Arts and Entertainment

Earl Sweatshirt: A Lantern for the Darkness

Discussing the emotional and stylistic progression of Earl Sweatshirt’s albums.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Susannah Ahn

As Stuyvesant students, we are acutely aware of just how important mental health is. Music and media have been entwined with issues of mental health for decades. Gen X has Nick Drake, and millenials have Elliot Smith, Kurt Cobain, and the entire emo genre. But what mainstream media has immersed us into the intricacies of mental health? We have had largely reductionist, narrow-minded content such as Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” (2017) and the television show “13 Reasons Why” (2017). Bubbling under the mainstream, however, is a rapper who reflects the feelings of a generation. His name is Earl Sweatshirt.

Thebe Kgositsile is a Los Angeles rapper, more commonly known by his stage name Earl Sweatshirt. His dejected, monotonous flows and gritty production have served as a refuge for the depressed and yearning youth of Gen Z. He came to notoriety at the age of 16 when he joined the soon-to-be-viral, hip-hop collective Odd Future, after its leader Tyler, the Creator found his music on MySpace. Soon after, Sweatshirt released his debut mixtape “Earl” (2010), which was met with some critical acclaim. The tone of the album was abrasive and edgy, and the lyrical content matched. Sweatshirt and his collaborators frequently delved into taboo topics, using homophobic epithets, mocking religion and sexual assault, and even going so far as to make light of the Holocaust and slavery. This album hasn’t exactly aged well. Though Sweatshirt showed potential with his carefully constructed rhyme schemes, signature flow, and poignant one-liners, the purposeless tongue-in-cheek morbidity does nothing but leave a sour taste in your mouth. Sweatshirt himself refers to this album as unfocused. Fortunately, he isn’t far from shedding his immaturity and is growing into a nuanced and sophisticated artist.

Just months after the mixtape’s release, Sweatshirt’s mother sent him to a recreational facility in Samoa after he was caught smoking marijuana with his friends. When Sweatshirt returned to America a few months later, Odd Future had exploded in popularity, partially due to the success of his mixtape. The collective was touring the country and playing sold-out shows. Now in the center of the spotlight as a newly matured man, Sweatshirt showed immense growth on his second project, “Doris” (2013), which kept every aspect that worked from Sweatshirt’s music, but stripped back the unnecessary edge. Most tracks remain hookless, cutting all filler and going straight for lyrical content. Some tracks, such as “20 Wave Caps,” “Chum,” and “Molasses,” tote poppy melodies, but most feature apocalyptic basslines with dissonant string, synth, or piano inflections. Every word placed on top of the percussion is delivered with absolute intent. Sweatshirt paints a picture of his life by discussing race, violence, depression, loss, and substance abuse. The in-the-doldrums tone of the album can be summarized in one line, in which Sweatshirt mocks his fans: “Don't nobody care how you feel, we want raps.” As the murky beat rides out from under him, Sweatshirt sounds truly alone. He carries this emotion into his next release.

2015 saw Sweatshirt drop “I Don’t Like [EXPLETIVE], I Don’t Go Outside.” While “Doris” had moments of brightness in its production and a handful of tongue-in-cheek lines, the mood and soundscape of “I Don’t Like” are stripped back and devoid of hope. The whole album is despondent yet tight, so much so that there is no escape from what Sweatshirt says; this is Sweatshirt’s album for himself. The vocals are front and center. Sweatshirt delves deep into the darkest parts of himself: insecurities, mental health, addiction, and abandonment. Soon after its release, Sweatshirt canceled a European tour of this album, citing mental health issues. “I Don’t Like” is Sweatshirt’s coming-of-age from a moody teen to a sardonic man, and as such, it's a tough listen. It can take you down if you’re not in the mood for dealing with reality.

Sweatshirt released his best album to date, “Some Rap Songs” (2018), in which he begins to experiment. The heavy bass and grimy smog of “I Don’t Like” are no more. Dusty, hypnotic samples and clicking drums populate this record, and Sweatshirt’s voice moves to the back of the mix. He sounds his most depressed and flat on this album, but the fuzziness and catchiness of the songs cushion the album from the anger expressed on “I Don’t Like.” As the album progresses, Sweatshirt seems to get more hopeful and animated in his inflection. Sweatshirt stabilizes himself with this record, acknowledging that he can’t maintain the anger and bitterness of “I Don’t Like” for much longer. Sweatshirt manages to intersperse lyrics of hope, isolation, abandonment, anxiety, depression, friendship, and family in just 24 minutes. This record can be described as pure, unfiltered emotion. It is a perfect portrait of Sweatshirt’s mental health. This record too can be summed up in one line: “Yeah, I think I spent most of my life depressed / Only thing on my mind was death / Didn't know that my time was next / Tryin’ to refine this [EXPLETIVE], I redefined myself.” Sweatshirt acknowledges that to be happy, he has to learn how to change and grow in his own way, which is a lesson all of us could take to heart.

As Sweatshirt continues to grow and change as a person, he will grow and change as an artist, making strides to help listeners understand and cope with their mental health and going with the strokes of the grim world around us.