Free Thebe: Earl Sweatshirt is coming into his own - Features - Mixmag

Free Thebe: Earl Sweatshirt is coming into his own

After a controversial come-up, disappearance and return to the spotlight, Earl Sweatshirt is reconciling with his past and carving his own lane in hip hop. The LA rapper speaks to Dhruva Balram about grief, fatherhood, and his new project 'Sick!'

  • Words: Dhruva Balram | Photography: Jonathan Weiner | Art Direction: Vassilis Skandalis | Styling: Kaitlyn Vitug | Photo Assistant: ‎Anthony Avellano
  • 10 January 2022

Thebe Kgositsile is silent. He’s searching for the right words to summarise the last decade, one where he spent the majority of it in the spotlight as Earl Sweatshirt, the rapper who attained infamy through ‘Earl’, a 10-track debut mixtape in 2010 which featured harrowing lyrics full of malicious misogyny. Since then, he’s been followed by a rabid fanbase, a weight of expectation placed upon him by those who saw within his use of metaphors, double entendres and rhyme schemes, a generational talent. “It’s fucking weird,” he finally says. “When I look at the components of the way I had shit laid out for me, how if I was rooted in myself more and a little bit more confident, what could have been, who even I could have been. But, I’ve had to reconcile.”

Earl Sweatshirt’s origin story is mired in controversy: as his friends in Odd Future, the collective he was part of, became internet sensations through their uncompromising visionary music and firebrand antics at live shows, Earl was nowhere to be found. Having been sent to a rehabilitative centre in Samoa by his mother - the acclaimed law professor Cheryl Harris - fans at Odd Future shows, egged on by members of the collective, formed a rallying cry of ‘Free Earl’, hoping it would allow him to return. To feed into the deification of the then 16-year-old, it was revealed that Earl is also the son of Keorapetse Kgositsile, who was inaugurated as South Africa’s National Poet Laureate in 2006. The marker of boy-genius, a messiah leading the newly-internet-obsessed generation into a modern era, was created while Thebe was never allowed into the conversation.

“It’s like on a graph,” the Chicago-born artist recounts over Zoom. “The thing that peaks really fast, the law of nature [states] that it’s coming down really fast. They tried to peak me really fast. They was trying to do the Nas thing with me and then Tyler fed into that [on the Peter Rosenberg show] by saying ‘Earl’’s better than ‘Illmatic’. So, then, you’ve been entered into that chat....and then I didn’t.”

Instead, the mask of Earl Sweatshirt became canonised and Thebe was nowhere to be found. After his eventual return from Samoa, subsequent tours and years spent ingesting the kind of global fame that would overwhelm any teenager, Earl morphed, quickly, from the rebellious adolescent to a person who lived with world-weary eyes. He grappled with depression and isolation while quietly disengaging from Odd Future. “I blew it,” he says. “I can't tell you how many times when I first got out of [Samoa], I could have just fucking worn a mask.”

Through three studio albums - 2013’s ‘Doris’, 2015’s ‘I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside’ and 2018’s ‘Some Rap Songs’ - along with EPs ‘Solace’ and ‘Feet of Clay’ and a range of production alter-egos and singles, Earl slowly divorced himself from the malignant lyrics found in his early work. He delved deeper into himself: speaking on self-medication and introspection while coming to understand himself better in today’s world. Yet, like a haunting spectre, grief seemed to follow his projects.

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‘Doris’ was named after his grandmother who passed that year, ‘I Don’t Like Shit’ revolved around a reclusive period following a skateboarding accident while ‘Some Rap Songs’ and ‘Feet of Clay’ immortalised his father and the anguish which surrounded his death. It was a run of releases which, for any artist, would be considered seminal, but it never felt complete — as if Earl was always circling Thebe, the two never in conversation together. It’s on his upcoming release, ‘Sick!’, where the 27-year-old finally starts to find himself again.

“To contextualise my pain in the past three years of my life," he says wearily, "my father died [in January 2018] and I grieved for a year. Alcohol fucking crushed me that year. Then ‘Some Rap Songs’ came out in November 2018. I toured for like nine months. I was still trying to celebrate the grief away and then [close friend and collaborator] Mac Miller died. I didn’t even have space to process that shit. I just had to compartmentalise that shit. It was just too much.”

