The Metamorphosis of a Lyricist: Earl Sweatshirt’s Artistic Evolution
Earl Sweatshirt’s self-titled, debut mixtape was like listening to a king cobra sink poisonous fangs into my eardrums. Venom dripped from every offensive lyric and derogatory line. I cringed after hearing every mention of rape, the carefree use of the word faggot, and the complete lack of empathy for any he might offend. Earl was no older than a junior in high school, which only made his lyrical content more shocking.
Odd Future as a collective were offensive juveniles who wore their immaturity like a garment of proud clothing and channeled their adolescent angst into disturbance and destruction. Unpleasant content can overshadow talent, but in Earl’s case, the vile subject matter didn’t eclipse a wordsmith with an immense amount of potential. What that potential would become, no one knew...
“I’m a hot and bothered astronaut, crashing while jacking off to buffering vids of Asher Roth eating apple sauce,” are the first rap bars listeners are greeted by on the song "Earl." Comical and repulsive, this is the kind of wordplay that sticks with you long after the music stops. Throughout the song, Earl illustrates shoving trumpets up butts, uppercutting sluts, and putting the ass in assassin. He is painfully childish, but the promise isn't in the words, rather how he delivers them.
Stylistically, he is a product of Madvillainy. “Deerskin” is clearly influenced by the spirit of MF DOOM and it's not because of "All Caps," but in the way he constructs words―fluid, unpredictable, comical, but sharper than a samurai’s katana. Words are his weapon, and they are brutal. The technique exhibits the kind of penmanship not for clubs or radio, but for fans who appreciate the art of rhyming.
Earl’s care for lyricism is apparent, and his talent for putting words together is why he was championed as Odd Future’s most prodigious artist. I think of “Dat Ass,” “Blade,” “Deerskin” and “Luper” as prime examples displaying the prowess that excited the internet.
After Earl left his mark on Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” and Rich Boy’s “Drop,” there was a demand for a full mixtape of murdering industry beats. I relate this era of Earl to Majin Buu, one of the popular villains from Dragon Ball Z. Despite being evil and determined to destroy the planet, Buu was a villain that Goku admired for his incredible strength. For every time Earl made you cringe, there was a quoteworthy rhyme deserving to be recited.
What happened to Earl Sweatshirt after the release of Earl has always felt like a chapter from a book of fiction. To be torn from home, removed from friends, and shipped off to Samoa due to bad behavior is a strange twist of fate, and yet his popularity blossomed once he was sent away.
Two years is a long time to be missing in music, especially when the world would rather have you on stage than on a milk carton, but the years spent away triggered a change in Earl. Without the sudden move to Samoa, I’m almost certain that his development as an artist would've happened much later.
It’s easy to imagine a label signing him expecting another Earl album—shocking and offensive. The fact Eminem still finds amusement in pissing on Fergie and making rape jokes while being in his mid-40s is proof that maturity doesn’t always come later in life. Being away allowed the youngest member of OF to grow up and grow out of the sophomoric psyche of his early offerings. All the members of OF eventually grew up, but Earl's growth would’ve been stunted had he not disappeared. The pressure of being a teen star is a heavy burden, had he stayed he would be a completely different person and a completely different rapper. In retrospect, being sent away was a blessing in disguise.
Doris, the long-awaited, post-Samoa debut, was a step toward shining light on his rap abilities without the slice of vileness. This is Earl the lyricist—long-winded and clever, throwing punchlines that resemble Ken’s Shoryuken with the wordplay of a backpack rapper who cared only to dwell in the underground. What we desired from Earl were bars, and only bars. Songs like “Whoa,” “Uncle Al,” “Hive,” “Molasses” and “Hoarse” put his prominent pen to the forefront. The change in content impacted the album's direction, he was no longer waging war against the world, but no bigger subject filled the void.
Earl being a rapper’s rapper released a project that’s practically an ode to lyricism. There are moments of introspection, honesty mixed into the wordplay like a splash of gin into juice, but not enough to leave you drunk and satisfied. Songs like “Burgundy,” “Chum” and “Sunday” have a minimum presence on the album, a rarity that made them special.
