Flying From Cancer

Shedding the Blockers

Linsey Fields

Here’s Earl

Earl Sweatshirt is all grown up. Now what?

“Come backstage and smoke.”

Minutes before I receive this direct message from Remy Banks, he’s onstage, wrapping up a set. The 26-year-old rapper is the opening act on a major North American tour, during which he’s showing fans what a homegrown New York lyricist looks like, talks like, raps like.

The tour stop is Millvale, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. After wandering through the mazelike Mr. Smalls Theater — a converted church in a metropolitan area full of converted churches — I finally find Banks, in the same room as the night’s headliner, Earl Sweatshirt.

Earl is sitting in a chair in the corner, hunched over, perfectly positioned to watch his longtime friend and sometime collaborator Vince Staples perform. His attire is a junior-high classic: low-top Nike SB skate shoes, a black T-shirt with loose sleeves that hit the elbows, jeans that require a pull-up every two minutes or so. Earl is leaning forward in his chair, head nodding, never quite committing to up-and-down or side-to-side. He looks focused, like a boxer visualizing the next round, anxiously awaiting the bell.

I am drawn in by his concentration. This is a different side of Earl than the one I encountered earlier in the day. When the figurative bell rings in the form of “Wool,” Earl rises from his seat and bounds onstage. “Wool” is the final song from Earl’s new album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and it features Staples. Structurally, it’s a simple song. There’s no chorus, just two verses, first Vince and then Earl. This was Vince’s set, but as Earl finishes his verse, barking the album’s final line — “Give a fuck about all the moves all these loser n-​-​-​-​s making now” — the night becomes Earl’s.

“Whatever nuances I’m not feeling with a Kendrick [Lamar]–type album, I’m still so thankful for his position because he’s doing that work so that fools like me can still find myself. I just don’t do it in the same way as Kendrick. He’s the opposite of mystery; everything is fully spelled out. It’s sophisticated but it doesn’t take a lot to understand what he’s talking about … it gives me room to find myself.” —Earl Sweatshirt

Seeing Earl onstage is a departure from years past, when we heard only about him, not from him. His life was high-end, critically acclaimed tabloid fodder — intellectual parents, narrative of exile, status as a troubled prodigy who deserved to be with his outspoken friends rather than obey his mother. But now that he’s telling his own story, he’s no longer a legend or a fable or a cautionary tale. He’s making his peace with his younger years and waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

But this game of catch-up is tiring. And Earl is tired of getting stuck talking about the past, for good reason. His teenage years are well documented. It’s not a book he wants to burn, but rather one he would prefer to close and place high on the shelf.

The facts of Earl Sweatshirt’s youth are enough to keep you ensorcelled by the past. Born Thebe Kgositsile in 1994 to a South African poet father and an African American UCLA law professor mother, Earl has an uncommon background. By 16, he had a critically acclaimed mixtape, Earl. By 18, he’d been profiled by The New Yorker and The New York Times. In 2011, just as his music collective Odd Future was on the rise, he was sent away by his mother to Coral Reef Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in Samoa. Gathering real-time information on Earl suddenly became an Internet obsession. So when there was no news, all there was to go on was the past.

Earl was treated like an adult while still very much a teenager. But now that he’s a 21-year-old man, we’re still focused on his teenage antics and the things he was capable of at such a young age.

“That’s the misfortune of shit cracking off when it did for me, at the age it did for me,” Earl says. “Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen — shit doesn’t start solidifying until like right now. And even the I Don’t Like Shit shit — there’s a lot of truth on that shit, but there’s still the late-teen element.”

This introspection and self-awareness — this is the Earl I should have expected. But I, too, had been stuck in his past.

“Welcome to hell.”

These are Earl’s first words as he opens the door of his current home, a luxurious, bed-filled tour bus. This, right after Earl pauses for a moment to size up a ramp alongside Mr. Smalls Theater. “They skate during the day, before the shows at night,” says Earl’s tour manager, Jimi Shestina. In addition to managing Earl’s Not Redy 2 Leave tour, Shestina works with skate brand Fucking Awesome, which is also “on tour,” having meet-ups at skate parks and selling merchandise at Earl’s tour stops. As we board the bus, Earl mutters, “It smells like shit,” and then has a playful three-second wrestling match with Nakel Smith, a professional skater, tour mate, and rapper who was featured on “DNA” from Earl’s latest release. Considering the tenor of things so far, I brace myself for a goofy, hyperactive, easily distracted Earl. But this is a different person. The antic “late-teen element” is still a part of his personality, but it’s no longer at the center.

