In 2010, just a few months before the introduction of an app called Instagram, Earl Sweatshirt’s debut music video arrived seemingly out of nowhere to launch careers for the brash iconoclasts in Odd Future. The video for “Earl,” which paired the frenetic energy of a Harmony Korine film with hints of a more mature emotional sensibility, was a key factor in pushing his rap collective into the mainstream — no small feat given that Earl, born Thebe Kgositsile, was only 16 at the time.
The attention that followed was instantaneous, as was the online vitriol directed at Earl’s mother after fans discovered that he’d been sent away to a boarding school in Samoa. “People make shit up about you — that was when I realized that,” says the rapper, now 27 and a new father. “I answered interview questions, and people that I never met before in my life were like, ‘Nah, it doesn’t sound like him.'”
With his upcoming LP, Sick!, set to be released next month, he’s readying himself for a fresh start after a decade in music. “It speaks to the cycle of 10,” he says over Zoom. “Only so much can happen between one and 10 before the restart, you know what I mean?”
Earl talked to Rolling Stone about the life that went into his new album, and why he thinks we’re headed towards a more communal future.
How did you approach this new album?
I was very skeptical of myself — but I’m skeptical of me saying it that way, because “skeptical” doesn’t capture exactly what I’m talking about. I had a goal, which was to meet people halfway.
Why was that your goal?
Because I wasn’t about to catch myself doing the same shit for too long. You can’t do that. I scrapped a 19-track album.
Because it sounded too similar to what you’ve done before?
Yes, and I ain’t going to lie, that shit was like … I was rapping, rapping, on every single song. But my whole thing is grading things on the truth, you know what I mean? However expansive or detailed the truth is. The album I was working on before had a really optimistic energy towards it, but it felt gross. It felt political, like a mayoral campaign.
What about the album you ended up with? What stands out to you about it, on a personal level?
The life that went into this shit. This one hurt.
You’ve been out of the public eye for a minute. How would you sum up the past few years in your life?
Oh, bro. I have the smartest and strongest little son now. I can’t even begin to explain that shit. How do you explain? It’s like he opened me back up to a lot of emotions that I thought I was beyond.
Your first single from this project is called “2010.” Looking back at that moment when people harassed your mom online, did any of that come up for you as you become a father?
Yes. Having a child makes you reckon with yourself, because your job is to protect them, and so you audit yourself differently. You’re way more honest with yourself about who you’ve been in your life once you have a child, because you’re like, “Oh, shit. This nigga might do that.” It’s massive, and it is ongoing. I’m still learning, man.
Something that stuck out to me on “2010” was how it opens with a similar urgency as “Earl” did 10 years ago.
Yeah. Just like I’m about to stand up on this shit.
For you, what’s changed between 2010 and now?
I feel like I finished what I started. Some Rap Songs felt like closing a chapter, you know what I mean? And then the epilogue was Feet of Clay, because I really brought it full circle. A wound that opened towards the beginning of a nigga’s career was the one with my mom. So I had to close that jawn publicly, because it was opened publicly. I know that interview with me and my mom wasn’t particularly family therapy, but it was just the symbolism of being next to my mother in front of people and openly loving her and putting our relationship on display. It definitely brought some closure to some pain that had come as a result of people villainizing her.
How much guilt do you contend with when it comes to your family life becoming so public?
I was guilty about it until I was like, “All right, I got to do something about this shit.” That’s been a fucking eight-, nine-year process. I put that shit into myself so I had something to be proud of, and so that there’s a trail of crumbs for these niggas, bro. That’s the sense that I made of why I had to do everything that I did. All of this shit is to show that right now in time, niggas need to do this for real. Because niggas are seeing right now the limits of an aesthetic. Without even getting into specifics, if you’re smart, you’re going to pick up on what I’m saying. An aesthetic is an aesthetic until that shit is real life.
How much of your thinking about fatherhood went into what you rap about on the album?
A lot, but at the same time, I don’t have an “I love you, son” song on the joint. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you, bro — I’m a young dude. I had a weird beginning to my adulthood. As a kid, and when I went away and shit, a thing that I had to fight for was my sense of self and my own voice, because I was the type of nigga to put that away for the group because I had self-esteem issues and shit. A thing that was hard-fought for me was my own voice. I patted myself on the back for being able to say, “Yo, I’m hungry.”
So this has been another crash course in the fact that this shit ain’t about me no more. As much as it is me, it’s the maintenance of me so that the person that learns from me the most isn’t learning a whole bunch of bullshit. The practice of sacrifice.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but on YouTube, there are all these compilations of your unreleased live recordings. It feels so much like an underground culture.
It’s freedom with your music, bro. It’s okay to have songs that you only perform. I gave myself that okay on some music shit. Now when I do joints that I only do for shows, niggas know those too, because it’s at the show. You create your own magic, bro. You feel me? Those songs could have come out and people could be like, “Man, the mixing on this is meh. I don’t like the high frequencies,” or whatever the fuck, and that zaps the magic out of it — versus, “I only hear this song live at shows. This nigga’s close to me, about to cry and do the song.” You create the magic. People feel that feeling. I swear to God, bro, that shit is everything. I think that’s the difference between me and a lot of people in this life. That magic, I really live about that, bro, the little stuff that you assign that ultimately ends up making a huge, huge, huge difference in people’s perspective on things.
Your career seems like you’ve intentionally avoided massive amounts of fame and stardom. Are you grateful for that in hindsight?
Absolutely, because there’s some part of me that respects the science of things, of the up-and-down science — of how it goes up, it’s coming down. I don’t know, as someone who actually studies science, I’m sure there’s a term for whatever type of force it takes to keep something that rapidly ascends up. It seems like things are wider on the bottom and more narrow on the top so they could fall off.
That seems intuitive.
That’s what I mean, there’s certain shit of just nature, bro, of wave forms where it’s like, we’re not going to escape certain laws of science, so your ascension has to be controlled. It also makes a good argument for why I think when you see people enter the game around 28 to 30 years old, it feels wholly different than kids. You know what I mean? Adult rap has made a case for itself. Valee’s ass came in as a fully-developed adult with his own unique taste and everything. This dude was rapping about carburetors, you know what I’m saying? The shit be legitimately interesting. He has something to say for real. You feel secure. It feels like a blanket. It’s like, “Wow.” When a nigga’s style feels like a blanket. Jay-Z came in at 28, bro. A lot of niggas came in when they was fully grown. And the difference between 27, 28, and motherfucking 16, 17? Dog, it’s a joke.
As you put this album out, what do you see as the future? What do the next 10 years look like for you?
Wow. You know what? If everything goes right, I’m going to be on a farm, because this music is cool, but I need to put my fucking hands on something. I just had this conversation with someone. Tech is going to push people back to the land, no doubt about it. It’s more expensive in the city. Everyone else that doesn’t have money to live in that zone is going to be on the outskirts. To me, it seems like things are on the verge of getting communal around this motherfucker, man.