On the cusp of his second studio album, Earl Sweatshirt felt misunderstood. Five years earlier, in 2010, he burst onto the scene with his debut mixtape EARL, a batch of immaculately rapped songs about jacking off to Asher Roth videos and other, far less harmless horrorcore fantasies. The rapper born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile was seen by many as both a prodigy on the mic and the blast of butane in the fires of Odd Future, the rowdy Southern California collective poised to dominate rap throughout the early 2010s. Then, as quickly as he’d appeared, he vanished.
Some thought Earl claimed an early retirement; others, like Odd Future ringleader Tyler, The Creator, insisted Earl’s mother, the law professor Cheryl Harris, refused to allow her then-teenaged son’s music to be released. In reality, Earl had been spirited away to Coral Reef Academy, a reform school for at-risk boys located in Samoa.
Many of Earl’s first raps, though technically impressive, were the detached ramblings of a pent-up teenager attempting to scratch the surface of deep-seated issues. “Was always smartmouthed and quick-witted / But somethin’ was always missing like six digits / lucky seven; probably Poppa,” he raps on “Couch,” the first of many mentions of his estranged father and South African poet laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile. Even at his most self-aware, Earl lacked the language to stave off the demons in his head.
Earl’s time at Coral Reef gave him a new perspective on life. He met victims of the atrocities he rapped so casually about; he read books by poet Richard Fariña and got really into Black Moth Super Rainbow. By the time he returned from Samoa at the beginning of 2012, he was no longer the child who rapped, “Just watch, I’mma kill ‘em all.” Earl had earned his freedom, and he was ready to define said freedom on his terms.
Doris, Earl’s debut album released in 2013, sanded a few of the edges off of EARL’s formula—fewer slurs, darker and more sophisticated beats—while still maintaining his trademark dense word-salad rap style. Though Doris was indeed a more insular and sticky project than EARL, it mostly felt like a compromise. Earl was growing more desperate to abandon the early OF aesthetic.
“Guild,” Doris’ 11th song, marked an abrupt shift in tone. The beat—produced by Earl under the alias randomblackdude—plinks like fingers running across piano keys covered in molasses. Earl and guest Mac Miller swap horny pitch-shifted raps. “Guild” didn’t stand out lyrically, but the dark simplicity of its beat marked it as an exception on the album, a black hole sucking in all light in its reach. It would unwittingly set the stage for the personal and aesthetic reckoning of Earl’s sophomore album, 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
I Don’t Like Shit—released on March 23, 2015, shortly after a botched rollout—was Earl’s attempt to chisel his style down to its bare essentials. “I’m obsessed with proverbs because, to me, flexing is being able to say the most with the least amount of words,” he told Jayson Greene in an interview with Pitchfork. The lyrical excess of Earl’s earlier projects wasn’t enough anymore.
Opening song “Huey” finds Earl lost in his thoughts and attempting to whittle them down. A cassette is fed into a player and clicked shut before a lush organ and muted drums push the song along its path. Earl’s voice is more energetic than usual, even though the lyrics read as world-weary. He reeks “of reefer and show money,” yet he’s drinking himself into a stupor while thinking about his late grandmother.
“Ain’t no time limit, I’m toasted as hell / And I gotta jot it quick, cause I can’t focus so well,” he sighs at the song’s close. Right out the gate, this isn’t the “misadventures of a shit-talker” like it was on Doris. “Huey” kicks things off with a simple message: Loss stings, the world is poison, and self-reflection is the cure.
Across I Don’t Like Shit, Earl’s self-reflection takes the form of sparse but densely stacked language. There are fewer winding syllabic pitches and slant rhymes just for the hell of it. Earl isn’t trying to impress anyone; he wants to get from point A to point B in the fewest moves possible. Through these proverbs, Earl finally breaches ideas he’d been chipping away at since the EARL days. Take the second half of the second verse of “Faucet,” which breaks down his deteriorating relationship with his mother in just five bars:
“Reverse to the times when my face didn’t surprise you / Before I did the shit that earned me my term on that island / Can’t put a smile on your face through your purse or your pocket / Shit in a pile, never change, I’m stupid for tryin’ / Still just too busy wildin’”
Mistakes and botched relationships float with spectral dread over I Don’t Like Shit. On “Mantra,” Earl weighs the pros and cons of fan interactions (“Now you surrounded with a gaggle of 100 fuckin’ thousand kids / 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”) before detailing how his recklessness destroyed a relationship with his then-girlfriend.
Earl goes one step further on “Grief,” spinning stories of his apartment as a homemade brothel where he’s “scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop” and putting his rap influence over his loved one’s feelings. “Good grief, I’ve been reapin’ what I’ve sowed,” he says plainly on the song’s hook.
Earl’s raps aren’t so much sorrowful as they are honest, explanations for ordeals he knows he can’t take back. “I’ve been like this since the Motorola Razor / what a bastard that baby was,” he confesses with a mixture of disgust and humor on “Off Top.” It’s hard to imagine the Earl of “Luper” and “Assmilk” arriving at a point so clearly.
I Don’t Like Shit is an insular body of work, but that doesn’t mean Earl was wholly shut off from human contact while crafting the project. His refusal to step outside didn’t stop him from giving and receiving pro-tips from friends he allowed into his space. On “AM // RADIO,” New York rapper Wiki tacks encounters with cops in gym shorts to nights having to “smack the mic against my fuckin’ head when I’m losin’ hype.”
When Earl picks up the baton, he channels legendary boasts (“Bitch, if your nigga had Supreme, we was the reason he copped it”) and dark confessionals (“Mind in the trash next to where my fuckin’ passion went”). “DNA” begins with Earl stacking sins (“Rap shit got the best of me, I threw the rest off the balcony”) before guest Na-Kel Smith spills his guts over a friend who reportedly died moments before he recorded his verse.
Input from Earl’s friends in the underground is crucial to I Don’t Like Shit because they helped give him something his raps lacked before: focus. Closing song “Wool,” featuring Vince Staples, converts whatever frustration is left in Earl’s body into a two-and-a-half-minute bar-fest for the ages. Working with fellow technicians like Wiki and Vince and a more stream-of-consciousness rapper like Na-Kel further inspired Earl to get to the core of ideas quicker than ever before.
I Don’t Like Shit stands as Earl’s first real moment of artistic clarity. The album’s power lies in its ability to see his mental forest for the trees and feel the urge to detangle the branches anyway. A spare moment during the second verse of “Grown Ups” contains a striking observation about his parents:
“My mama wonder why I never seem to reach her / See my daddy in the way I’m acting and my facial features / Just tryna put you on, dawg, I came from teachers.”
The son of a poet and a law professor finding solace in rap music is prophetic. Without this level of self-reflection, I doubt we would’ve received “Playing Possum,” the audio collage featured near the end of Earl’s third studio album, Some Rap Songs, from 2018. The song puts both of his parents—one alive, one dead—in conversation with each other, bridging emotional gaps and showing his understanding by uttering no words of his own.
“Playing Possum,” and Some Rap Songs as a whole, doesn’t happen without the breakthrough of I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Through breathlessly concise raps and beats dripping with tar, Earl offered a peek into his word therapy, a personal reckoning for public consumption.