The path to enlightenment is treacherous and hard-fought. It’s lined with snakes and heads with two faces. The way is always darkest before the light, but for those who can face their demons and find honesty within themselves, the results outweigh the difficult means.
For 21-year-old Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt, the reward is a healthy sense of pride, self-confidence, and mental clarity. For Sweatshirt fans, the boon is a ten-track breakthrough as powerful as it is vulnerable, titled I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
“This is my first album,” Sweatshirt told NPR Music’s Microphone Check at SXSW. Of course, IDLSIDGO is his third full-length effort and second major-label release, but Earl is speaking metaphorically these days.
“This is the first thing that I’ve said that I fully stand behind, like the good and the bad of it,” he continued. “I’ve never been this transparent with myself or with music.”
What started out as a humorous name for a project became a foreshadowing of the process to come. According to the Mic Check interview, Sweatshirt began working on the release just after coming home from tour. He’d just turned 20, then broke up with his main girl, and it’s evident in his lyrics the MC was still digesting the loss of his grandmother, the namesake from Doris, his last album.
Like most freshly single 20-year-olds, Sweatshirt and his friends spent their days getting wasted, seeing different girls, and just being debaucherous. Earl lost a lot of weight, stopped eating and taking care of himself, but somewhere in that process, his true voice started speaking through the haze in his mind, and everything suddenly clicked.
“I got woke,” he said to NPR. “I got hit in the head. When I turned 20, I got socked out of whatever zone I was in.” At 16, he was a verbal menace who shocked the world with violently masochistic music videos and tongue-in-cheek rape jokes thinly veiling relatable teen insecurities. At 17, he was banished to boarding school in Somalia while his best friends got famous and shouted his name. At 19, he was back in the United States and shoved into the spotlight as the most promising wordsmith of his generation, something he never asked for but was unwilling or unable to throw away.
At 21, on IDLSIDGO, Sweatshirt is nothing short of a visionary. Musically, it marks his first efforts of personal production. “Off Top,” produced by OF fellow Left Brain, is the only beat on the album Sweatshirt didn’t make. Lyrically, the LP is a sheer unstoppable force. It’s intelligent and witty, and a lot of it was never even jotted down.
“It was more of me like throwing up,” he said to NPR. “That’s why a lot of the shit didn’t get written. It was more about setting up a location. There was all these different variables that go into creating a moment, as opposed to creating a song.”
Earl has no interest in catering to a mainstream audience — or an audience at all. The last track of the album, “Wool,” featuring Vince Staples, was the first to be recorded and is simply two verses, no chorus.
On the lead single, “Grief,” Earl raps “fishy niggas stick to eating off of hooks/Say you eating, but we see you getting cooked.” “Grief” is one of the darkest moments on the record although verbally one of the artist’s most audacious.
“I don’t act hard/I’m a hard act to follow,” he says, and it’s true. Even in the wake of revealing and brutally honest albums from peers like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and even OF band leader Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt’s voice echoes through the room as the most fearlessly exposed. He’s rapping about realizing his mother was right, coming to terms with his mortality, and accepting himself as he truly is. He’s 21 going on infinity. He’s kind of the rap game Gautama Buddha.
“I just want my time and my mind intact/When they both gone, you can’t buy ’em back.”
Earl Sweatshirt. With Vince Staples and Remy Banks. 8 p.m.