Throughout Earl Sweatshirt's major-label debut, “Doris,” the Odd Future rapper struggles to come to terms with the increased spotlight he’s been under since returning from Coral Reef Academy--a retreat for at-risk boys outside the Samoan capital where he was sent by his mother in mid-2012.
Earl’s disappearance, which somehow remained a mystery for months and even inspired a “Free Earl” campaign amid Odd Future’s growing legions, coincided with the crew’s public coronation. The rapper’s return was trumpeted as one of the year’s most anticipated musical comebacks, which might explain, in part, why he started to show signs of cracking under the pressure.
“My priorities [bleeped] up, I know it/Afraid I'm going to blow it,” he rhymes on the low-key “Burgundy.” “And when them expectations raising because daddy was a poet.”
Even now the Los Angeles rapper, born Thebe Kgositsile 19 years ago, is still adjusting to fame. “Since I got home there’s a set of things I can't do unless I want to be really annoyed while I'm doing it, so I kind of just stopped doing everything,” he said. “I'm not a fan of attention. Well, sometimes, but not when I'm eating or going to concerts or just looking at something.”
He is, however, a fan of literature (the avowed bookworm said he’s nearly finished with the autobiography of Black Panther activist Assata Shakur), a trait he inherited from his father, South African poet Keorapetse, and his law professor mother. That’s one of many topics he touched on in a recent phone interview.
Did the song “Chum” [a “Doris” track where Earl unpacks years of emotional baggage] feel like a turning point for you musically?
Yeah, man, that was a real turning point for me because that was the first time I was fully transparent on a song and I fully articulated an idea I wanted to get across. I was used to just saying whatever the [bleep] came to my head whether or not it made sense. I think it was just something that had to get done. I didn't necessarily drop my guard, but it was like I fully concentrated for once.
Near the end of that track you say “back a week and I already feel like calling it quits.” What keeps you motivated to continue doing this?
That was like a year ago when I first got back and everything was really overwhelming. That was just a song for that period of time. Now I have a lot of fun. It's tight dude. I'm 19 and I get to have an apartment and do some [bleep] that is not work at all. Rappers get paid to smoke weed and complain.
Can you still relate to that 15-year-old kid who rapped about murder and rape?
Yeah, I feel him, but not in the same way. I think I'm going back to not the same [bleep] I was rapping about, but just the way I was doing it. I'm comfortable doing music again. Throughout “Doris” and while I was recording it you could hear I was apprehensive towards everything. I can't explain it. It wasn't fun; it was like I had to do it. Now it's returning to when it was fun and I can feel myself wanting to do music again. I feel myself getting restless.
There are definitely times on “Doris” you sound more willing to share the spotlight than to take hold of it.
I was still trying to figure out how to rap, and I was absolutely more enthusiastic to share the spotlight than take it completely. There's a whole other set of expectations that come when you get more of the spotlight.
That's interesting because you missed the part where Odd Future had the build-up. You just came home and had all the lights on you.
And it was fully [bleeped], yeah. Everything was fully blown out. There wasn't that gradual rise. It went from nothing to popping. I'm used to it now. I've had time to adjust to it. I'm a lot more comfortable now than I was when I got home.
Your father is a respected poet. Did you inherit your love of language from him?
Part of it, yes. Both of my parents had me reading at a really young age. Maybe it was a hereditary thing, but my mom always had my nose in a book. I've always been a bookworm.
I heard you were really into Edgar Allen Poe as a kid. Did you always have a fascination with the macabre?
I always enjoyed being made uneasy, and I was into anything that was off-putting. I can't exactly put my finger on why, but it always seemed more exciting than those things that made you feel comfortable.
In a recent interview, you talked about watching global warming documentaries and said everything was in a dismal state. As you look around now, do you see anything out there that gives you hope?
No, there's not too much to be hopeful about. With Drake's album out now I don't know what else there is to look forward to. Nothing was the same.
Earl Sweatshirt, 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Metro, $21.