Thebe Neruda Kgositsile is about to deprive the pop intelligentsia its most (only?) beguiling mystery: Where is Earl Sweatshirt? If he’s anything like his accomplices in the mega-hype Tumblr-made Odd Future (most say he’s better), he’ll be spotted by week’s end climbing the Billboard top five, queued in 100,000+ iPhones, and reblogged several hundred more times than anything you’ve posted.
Well… that’s relieving. I guess we can go home, or whatever.
Anyway, now that he’s here, I’m going to start asking another question: who is Earl Sweatshirt, and have we been right to keep looking for three years? But first let me preface this question by making clear a few of my sturdy biases: one, I’m using the royal ‘we’ to mean ‘genuine rock critics’ because to date I’ve mostly recoiled at the self-styled pretensions of these antagonistic little shits. And two: it’s grotesque to demand product from a 16-year-old, and dizzyingly worse that this demand was puffed up with a marketer’s foresight by his 19-year-old stoner bandmates.
Whatever, moving on. So who is Earl Sweatshirt? If you ignore the aesthetics of the matter (like, if you really really ignore them), then Kanye West is a handy precedent. Both came up at a mild distance from urban poverty - with highly educated, middle class, black families in relative comfort. They’re both outsiders to the rap narrative in that way - but curiously made it big from the inside-out: West as an aspiring producer-turned-artist via HOV and Timbaland; and now Earl, the enigmatic Quiet One whose coming out is after-party to a whole lot of OFWGK†Δ noise. His first big purchase had best be a blowjob for Tyler. Anyway, the most critical similarity between the two? Both are self-conscious auteurs who spend at least as much time behind the board as they do in front of a mic. Check the production credits on College Dropout. That used to be a rare thing, you know. Once, in the 90s most of Odd Future was born in, rap artists just talked their shit. Now they mix it too. In fact, that’s his group’s whole shtick: just one chill band of churlish know-no-betters who engineer great music on their own - you know, whenever the fuck they feel like it.
Just one problem: they suck at the second thing. Take the miserably ponderous beats on Tyler, The Creator’s bastard twins, Goblin and Wolf - which loiter all creepy-like outside your house at night, waiting for you to go to bed. Or the precious string orchestration on Frank Ocean’s excellent but frustratingly hook-deficient Channel Orange - an album Kanye West himself wanted to and should’ve produced. Why didn’t he? Frank Ocean just ‘needed to do this thing on his own.’
Earl? Probably the worst ears of the three. So much so that critical auteur similarity he shares with Ye is instead the crucial sonic difference: West wrapped hip hop in a silk negligee and made love to it on a big ass gold throne; this Earl guy is shitting himself in a hot swamp.
Or maybe he’s dead. That makes more sense - because most of Doris is a heavy synth funeral dirge almost never transcended, contradicted, skittered, juxtaposed (or any verb that might signal relief) by an enthusiasm of tone… or even, you know, a pulse. The only thing that stands up here is the ironically (gonna say not deliberately) titled ‘Molasses,’ produced by - any surprise? - Wu-Tang godfather RZA. A lively tamborine shakes up the malaise at a tempo that sorta picks Earl’s ass off the couch. I said sorta. Would have taken ten minutes in studio to dial up the speed, or drop the bass some on this and the rest of these songs. Ten minutes. But… whatever.
So Earl Sweatshirt isn’t Kanye West. I’m tempted to say he instead drones a little closer to Nico after the Velvets and before sobriety, or the poststructuralist John Maus, or even Seattle wet blankets Sunn O))). Closer, yes. But none of these are quite right. Calling him Nico shortchanges John Cale, who at least knew what he was doing when he was doing exactly the wrong thing. And John Maus’s nightmare at least has, like, an acid rainbow inside it… and he might be said to have an ironic sense of humor (“Pussy is not a matter of fact” forty-five times will do it). And Sunn O))) isn’t fair at all; Earl is talented.
That’s the most frustrating thing. I said in an earlier post that the multicolored Chicago carebear Chance the Rapper raps more intricately in 2013 than anyone alive. That’s no longer true in a technical sense, though it remains so in spirit. Earl, estranged son to former South African National Poet Laureate, claims and should actually boast latent powers of assonance and flow that at least match Chance’s, and in moments of existential clarity take on and remind me of classic Weezy. But he’s so… whatever about it. So casual in his delivery and self-assurance he rises down.
So… whatever! I thought I’d help him out. Embedded above are two tracks I’ve taken time (maybe ten minutes?) to edit: Chance’s sporadicity-atop-down-tempo “Everybody’s Somebody’s Everything” reworked to match the soundwave of Earl’s sadsack “Hive,” itself buzzing with new tempo, compression, dynamic range, length, and bass emphasis. Good ideas aren’t good ideas anymore if you don’t bother to animate them, bud.
Conclusively, then: I’m gonna say Earl Sweatshirt is a Chance the Rapper who traded in lysergic for, say, barbiturates… and then overdosed. Now I’m not sure either question really matters. Where is Earl Sweatshirt? Who is Earl Sweatshirt? He was dead on arrival. Or something. Whatever.