“I don’t care what you’re going through,” Vince Staples says between the two verses on “Burgundy”―he’s the mocking voice of all fans who demanded Earl to come back without considering the rapper’s personal life. Earl knew what they wanted, and I believe the pressure to give the fans what they expected impacted the making of Doris. I also believe proving himself again gave Earl a sense of liberation. He was freed from the chains of their expectations, and this freedom once again adjusted his artistry.
Two years after Doris, Earl returned with I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Regardless of whether fans wanted it or not, Earl was going to walk them through what he was going through. The album's tone is darker than Gotham City after the death of Batman. Earl brought listeners into the center of the black hole that was his life. Instead of filling beats with punchlines, listeners are punched by brutal self-reflection. Instead of trying to make heads spin with complex metaphors and similes, he punctured souls by confessing intense grief, being open about turbulent relationships, and digging deeper into his core. His flow adjusted to say more with less—far less wordy than he once was. By making changes to his flow, delivery and style, he's far more simplistic, but there’s a newfound bite that leaves a lasting impression.
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is the first time Earl handled nearly all production himself, crafting nine of the 10 beats he rapped over. The instrumentals speak in collaboration with his rhymes; there’s feeling in the loops, chords and drums that mirror the emotions he conveys. The song “Grief” sounds like deep sorrow; you get wrapped up in the cloak of darkness amplifying how each lyric is received. For a wordsmith discovering how to invoke emotion without using words, the album displayed an unexpected evolution.
This evolution continued on Solace, the 10-minute project that followed up the release of IDLSIDGO. It is by far his most personal and minimal project—mostly driven by thin production and confessional raps, it's a far cry from the debut mixtape that lifted him to acclaim.
Some of the lines are so sincere that they sting, like eavesdropping on a man during an emotional episode. His words aren’t coated by sugar—the feeling of missing his grandmother is heard in the way his voice trembles, like the unhealthy lifestyle that is eating him alive. This isn’t a man falling to his doom, but someone who survived their face being smashed into the concrete. Breakdowns aren’t supposed to be explosive and loud, but more like unraveling, a quiet deterioration. The raps are filled with errors, slip-ups and fumbles—there’s a lack of perfectionism, a lack of effort to be flawless, and that’s why it sounds so human, so raw and relatable. Solace is an album that sounds like it was made by the man born Thebe Kgositsile and not the artist known as Earl Sweatshirt.
I’m convinced the best of Earl is still to come. The SoundCloud loosie “Quest/Power” is a potent display of how his way with words is becoming more poetic—the vividness of his imagery is transfixing. “Malt liquor perspiring through the brown sack” is such an incredible way to articulate a mundane image. The slower flow utilized on “Wind In My Sail” is like watching a man slowly cross an ocean frozen in ice—patient, captivating, and difficult not to enjoy each and every step to the end.
Both “Quest/Power” and the unreleased, Alchemist-produced “45“ are full of conviction and confidence. The way he starts his annihilation of Danny Brown’s “Really Doe” makes him sound like a giant who came to stomp on any ants bold enough to stand in his path. The performance is one of the most impressive moments of 2016, proving that Earl’s artistic metamorphosis has produced a rapper who has truly blossomed.
However, it was the Adult Swim-released “Balance,” not his guest verse on "Really Doe," that truly stirred my excitement for a new Earl album. The song barely exceeds a minute—criminally short. Again, this is Earl slowing it down, moving at the pace of a chess game played by two elderly men. The song uses minimal words, far different than the Sweatshirt that would fill verses with enough words to turn a blank book into a dictionary. “Watch the wall collide with my fist” grabs you by the ears, and that’s just one of the many lines that will keep you frozen. Simplistic, terse, transparent—it is a miniature masterpiece that proves lyricism and storytelling don’t have to be complex to be impactful.
There’s a reason why Kendrick considers Earl his favorite rapper. There’s a reason why Danny Brown enlisted him to rap on “Really Doe” alongside Kenny and Ab-Soul. They see in Earl an artist who has taken his gift and didn't get complacent but developed and progressed to climb higher and higher. Artistic evolution is beautiful.
Earl the mixtape and Doris showed a promising caterpillar, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and Solace are portraits of a golden cocoon, and I believe Earl’s next album will be his final form: the butterfly he’s destined to become.
By Yoh, aka Yohvolution aka @Yoh31.
Art Credit: Oscar Vinall