from a place of thoughtful artistic creativity. These aren’t half baked freestyles set to boring banal beats. Frankly I expect the avant garde nature of his work to piss people off every time he releases a project like “SICK!” but then mainstream artists like Kendrick Lamar proclaim him their “favorite artist” and you realize it’s all good. As long as he has the respect of his peers and a dedicated cult following, he doesn’t have to like shit OR go outside. Keep being introspective, thought provoking, and unique to yourself Thebe. You’re the outsider who made it inside but didn’t change in the process.