“I feel I Don’t Like Shit was really the pinnacle as far as the idea of Earl Sweatshirt, the teen, could go,” he says, tugging on his hair, causing it to further lose shape, three hours before showtime. “Just a lot of the sounds were the fully grown shit that I feel like we was on when we were teenagers. That O.F. sound. A lot of it is a new twist on some shit that’s super-nostalgic. So that shit is like the last of me, the final shedding of the teen shit.”

Perhaps letting go of the past, of the “teen shit,” would be easier if Earl’s youthful rise weren’t defined by his absence.

In February 2011, Odd Future made their television debut, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Hodgy Beats and group leader Tyler, the Creator performed “Sandwitches” from Tyler’s second album, Goblin. The performance — iconic in its headbanging, its use of gnomes, its televised angst, and its Mos Def video bomb — was also notable for how it began: with offscreen screams of “Free Earl!”

It was arguably the biggest year of Earl’s career to date, but he could not speak for himself.

That March, as Odd Future’s collective star continued to rise, Tyler spoke with Canadian interviewer Nardwuar at the South by Southwest music festival. After a few minutes, Nardwuar asked Tyler about Earl.

Nardwuar: Was Earl the best rapper ever at the age of 15, you think?
Tyler: [Nodding head in agreement.] He was the best rapper at the age of 16, also.

In May, the New Yorker profile was published. It was lengthy, comprehensive, and exhaustive on all things Odd Future, but titled “Where’s Earl?” The subtitle read, “Word from the missing prodigy of a hip-hop group on the rise.” Three months later, in August, just months after the collective’s first television appearance, Tyler won “Best New Artist” at the MTV Video Music Awards. Taking the stage with members of Odd Future in tow, a clearly shocked Tyler announced, “This is for my little brother Earl. He’s not here right now,” all while clenching one of the “Missing: Have You Seen Me?” meme-inspired shirts that bore Earl’s face.

This was a teen cult figure missing in action. And at the beginning of the decade, Earl Sweatshirt was becoming the stuff of legend. The rumored greatness neared insurmountable hyperbole. But it wasn’t purely hearsay. There was music, evidence of his talent, most notably his 2010 mixtape Earl, as well as verses on other Odd Future songs. But he wasn’t around to support or rebut his own legend, and so it grew stronger.

Earl was precocious — the words he knew and the way he was able to string them together were almost unprecedented for a teenager. It didn’t matter if his lyrics were unbelievable — his music wasn’t autobiographical so much as it was surrealistic. It wasn’t a knock on Earl’s credibility; most rap lyrics on youthful fame, fortune, or sexual conquests aren’t meant to be journalism. But with Earl, you had to hope the tales he told existed only in his imagination, because they were often vile in the way teenage boys are vile, in that way teenage boys are unaware that some things can’t just be chalked up to a joke.

YouTube Music Awards 2013 - Backstage

In 2009, Earl traded quatrains with an 18-year-old Tyler on a technically impressive song titled “AssMilk.”

Tyler: Get the certain tingle, eating Häagen-Dazs
With some soccer moms where they like to fucking sit and mingle
Watch an Animal Planet document on the Eagles
In the flyest ’06 Supreme beanie, Sigel

Earl: Your grind’s feeble, I’m regal, really, I’m Willy Smith
I am legend, a snicker dick in a vanilly chick.
Come take a stab at it f-​-​-​-​t, I pre-ordered your casket
This is known as a classic, yeah that chapped lips crack shit

Tyler: Hat is always forest so the bitches call me Gump
But compliment her tits and then it’s off to hump her
Fuck her in a Hummer while I rape her then I put her in a slumber
It’s not a figure of speech when I tell you that I dumped her

Earl: Known narcissists, sipping on arsenic
Carved carcasses in the garage, don’t park in it
Hard as finding retarded kids at Harvard
It’s Wolf Gang barking keep you up like car alarms and shit

For young Earl, linguistically complex and morally heinous, the obvious comparison was young, Slim Shady LP–era Eminem: effortlessly rapping with a technical precision, unapologetically detailing terrible things, all while wearing a shit-eating grin. The comparison stuck, but there was a significant difference between a teenage Earl and a mid-twenties Eminem: Earl still had time to grow up.

