Earl Sweatshirt’s latest album, “Some Rap Songs,” marks a departure for the rapper and producer. (Steven Traylor)
For the rapper and producer known professionally as Earl Sweatshirt, self-awareness was once burdensome. You could feel the weight of his conscience in his music as he wrestled with the massive expectations that have followed him his entire career. A product of rap’s blog era and a child of the Internet, he came into fame young and fast, his enigmatic persona only adding to his outsized legend since he was 16.
But now, at 24, the Los Angeles native has been liberated.
His latest album, “Some Rap Songs,” widens the gulf between Earl Sweatshirt and the man born Thebe Kgositsile. Now, more than ever, the former feels like an adolescent username the latter has left behind: “Earl is not my name, the world is my domain,” he declares on the off-kilter track, “Veins.”
Each of his major-label albums has grown shorter in duration and more obscure in nature. “Some Rap Songs” is his most abstract project to date: brief, at under 25 minutes across 15 songs, reflective and amorphous in composition. He unspools the lyricism he became famous for, yielding more free-form expression. The more comfortable he’s grown with himself, the more ambitious — and mature — his music has become.
“There’s always going to be a perception of who that guy is that’s not necessarily accurate,” says New York Magazine music critic Craig Jenkins, who interviewed the rapper last fall. The question is whether fans will accept who Thebe Kgositsile has become, rather than who Earl Sweatshirt is supposed to be.
He was crowned a lyrical genius for his precocious “Earl” mix tape in 2010, when he was just a teen. The same year, the grotesque skate-video-inspired music video (think bloody teeth, ripped-off fingernails and a “milkshake” with unspeakable ingredients) for the project’s title track, made him a viral star. By 2011, his mother, concerned about how fame was compounding his adolescent misbehavior, sent him to a Samoan program for at-risk boys at the pinnacle of his now-dissolved Odd Future faction’s popularity.
The sprawling collective embodied youthful insolence and notably trolled their way into prominence, admonishing popular blogs for not playing their music and exhibiting disdain for authority. They were hip-hop’s annoying yet hilarious younger siblings, and Earl Sweatshirt was the most fascinating of the group. His absence created a mystique, making him a symbol of youth in revolt before his 18th birthday.
His fan base included those energized by Odd Future’s needling subversion and hip-hop purists entranced by his elaborate rhyme schemes. The burden of navigating celebrity he didn’t ask for during his formative years proved a difficult balance, as expressed in Sweatshirt’s 2013 debut album, “Doris,” and 2015’s “I Don’t Like S—, I Don’t Go Outside.”
On “Mantra,” from the latter album, Sweatshirt paints an anxiety-riddled picture of a public figure who belongs to his fans: “Who you can’t get mad at when they want a pound or pic/’Cause they the reason that the traffic on the browser quick/And they the reason that the paper in your trousers’ thick.”
I ain’t been outside in a minute, I’ve been livin’ what I wrote,” he declares on “Grief.”
He also had to shoulder the weight of his parents’ prominence. His mother is the UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris; his father is the South African poet laureate and activist Keoropaste Kgositsile, who died last January. The rapper’s contentious relationship with his parents has been a constant theme in his music. His father left the family when he was a child, and his parents’ accomplishments — particularly his father’s — cast a shadow: “And when them expectations raising ’cause daddy was a poet, right?” the rapper says on “Burgundy.”
In a 2013 interview with the New York Times Magazine, he bristled at the relationship between poetry and rap, calling the notion that the former could be the latter “so familiar that it’s annoying.” “I’ve heard that so much, growing up in a house with poetry,” he said of the association between the two.
But through “Some Rap Songs,” he embraces the connection to his past and its role in his identity. “Red Water” repeats the same stanza (“I know I’m a king, stock on my shoulder I was sinkin’/I ain’t know that I could leave . . .”) for the entirety of the song — poetry on loop. “Mama said she used to see my father in me; said I was not offended,” he says, on the radiant “Azucar.”
“Playing Possum” pairs audio of his father reciting his poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow” with a 2014 keynote speech from his mother, creating not just an homage, but what feels like a conversation between his parents.
“His father was a famous poet, so that had to come out of him,” says producer and rapper Adé Hakim, who co-produced Sweatshirt’s fluttering “Nowhere2go” with fellow sLUms member Darryl Johnson. “You can hear it in the way he glides over the beats. It’s like spoken word. It’s just innate. It’s in his heritage. It’s who he is.”
Jenkins says Sweatshirt is leaning into the role ancestry plays in his music. He called “Some Rap Songs” a synthesis of Sweatshirt’s influences, from his parents, to jazz, to the “real serious, offbeat, weirdo hip-hop” of MF Doom, Jay Dilla and Madlib, to name a few.
“Some Rap Songs” was Sweatshirt’s final album on Columbia Records, according to a recent Pitchfork profile. Hakim, who says Sweatshirt realized his influence on the sLUms collective and took them under his wing, adds that the rapper’s future music might not even be released under that stage name.
After experiencing growing pains under a microscope, Thebe Kgositsile has found freedom from Earl Sweatshirt. In a news release about the album, he acknowledged the evolution: “In order for my growth to be complete, the work has to reflect it.” The process involved accepting the connection between his forebears, himself and the artists he’s inspired.
“He’s a link between generations,” Jenkins says, of “Some Rap Songs.” “And he knows it, too.”