Of all the genres in the musical universe, hip-hop maintains the healthiest level of competition. It's an art form partially founded on the basic principles of battling, bragging, and shutting down the other guy.
In today's fast-changing landscape, a new generation of rappers is emerging, the most skilled of which tend more toward thoughtful introspection and well-crafted lyricism than the 10-cent beat with repetitive chorus formula so prominent this past decade.
Compton's Kendrick Lamar has established himself as a clear leader in that regard. Chart-toppers like Drake have found their stride embracing their more honest and vulnerable side. But with all the Mac Millers, Chance the Rappers, and the Underachievers, it's OFWGKTA's Earl Sweatshirt who poses the most interesting threat for the throne.
Only 20 years old, his life story already unfolds like a historic drama, and his skills as a wordsmith go arguably unmatched. He's coming to the stage at Revolution Live on Saturday, so we listed just a few reasons Earl Sweatshirt may be the most interesting rapper you'd be blessed to witness.
"Because Daddy Was a Poet, Right?"
Earl Sweatshirt was born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile in February 1994. His mother is a law professor at the University of California, and his father is famously South African poet and political activist Keorapetse Kgositsile. Though Sweatshirt and his father aren't necessarily estranged, the poet did leave his mother when the rapper was only 6. His father's absence regularly makes its way into his rhymes, a rather uniting factor in the Odd Future world, and so does the pressure of his father's fame. "And when them expectations raise in me 'cause daddy was a poet, right?" Earl raps on "Burgundy," the second track on his latest EP, Doris. It's certainly not easy growing in the shadow of a South African poet laureate, but for a kid still too young to drink in public, he's ahead of the game.
"Searching for a big brother, Tyler was that."
The Sweatshirt story really unfolds when Earl meets Tyler, the Creator. The founding father of the Odd Future crew, Tyler found Sweatshirt via MySpace, the discovered then calling himself Sly Tendencies. Tyler brought his rag-tag group of young'uns together under the common umbrella of incredible talent and lack of belonging. While the head honcho's own records together with crooner Frank Ocean received the most play, critics soon grasped on Sweatshirt as the crown jewel of the co-op. On his 2010 debut Earl, Sweatshirt makes fun of his impact on Tyler's own breakthrough Bastard, quipping that his verse on the track "Assmilk" was "half the reason the review's fantastic."
His debut mixtape made the rounds on hip-hop blogs as a fan favorite. It was equal parts artistic and shocking. The then-16 Sweatshirt showed an incredible talent for unique flows and a mature diction but made waves when pairing that musicality and rhythmic skill with near-obscene stories of kidnapping, rape, cop-killing, and deranged violence. Similarities were easily drawn to early Eminem records, a prominent influence on Tyler as well. Lyrical content aside, any bad press and viral views were due mostly to the low-grade home-made music video for the mixtape's title track, in which Earl and his OF crew — clearly scrawny underagers — concoct a disgusting blend of everything from weed and codeine to pain pills into a smoothie. The video shows them all downing the nasty brew, then running around bleeding from every orifice imaginable, foaming at the mouth, losing teeth, and pulling off fingernails. It might be the hardest music video to watch ever if it weren't also so comical.
The "Earl" video caused a lot of people to panic, and the story goes that one of those people was Earl's mother. Soon after Tyler, the Creator's "Yonkers" video brought OF to mainstream success, the crew's young MVP mysteriously disappeared. Though details are hazy, it's understood Sweatshirt's mother sent the rapper to a therapeutic retreat school in Somoa, where he was to remain until he graduated at 18. While he was busy reading about Malcolm X and learning to dive in the South Pacific, his buddies in L.A. blew up fast. OFWGKTA made headlines across the world and carved their own niche into a transitioning hip-hop scene, all the while screaming the rally cry "Free Earl." Details remained purposefully hazy concerning Earl's absence. Nothing was heard from the fan fave, and the crew released its OF Tape Vol. 2 compilation without any appearance from Sweatshirt besides a single verse on the ten-minute collaborative track "Oldie." Fans were hungry for more.
"Aaand I'm back. Bye."
In February of 2012, the silence finally broke. A YouTube video — a teasing clip of new Earl material — demanded 50,000 followers on his Twitter account for more Earl. Only then would fans be treated to the full release. It took all of three hours. "Home" was released, a jazzy return triumphant with thick, molasses-like licks of seamless word magic. The track was a quick minute and a half, ending with a simple "aaand, I'm back. Bye." In that little taste, the artist showed maturity and growth, a fact bolstered by following features on tracks with Flying Lotus, Mac Miller, and other OF members.
"Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits."
But it would still be another year before the release of Doris, Earl's second full-length release, and the hype built up heavy in the meanwhile. In the end, fans were treated to a 15-track journey through dark corners of a troubled creative mind. Though songs like "Woah" and "Sasquatch" offer moments of adolescent trouble-making à la Earl, the majority of the album explores themes of insecurity, the hardship of adjusting to sudden fame, and a struggle to match perceived professional success with personal backstepping. The lead single, "Chum," was a harrowing self-portrait that took Earl fans by surprise, offering a more intimate and vulnerable look at a young man thrust from mysterious darkness into an international spotlight. Onstage, Sweatshirt took on a self-deprecating character, often teasing crowds that they didn't want to hear his music and didn't really like him, a clear misread of packed houses for effect.
"I anticipate a loss of fans... I also anticipate gaining some."
Sweatshirt changed things up heavy between mixtapes, and given the years and life experience, it shouldn't have been shocking. While many old fans may have been disappointed, hip-hop giants from RZA to Pharrell to Eminem were fast to hop on the train. The latter just had Tyler and Earl open for his European tour. Is it coincidence that Lamar's famous kill-'em-all verse on "Control" names Tyler but not the unstoppable Sweatshirt?
Whether every mainstream rap fan recognizes the emerging talent, every skillful, progressive-minded rapper in the game has an eye glued on Earl's next move. Everything about him, from his use of jazzy beats to his personal honesty, his nasty wordplay, and his mind-warping, buttery delivery separate him from his peers.
His next album is reportedly in production, hyped by a new track debuted in NYC back in February. Now that he's had time to adjust, tour the world, and exorcise demons, what style and theses will Earl tackle next? Perhaps Saturday's show at Revolution will offer insight into the dark hailstorm that is Earl's eminent reign.