“I was a sponge, just picking up everything that fucking came at me,” Earl says, thinking back to his earliest years. “When I was little, when I was a kid, I used to sit in front of the TV and just say what the TV says. It’s how I got good at imitating people. And I applied that to music and shit. That’s how I learned how to rap. You just make yourself an encyclopedia.”

Earl has matured more, and more quickly, than many of his peers (and elders). Speaking to GQ in 2013 about his past lyrical content, he said: “I’m an adult. I can’t be fucking talking about raping people and shit. That shit’s crazy. As an adult, if you want to talk about rape, there’s certain shit that comes along with it.” This doesn’t deserve a pat on the back. But that kind of growth is rare for someone who has spent his entire adult life in the spotlight. A simple public acknowledgement that you didn’t have your shit together is admirable. Searching for his most authentic self is a major theme in his life, and it turns up in his music, his audiences as they age with him, and his relationship with his mother, which was once so controversial. “I feel like I’m on the fast track with what I’ve done, but it’s going to take a while to solidify what is just setting my feet,” Earl says. It’s a process that’s affected by his peers — the ones he keeps in his inner circle, the ones he refuses to concern himself with, and the ones whose art helps him discover the type of rapper, and man, he wants to become.

“I don’t know if it was a gift or curse, but for me it’s that I had to fucking find myself. That’s why I told the homies, whatever nuances I’m not feeling with a Kendrick [Lamar]–type album, I’m still so thankful for his position because he’s doing that work so that fools like me can still find myself,” Earl says. “I just don’t do it in the same way as Kendrick. Kendrick is so explicit in the way that that n-​-​-​-​ writes. Like, it’s so explicit. He’s the opposite of mystery; everything is fully spelled out. But it’s in [an] Everyman’s language. You can really, really understand it. It’s sophisticated but it doesn’t take a lot to understand what he’s talking about. And everyone can read it, so it’s like … it gives me room to find myself.”

It seemed drastic when Earl’s mother sent him away to Samoa, but the timing may have been perfect. It wasn’t simply that his young age afforded him time to outgrow his teenage flaws, but that he had time to decide the way he wanted to grow. At first, it was forced upon him. But now it’s all Earl.

Earl Sweatshirt And Action Bronson Perform At The Warfield TheaterTim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

“Earl’s free, bitch.”

It was 2012, and as Hodgy Beats’s hollering from the Hammerstein Ballroom stage indicated, Earl’s tour in Samoa was finally over. The concert was a celebration of all things Odd Future. The collective was surging, tertiary members were becoming minor celebrities, Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE was only months away, Tyler was becoming a legitimate frontman while settling into the role of a cult leader, and Earl was home. And not only home, but reunited with his friends.

Tyler, ever the showman, set up a moment during their performance of the 10-minute posse cut “Oldie,” from The OF Tape, Vol. 2 compilation album. Tyler’s two verses give the song bombastic bookends, but on this night, the song was about Earl. And when it finally came time for Earl — the Earl whose gospel he’d spent an entire year preaching — to rap his nearly two-minute verse, Tyler made sure the moment fit the occasion. Earl began by standing at the front of the stage, alone. But as his verse trucked on, Tyler waved the entire Odd Future masthead onstage to stand behind him. Earl’s return made their rap Voltron even stronger, but it was more than that. It was a sentimental moment. Odd Future missed their friend. And no one seemed happier or more validated than Earl Sweatshirt.

The math was simple: teens 1, grown-ups 0 — because parents just don’t understand. That’s how it always feels when a hearbroken teenager has a moment of vindication. But there’s another layer, which has taken years to consider.

“After Samoa and the shit that happened with my mom, after all that ‘Free Earl’ shit, I was super self-conscious about how I engaged my mom with the public,” Earl says. “I would be in a position to give an honest and nonbiased critique on my mom if there hadn’t been this immediate fucking negative image and stigma attached to her out the gate. But since there was, in the name of balance, that’s why all the shit with my mom is low-key apologetic, because that was fucked. That was the most fucked ever. People was all in her emails, people were calling her and shit, it was at the height of the [Odd Future] shit. N-​-​-​-​s was driving by the house slow — she was scared to go to work. You feel me?

“And then it just got to the point where I was on the phone with my mom one time, we was talking about that shit, and she just fucking broke down. [She] was like, ‘You don’t understand.’ So that’s why the shit with my mom is the way it is.”

Earl doesn’t seem to regret much, including spats with his mother. Now it’s about repairing what happened in the past while focusing on the present.

