Where’s Earl?

Thebe Kgositsile, aka Earl Sweatshirt last released a project in the spring of 2015, aptly named “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside”. The album was lean with only ten tracks. It came out a week after Kendrick’s critic darling To Pimp A ButterFly, an album Earl himself praised in interviews, explaining how the Compton rapper’s project allowed his own artistic expression to be more free and natural by occupying a space in modern rap that sorely needed filling. Earl’s album, despite the gloomy subject matter, received positive reviews and seemed like the right step forward for a young talent coming into his own and building an identity outside of the infamous group Odd Future.

After the release of IDLSIDGO, blogs began solidifying his rhyming skills as upper echelon, along with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole. Peers and legends couldn’t help but acknowledge his talent and identifying it as something the world should prepare for. But a lot has happened in Hip-Hop since the early months of twenty-fifteen and with artists releasing music at a rapid frequency, Earl’s music, while still held in high esteem, is sorely missed. And yet it seems he is no rush to jump back into the limelight.

A year after Thebe’s album release, rabid fans seemed to be spoiled by the fierce pace of the streaming age, his twitter feed started to flood with constant requests for some new music. Shrewdly he responded with a few songs and instrumentals through Soundcloud (with an account name difficult to find in a search bar), and did some excellent features for other artists, but it still wasn’t enough. Fans demanded more, and in return he professed his annoyance through tweets, not only with the music industry, but also with the state of the world, harking back to his agoraphobic disposition expressed on his last album.

earl-sweatshirt-afropunk

Collin Robinson/Stereogum

A few months after his tweet storm warning fans not to rush the artist and his work, I was lucky enough to see him live. It was the summer of 2016 at AfroPunk in Brooklyn. A multi-stage festival with an eclectic mix of artists set to perform, including his friends Tyler The Creator who performed the day before, and Syd, front woman of The Internet who were headlining the festival. Earl, as expected was one of the more anticipated artists at the festival, despite not releasing music in a while, and lacking a standout single from his catalogue. Personally, he was high on my list of acts to see. Without hesitation, I brushed past a plethora of shirtless black bohemians in the August heat to get a good spot for the performance, but as soon as he appeared on stage and the music played, my excitement went as flat as the tone his voice. He seemed tired, bored with the facile nature of fame and adoration. Lazily, he asked the crowd to get into it, but as the songs went on, it was obvious that he could care less about the crowd’s cheers, and instead performed the set like a man there for the paycheck and nothing else. A job is a job I guess. But rather than bashing the artist for not being enthused about his privilege, I find it more helpful to understand why he became so apathetic in the first place.

Hip-Hop over the last 10 years has changed drastically, so much so that if one were to dream of being a rapper as a child in the mid to late 90’s, their aesthetic, business model and even the standard for success differ a great deal from their idols and predecessors. Rappers can’t even act like they make a fraction of what they used to make off albums nowadays. And for labels to recoup in the changing tides of commerce, they’ve made signing 360-deals commonplace, often leaving the artist financially vulnerable if the product loses popularity. Yet despite the changes, and the tumultuous nature of the industry, rappers still rap the same. That is, they maintain the braggadocio and excess of previous hip-hop heavy weights like Jay-Z, P Diddy, and 50 cent with carbon-copy rhymes, creating not only a false perspective for their fans but somewhat of a cognitive dissonance for themselves. While stark truth is popular in the genre, humility is not, nor am I saying it should be. Rap is competitive and it keeps the genre alive but like many things the greatest strength can also be a crutch or a weakness.

Earl’s image in hip-hop, though not all original, is very contrary to the standard. He’s clandestine, has modest clothing choices and like those before him (e.g. MF Doom and Mos Def) his music does not yearn for radio. His art clearly reflects the want to live a normal and happy life because abnormality and inconsistency have become too commonplace, betraying his desires for peace and satisfaction. Lauded former gatekeepers of Rap, their roles diminished in the free-for-all of Soundcloud Rap, question it’s authenticity everyday, while many new artist are simply using the music as a springboard for other ventures of capitalism, disbanding the culture’s traditions and icons for more immediate success and recognition. So at the end of the day, for a rapper WHO REALLY RAPS B, can we honestly blame Earl, an artist who buries himself in his craft, for feeling so apathetic towards a world that has had such a proclivity for excess beyond rationale, and spontaneity before preparation?

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