Sometime in 2010 my roommate told me I should watch a music video by some new rapper with the simple disclaimer that it was “really fucked up.” I present to you now my first five impressions of Earl Sweatshirt, as conceived while watching the video for his song “Earl”:
1. “What a great stage name.”
Wikipedia tells me that his real name is Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, and that his first pseudonym was Sly Tendencies. I don’t know how he arrived at Earl Sweatshirt, but props.
2. “…He’s kind of unfortunate-looking.”
That’s a euphemism, and well, you be the judge.
3. “That was a lot of rapid-fire rhymes. His flow is nice.”
Earl has a laid-back style that makes complex rhythms seem easy and lyrics about rape, murder, and eating feces seem extra horrifying. No one should be that casual about such twisted topics, least of all someone barely old enough to drive (as he was when “Earl” was recorded).
4. “Wow, this video is appalling.”
It really is upsetting. The concept: Earl and his friends make and consume a terrifying smoothie of narcotics, then spend the rest of the day losing blood, teeth, stomach fluid and fingernails. If that description doesn’t deter you, then watch it here, and remember: I warned you.
5. “If his lyrics and video were not so intentionally offensive I could totally get into this.”
Cue the new(ish) track, “Chum”:
The honesty of “Chum” hits just as hard as the deliberately disturbing “Earl.” Sure, the video is still a little creepy, but “Chum” is a completely different song than the one that made me squirm a couple of years ago. In “Earl,” Sweatshirt “[got] up off the pavement, [wiped] the dirt and vomit off.” In “Chum,” he wipes the dirt up off his pysche.
“Chum” is an astoundingly sad and introspective poem by a young dude caught in the universal coming-of-age struggle between two opposing social pressures: “too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks / from honor roll to cracking locks up off them bicycle racks.” All teens go through a phase where their desire to make their parents proud loses ground against the overwhelming urge to say “fuck it” and make trouble. Immediately in the first verse of “Chum” Earl lets us know that his own rebellious angst is driven by his father’s leaving when he was six. But his father, a famous South African poet, obviously gave his son an inherent gift for wordsmithery also. The combination of discontent and talent made Earl a natural match for the group of mischievous young LA artists known as OFWGKTA, who contacted him in 2009: “Searching for a big brother, Tyler was that / Plus he like how I rap.” The Odd Future crew are all talented singers, rappers, and musicians, but they are also the epitome of a group of kids validating each other’s desire to do everything they were ever told not to. When fame descended on them in a whirlwind, they didn’t chill out, they pushed the limits even further.
Inevitably, Earl’s mother (a law professor at UCLA) worried about her son’s involvement with the ultimate “wrong crowd” and intervened by sending him to boarding school in an undisclosed location. Fans, told that Mr. Sweatshirt wouldn’t be releasing any material with Odd Future or otherwise, started a campaign to “Free Earl.” Eventually, a fellow student named Tyler Craven reported to Complex magazine that he was going to school with Earl in Samoa, and Earl was forced to return home. According to the second verse, “Chum” was written a week later.
I don’t know how disorienting it must be to become famous as a teenager, but if this song is any indication then we can assume it is sad and sobering (apparently it also makes you want to wear bucket hats all the time, even at the Grammys). Listening to “Chum,” it’s easy to forget that the dude writing such a poetic chorus, complete with allusions to Edgar Allen Poe and quantum physics, is only 18. Two years has grown Earl incredibly. The seemingly unaffected, deliberately paced flow is the only holdover from “Earl,” but now the rolling internal rhymes are dripping with weariness and regret (“Mama often was offering peace offerings / Think, wheeze, cough, scoff and then he’s off again”). It’s refreshing to see a hip-hop artist this vulnerable, this willing to record honest reflection and release it on the world. The fittingly melancholy piano melody is a loop of something Earl played himself, with producer-duo Christian Rich providing the drums and ghostly, doubled grumbles about “getting the beat in my headphones.” It’s perfect, understated production for a track where the lyrics are the centerpiece.
“Chum” is an example of a legitimate artist making profound art. If this is the new direction of Earl Sweatshirt’s music, then you can scrap my first five impressions.
Except the first one. That’s still a great stage name.