“The difference between 17 and 16 is crazy, the difference between 18 and 17 is crazy,” Earl says. “That’s why I’m fucking trying to break that process, or else we’re gonna keep having this conversation about where I was at. And not where I’m at.”

This Earl is eager to show how he’s changed, but not ashamed of his teenage self — because he was a teenager for the ages. You get some of that listening to I Don’t Like Shit.

“I’m in such a different place. So much has happened since I finished that album,” he says. “[The album] came from 19 and 20. But like, I’m touring off of this. So this is the conversation that’s getting had.”

Millvale, Pennsylvania, is a small town. It has a population of 3,7441 — a population that has declined every decade since 1930 — so it’s no surprise that the Not Redy 2 Leave tour is the biggest event of the town’s Easter weekend Saturday. With the sun still out, most of the downtown stores are already closed. The sidewalks are pedestrian-free.

“We slid up in the pizza parlor, these dudes were so perplexed,” Earl says of Millvale, a town in which 93 percent of residents self-identify as “white only,” according to the latest census. “Like, they were bumping into each other. And not on some Earl Sweatshirt shit, on some black people shit.”

We haven’t been sitting for a minute when Earl makes an astute observation. “You really start to see, like, really how these n-​-​-​-​s grow up. Like, what the idea of a black person must be. This very mythical creature.” I was caught off guard. I didn’t expect the 21-year-old rapper to initiate a conversation on race.

“I’m actually an African American,” Earl says. “Like, African and American. But you follow the shit on my mom’s side and my mom has super-fair skin. My grandma looked like an old Jewish lady. So you follow everyone’s timeline back to a certain place and it’s like, ‘my grandma, my great-grandma,’ and then it’s like you know. It’s just like, you get to slavery and it’s like, you already know.

The way Earl talks about his lineage is spellbinding. He speaks as if there’s an assumed set of common experiences. Both he and I are black men who were raised by single black mothers who were college professors. The “you know” verbal tick that ends many of his sentences feel literal, as in I know you understand what I’m talking about. Earl is 21 and in a positive, vulnerable place. He’s vague at times. He often pauses, correcting himself in the middle of a thought — maybe four words in — switching up a few words, before suggesting he’s still in the early stages of hashing out his thoughts aloud. He often references things by way of conversations he’s had with “the homies,” a reality that naturally comes when you finally find the homies who are willing to have those conversations — to go there with you.

I offer a sentence here, an example there, but Earl does most of the talking. It’s this ever-changing convergence of age, perspective, hardship, and life experiences, all crashing into one another. What’s emerging from the rubble is Earl the adult.

The type of n-​-​-​-​ I want to be when I’m 30, I be thinking about that shit every day,” Earl says, kicking around the clutter that plagues the back room of the tour bus. “So I’m just planning so I won’t look at me as a 30-year-old and [think], No, not that. Because if I’m that, fuck. I don’t got no time for that.” I recall having those same thoughts at 21: the fear of and anxiety about aging, the desire to create a future of your own design.

“I’m just like really about not lying to myself,” he says. “I just go super hard on myself. ’Cause there’s no time. I know how fleeting this shit is. Like, the kids that are going to listen to me aren’t going to listen to me forever.”

Much like the 10-track, 30-minute I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Earl unloads and then he’s done. He doesn’t have to speak often, or for too long. But when he does, it counts, and then he’s gone.

The last time I’d seen a venue’s bar this empty was in 2012, watching Odd Future at Hammerstein Ballroom.

The crowd assembled for the Not Redy 2 Leave tour is young. Mr. Smalls has two separate sections. If you’re older than 21, you can enter the under-21 pit, but your drink will not come with you. The under-21 crowd is restricted to one section, no exceptions.

It feels appropriate for an Earl Sweatshirt show, until I remember that Earl himself can now mingle in the 21-and-over section. After spending the afternoon coming to terms with the adult Earl Sweatshirt, I look at his fans and find myself thinking he’s a kid again.

“How many people in here had a perfect week?” Earl asks the crowd between songs, alongside Nakel Smith, performing the evening’s hype man duties. As crowds do when their favorite person does anything, they erupt, raising their hands or cheering. His response to his faithful: “How could you have a perfect week? This song is for the actual humans out there.”

It’s a test. And the crowd — his fans — fail. But they seem to enjoy being chastised, bringing out the annoyed, bitter, angry Earl that they’ve come to love. This romantic idea of Earl as “dark,” a notion he admits was part of his come-up, is yet another part of his past that he’d like to shake.

