Where most rappers pursue a policy of full-blast immersion in all-press-is-good-press PR, Los Angeles MC Earl Sweatshirt has practiced a decidedly anti-ego strategy of ducking and weaving in and out of the public eye. He's dropped a universally acclaimed major-label debut album, but evaded nearly every interview request thrown his way. He's become one of contemporary hip-hop's most celebrated lyricists, but purposefully dodged probing questions about his personal life and musical motivations. He's cultivated an aura of malicious intensity — Pitchfork described his early self-titled mixtape as "splatterpunk murder fantasies rendered all the more unsettling by his incredible poise" — while standing at a slight distance from his Odd Future crew.
That was obvious in 2010 and 2011, when Odd Future Wolf Gang (Kill Them All) (the crew's full name) became the most innovative DIY-driven community in hip-hop — and the most virulent. Early material self-released in 2010 to Odd Future's rapidly expanding online fanbase dabbled on a level of violent, misogynistic fatalism with which even the rap world seemed uncomfortable. But Earl was absent from the rowdy early shows, and Odd Future members Tyler, Domo Genesis and Hodgy Beats began promoting a fervent "Free Earl" campaign that became the group's calling card — and eventually climaxed in Complex Magazine and The New Yorker discovering exactly what had happened to Earl.
To condense months of investigative reporting: Before joining Odd Future in 2009, Earl went by Sly Tendencies and made a few online tracks with producer Loofy. Tracking down Sly led to evidence of acquaintances calling him "Thebe," which led to YouTube videos of a young Thebe Kgositsile — son of South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile — performing a Korean martial art called Hwa Rang Do. One Odd Future song featured a cryptic line about "free[ing] Earl from the Samoans," which led to online rumors of a school for troubled boys in Samoa, where a student confirmed that yes, Earl Sweatshirt was in attendance while his friends were becoming crazy famous.
At the time, no one knew if Earl, who was only 17, was sent to Samoa voluntarily or at the behest of his mother, a well-known civil rights activist and law professor. In 2011, she told The New Yorker, "There is a person named Thebe who pre-existed Earl. That person ought to be allowed to explore and grow, and it's very hard to do that when there's a whole set of expectations, narratives and stories that are attached to him." Mom also agreed to let Earl speak via email, and his response was clear: "Please listen: I'm not being held against my will. … I've had to do a lot of growing up since I left. … The only thing I need as of right now is space. … You'll hear from me without a doubt when I'm ready."
In a way, Earl's desire to leave hip-hop and Odd Future and all that behind for nearly two years to "grow up" turned out to be the best decision he could have ever made. On Feb. 9, 2012, his dormant Twitter feed came back to life, and he requested 50,000 new followers before he'd release a new song, appropriately titled "Home." Three hours later, Earl Sweatshirt was officially back, dropping one of the fieriest verses in hip-hop history that deserves to be recited out loud to appreciate its linguistic dexterity. A sample:
Spittin' crowbars out the back window
of cars and shit
And acting like a klonopin binge, hardening
And switching up the moniker of artists
Knock-knock, it's that prodigal pen-throttle, bitch
Rhyme harder than nine joggers with shin
splints dodging an ornery rhinoceros
Order me my waffles and bother me not, blogger
The option of being modest just walked to
where my father went
Ponder how we can holler then spit darker
Than Gotham at six bars in the genre then
At imposters and miss nada, volatile
Is hotter than a lit Parliament singeing your
In the parking lot of a Target, I'm targeted,
Heart dark as that thick parka I slip markers in
Earl could have stopped there. Instead, the onslaught of high-quality, intensely personal material continued. On 2013's "Chum," he directly addressed how the Samoa affair "strained and tightened" his relationship with his mother; on "Whoa," he channeled every comparison to rap-for-rap's-sake legends like MF DOOM and GZA into a devastating lyrical takedown of his own younger rabble-rousing persona; and on "Burgundy," he rapped, "My priorities fucked up, I know it, I'm afraid I'm going to blow it/When them expectations raising 'cause Daddy was a poet."
When those singles were finally collected and released on Earl's proper solo debut, Doris, in October, the 19-year-old's supreme talent for production (under the pseudonym "Randomblackdude") and talent scouting only added to his fame as a lyricist. The album charted on the Billboard Top Five, but was also one of the most introspective and antagonistic rap records to ever do so. Which, naturally, slotted Earl perfectly back in with his Odd Future crew.
Since then, Sweatshirt has wisely capitalized on his success. Yet in many ways, he's the same old Earl: Uncomfortable with success. Shunning the spotlight. Self-deprecating to a fault. But sharper lyrically than 99 percent of his peers. Which is why fans love him — and critics continue to fawn over him.