Initially, the Los Angeles-based rapper was going to release a different project titled ‘The People Could Fly’, named after Virginia Hamilton’s Black American Folktale about a group of slaves who use magic to set themselves free. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “people couldn't fly anymore … People were sick”. Only two songs from those earlier sessions - ‘Old Friend’ and ‘Tabula Rasa’ - made it onto this album, after “supremely bad decision making" caused the computer containing the work to be lost.

“There was legitimately a window where it was sweet and balanced out,” he says. “I was doing what I needed to do. I was having fun or whatever, and then I also distinctly remember when me and a couple of friends [did] some stupid shit. The universal message that came through was like fucking summer break is over. Like, you switch gears right now. I didn't switch gears.”

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Instead, Earl “leaned into the chaos”, creating the 10-track album ‘Sick!’, a high-water mark for the artist, crystallising the lo-fi hip-hop movement he has helped bring to fame. It feels like he cut his teeth on the previous projects to create ‘Sick!’ which, in itself, is a welcome path to wander down. Featuring production from Earl alongside frequent collaborators Black Noi$e and The Alchemist with guest verses from ZelooperZ and rap duo Armand Hammer, Earl creates taut, wiry tracks in his distinct mode of expression. Each of the songs is textural and tightly coiled, asking to be unlocked to reveal the riches inside. “We got us a fire to rekindle / Redirect the fight where it's meant for / Triumph over plight and immense loss,” he raps on lead single ‘2010’.

‘Sick!’ is another compact project with a short runtime. Like ‘Some Rap Songs’ and ‘Feet of Clay’, it, too, sounds like one elongated piece of string. “It’s a way to speak to brevity and still preserve the long form,” Earl says. “When I first started trying to do that around ‘I Don’t Like Shit’, it was when the industry was still changing. People were still getting acclimatised to the fact that attention spans were changing. And I was a member of the generation whose attention span changed. Like, these niggas don’t fucking listen to me when I was rambling in real life when I’m talking to them. Now, fast forward to 2022, people are getting educated on TikTok. It’s quick. You got to get to it.”

Unlike his earlier work, where he rapped in hushed, anxious tones, there’s a clarity and confidence within his voice. ‘Sick!’ is instantly memorable without needing to be infectious; it demands attention and multiple listens, a purposeful project which stands out in today’s playlist-heavy consumption of music. “I’m still interested in making albums a cohesive body of work,” he says. “If it’s one big thing, then it’ll get listened to as one big thing.”

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In an era of algorithms, streaming numbers and playlist placements, Earl has resolutely and deftly defied the conventions of the music industry, choosing instead to carve his lane. “I think I’m a little bit out of my mind,” he says wryly. “Even I hog the aux and even I’m not just trying to like play someone’s album straight through, especially when we have these services. But, I feel like I’m a driver that you don’t have to worry about where [the car] is going. The emphasis on making an album is that I’m taking the onus and the responsibility on me to make it a cohesive project. I feel like we don't listen to music like that anymore.”

For Earl, the intentionality behind the project also allowed him to exorcise the demons he was battling while he faced major life changes. “I was in a chaotic space,” he explains. “I would have these fucking tornadoes spin me and then I would stop to process. A lot of it was also recorded in a time before my son was born and, like, after he was born, I was panicking, bro. I was really panicking.”

The 27-year-old announced the birth of his son through a series of tweets in July 2021. With intentionality, he has kept his personal life private, never been drawn on names, dates or incidents. But, Earl is ready to talk about the challenges of being a father, so soon after losing his own. “It's scary, bro,” he says. “I ain’t gonna lie. It’s scary being a father if you’re still learning to take care of yourself. There's the level of responsibility where it's like, I can't even be putting myself in a certain type of harm's way.”

Having been pulled in all these different directions the last few years, Earl is reticent to espouse any grand learnings. Instead, with his son, he’s trying the simple things. “I’m learning how to be less selfish,” he says. “Learning how to let fucking go. That's the hardest thing. What’s that saying, ‘you can be happy or right?’ I’d rather be right. So, I’m learning how to be happy.”

With its various members moving on to other projects, Odd Future is now a distant memory. Earl, too, has evolved. He now is the de facto figurehead of a new collective; one created through disparate strands magnetising together instinctively. He found company in the lo-fi aesthetic which germinated on the East Coast, collaborating with the likes of Standing On The Corner (which includes Gio Escobar and Caleb Giles) as well as rappers MIKE, Navy Blue and Adé Hakim. Other members of the movement include Charlotte’s Mavi, Newark’s Mach-Hommy, Detroit’s ZelooperZ and New York duo Armand Hammer, all of whom seem to possess a certain collective ethos.

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“We just have a zone,” Earl says. “This is a lane. I think this shit is impossible on your own. So, even if we’re not totally collectivised, it’s about context. We give each other context.” There’s a sense of communitarianism which comes with the collective epitomised by Earl rarely having the first verse on songs featuring his collaborators, allowing them to share the spotlight which is inevitably shone on him. “I want everyone to do their own shit,” he says, “so that no one feels indebted to anyone. That’s why I try and use whatever platform I have to broadcast for other people that didn't necessarily have the platform or the visibility just to stand on mine and be like, ‘Yo, fuck with this. This is real crazy.’ And like I said, it gives context. Now fast forward, we're here. It's almost 2022 and now niggas everywhere.”

Working across the coasts in this harmonious way has also helped demystify the tiring narrative of the two American coasts beefing, one which Earl is quick to not claim as his own: “It started before this generation,” he states. “Wiki was doing his shit long before us and has now come back to claim his. I also need [fellow Odd Future member] Domo Genesis to come get his. There’s guys that have been doing it for as long as me at a high level. Just look at ZelooperZ.”

Another forerunner-turned-collaborator who Earl feels he owes a debt of gratitude to is the 44-year-old Los Angeles-based producer The Alchemist. After returning from Samoa, he recorded in several places but never felt truly at home — until he hung out at Alchemist’s house. “Al’s was different,” Earl explains. “It was more like what I was used to growing up of just like, go over there, go to the studio, and it’s a bunch of fucking rappers. Niggas is fighting for fucking beats. I just felt real comfortable over there. It's just a system that makes way more sense.”

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Over the past decade, their friendship has been crucial in allowing Earl to be himself while working through grief. “Al is a really great person and someone that genuinely cares about me, bro,” he says. “It makes for the best recording because I can go with my whole self over [to his house]. Sometimes you need the space or the freedom to be as fucked up as you are to really get it out and give it the time and to be able to process it.”

Their creative partnership and friendship also allowed Earl to experiment with his music, to take his tastes to places where he felt like he was being challenged, allowing him to fulfil his desires. “He pushed for it more than me,” Earl explains, “because I’m so weary of fucking it up for anyone. I've also been young the whole time, so I never really felt comfortable with, I guess, planting that flag in the dirt and being like, ‘everyone come, this is our compound.’”

Alchemist’s production features heavily on ‘Sick!’, a project which looks back at the last decade, towards a sense of acknowledgement and serenity. It shines a light through the darkness of Earl coming to terms with his grief and his desire to let go of the past. And one name from his past that's been perennially attached to Earl Sweatshirt has been Tyler, the Creator, the leader of Odd Future, who, for years, acted as a big brother for Earl. Rumours have swirled of a falling out between the two, but Earl is quick to dismiss any notion of that. “I check in with bro, we’re not entirely out of contact,” he says. In 2020, the two hung out and uploaded a photo together, which was glorified as a reunion by fans but is something Earl plays down as an average chill. “It wasn’t beef," he says of their apparent drifting apart. "We just hung out. Did some Tyler shit, we ate brunch, went to the park.”

Now, it feels like Thebe isn’t letting the past define him anymore. Instead, he’s looking towards the future with clear eyes. Having been split apart in various ways in the past few years, the 27-year-old feels like he’s still picking up the pieces. Within the grief he’s felt for others, he’s starting to acknowledge the grief for himself having been stretched into and existing in all different places from South Africa to New York to Los Angeles. “I guess the only way is to not identify as all of these things that can divide me up,” he says. “But then it's identifying with something more.” Thebe realises that he had to go through these struggles to get to where he is today and that, for better or for worse, Earl Sweatshirt and Thebe Kgositsile are coming to a sort of reconciliation, a forming of two spirits split apart finding their way back together. But, he still has a long way to go: "I want to be more useful," he says. "I feel like I have some of the hardware and software to be resourceful and helpful. Obviously it starts with myself and then it can permeate. But there's a lot of strife, a lot of pain and hunger and confusion that I would like to contribute to remedy.”

Earl Sweatshirt's 'Sick!' is out via Tan Cressida / Warner Records on January 14, get it here

Dhruva Balram is a freelance writer and critic, follow him on Twitter

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