“I hate that dark shit,” Earl says bluntly before the show. “It’s just like, not outwardly rejoiceful music, you know what I mean? Just not real full of elation. Part of my shit is the journey to be able to put that shit out and have it be taken seriously — but having it be as legitimate as it can be. And there has to be consistency. Like, if I did Doris2 and then came with some shit that sounded like I was forcing it, then it would just be R.I.P. for me. I’d be completely done.”

Earl continues to size up his crowd throughout his commanding set: He asks the audience to be quiet and is met with elated screams; he and Nakel perform a Nae Nae–inspired dance move to 2010’s “Orange Juice”3 while the crowd embarrassingly moshes; he grows frustrated when he realizes most of the crowd doesn’t know the E-40 “Tell Me When to Go” ad libs he performs in the middle of a song; after a kid crowd-surfs, he calls the act “dumb as hell.”

On the surface, it seems curmudgeonly. Earl’s fans love him and his music. But sometimes an artist progresses faster than his fans. What comes next could be even more alienating.

“The shit I’m coming with next is like — and it’s not even on some prejudice shit — but like there’s a lot of rhythms that I see that a lot of white people can’t catch,” Earl says. “I perform for white kids every day. I see what they got and what they don’t got. And what I’m transitioning into — a lot of my beats now are more rhythm-based, if that makes sense. Because the O.F. approach to beats is — or at least the way I learned beats looking over n-​-​-​-​s’ shoulders like Tyler and Vyron 4 — is chords first. That’s what the focus always is: chord work, and then the drums and the bass and all that shit comes second. Like, the process is backward. But if you look at traditionally how n-​-​-​-​s come with music, it’s drum and bass first. On some African shit. Reggae. Everything drum and bass comes first. That’s the shit not everyone can catch.”

2014 Pitchfork Music Festival - Day 3Roger Kisby/Getty Images

In the 2012 New York Times profile, it was revealed that Earl read Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention while at boarding school. If you’re trying to find yourself, if you’re trying to set your feet and come to terms with your past while steadily improving upon your flaws, Malcolm is as good a North Star as any.

Marable on Malcolm:

Unlike many other leaders, Malcolm had the courage to admit his mistakes, and even to seek and apologize to those he had offended. Even when I have disagreed with him, I deeply admire the strength and integrity of his character.

The author bell hooks, in her book Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, writes in an essay about Marable’s book:

Most importantly I learned from reading about the life of Malcolm X, through later interviews and speeches, that it was important for a revolutionary thinker to be willing to admit mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.

Sitting across from Earl in his tour bus, both books — and both passages — come to mind. Offending, apologizing, admitting mistakes, learning from mistakes, self-improvement, moving forward — these themes run through Earl’s assessment of his own life.

“I’ve been everyone,” Earl says, coyly. “I’ve been a skater, I’ve been a basketball player, I’ve been a jock, I’ve been super popular, I’ve been a fucking loner, I used to kick it with the Latinos when I was little, I used to kick it with the Koreans. I’ve been everyone.” He’s had to grow up quick. When he says, “I’m not a little fucking boy,” in describing his relationship with his mother, you believe him.

But he is not fully formed. Earl still uses the word “retarded” to describe things he considers dumb. He ruins what would have been a thoughtful statement about his relationship with his mother because he won’t tap into his otherwise-robust word bank when it comes to a singular emotion:

“The relationship changes because they don’t have to fucking tyrant your life, because you’re not a fucking retard, so you can actually focus on some tight shit like caring about each other.”

In a couple of years, he will probably look back on 21-year-old Earl and shudder, because his ability to self-critique is one of his most valuable gifts. In his rapidly changing world, you just hope he never loses the thing that got him here — making his inner monologue available for public consumption. For as long as he can bear it, you hope that never wavers. That ability to be vulnerable, to be wrong, is rare. But he’s already a veteran of it, of telling you through his music where he’s at. “When I found myself, I went back to the n-​-​-​-​ I was when I was a kid,” Earl says, smiling.

He’s back to square one: He’s a sponge. The old Earl simply absorbed. But with every passing year, he’s getting better at learning what to keep in and what to squeeze out. 

Filed Under: Music, earl sweatshirt, Odd Future, tyler, the creator, Rap, Hip Hop, Kendrick Lamar, Coral Reef Academy

Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert