The world was first introduced to the lyrical dexterity of American rapper Earl Sweatshirt (real name Thebe Kgositsile) by way of a music video called Earl from his debut mixtape of the same name. The video featured the then 16-year-old in a hair salon, unleashing a blitzkrieg of puns and double entendres over a rumbling bassline and neck-snapping drums.
But by the time the video (and mixtape) had breached the fruitful ground of mainstream popularity, his mother had shipped him to a school in Samoa for at-risk youth. The world would later find out that he was the son of South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile. The two had been estranged for decades as his father left the United States when Sweatshirt was a toddler, and that void and subsequent resentment was the emotional ballast of much of his oeuvre.
“I’ve looked back at some interviews I did. I said that I say crazy s*** in songs because I don’t yell in real life. And then with the frustration, bro, of losing my pops, and then resentment. I’ve been angry,” he told NPR in 2018.
Chum, the lead single from his debut album Doris, is a menacing song about the breakdown of their relationship. “It’s probably been 12 years since my father left, and left me fatherless. And I used to say I hate him in dishonest jest,” he raps. Similarly, his sophomore I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt was a misanthropic missive that saw him digest some of the anger and resentment that he carried over from his teenage years.
But then came a shift.
Some Rap Songs, his 2018 release, featured a song called Playing Possum that sampled one of his father’s poems: Anguish Longer Than Sorrow. Sweatshirt wrote the song as a conciliatory gesture, but his father died just weeks before it was released.
Hope from the fire
Sick!, the latest album from the producer-rapper, plays like a laborious trek out of a bleak and demoralising locale. The lean offering – only 10 tracks over 24 minutes – is a treatise on trauma, isolation and rebirth. Now a father himself, the 27-year-old rapper casts aside his trademark misanthropy to rap about self-acceptance and what it means to make it out of the fire alive. On album opener Old Friend, he raps:
The cost of living high, don’t cross the picket line and get the virus
Wild cat has got em in the bind, stay inside
Know I came out of the thicket smiling
Similarly, 2010 bristles with the hope that is absent in his earlier music. The beat, a piece of unhurried post-synth hip-hop with sparse drumwork, is a minimal soundscape that allows Sweatshirt to zip between pensive and poetic:
We got us a fire to rekindle
Redirect the fight where it’s meant for
Triumph over plight and immense loss
It’s the direct antithesis to his debut mixtape, released in 2010, and reads like a thematic conclusion to the corrosive anger that served as the emotional propellant for his earlier work.
Following his debut (and his hiatus to Samoa), Sweatshirt’s fan started a #FreeEarl campaign that cast his mother as a mean-spirited villain who tried to get in the way of her son’s burgeoning rap career. This led to a rift he has worked desperately to mend. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Sweatshirt speaks about how vastly things have changed since 2010.
“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.”
Loving what remains
While Sweatshirt credits fatherhood with much of his newfound hope, it isn’t spelled out or paraded. The title track sees him rap about stoically taking life’s punches:
You’ll fall and slip again, I heard life a trip
Get it how you live, I guess it’s all you get
Take it on the chin
The absence of lyrics that directly address his father is by design. Doris was named after his late grandmother. Some Rap Songs and Sweatshirt’s Feet of Clay EP were a public reckoning with his estranged father. But Sick! feels like an introduction to the man behind the moniker. Whereas his previous releases revisited themes of resentment, rage and estrangement, Sick! is the soundtrack to a decades-long journey of self-discovery.
The rapper has grown more insular over time, taking long hiatuses between albums and rarely giving interviews. With each release, Sweatshirt seems to disappear further into the shadows while Thebe Kgositsile appears to emerge and cohere.
Toward the end of the album, Sweatshirt raps about the pain of losing his grandmother on God Laughs:
True pain, I couldn’t eat or sleep for seven days
Maimed me, I ain’t weak
Whereas that would be the end of it in his previous EPs, the next line offers a sliver of hope:
Keep changing for the better, what to do when your job thankless?
It’s a line that offers a tiny window into the rapper’s current emotional configuration. His music is admittedly now grounded by fatherhood.
“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 … 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,” he told Rolling Stone.
His declaration and recent music prove that Kgositsile might have walked a long way, but the journey has always been back to himself.