Column: The Audacity of Earl Sweatshirt

Few things are comparable to the audacity of teenage boys. But it’s important to note that audacity has two definitions: it could relate to courageous boldness, or shameless insolence. Both of these meanings are present on rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s debut album, “Earl.”

Earl Sweatshirt, or Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, is a member of the rap collective Odd Future. While commonly regarded as the most poetic of the tribe, he’s also one of the youngest – “Earl” was released when he was only 15. Perhaps the key indicator of his youth is the allegation that his mother heard the lyrics of his album and in horror, subsequently sent him to boarding school in Samoa until his 18th birthday.Sweatshirt, now 21, just recently released his latest album, “I Don’t Like Sh*t, I Don’t Go Outside,” which Absolute Punk described as “an album made by an introvert, for introverts” and as his “most mature production to date.” His 2013 effort, “Doris” was reviewed similarly, as complex and poignant. Despite his young age, Sweatshirt is regarded as one of the most articulate and honest rappers in the modern scene.

On the other hand, it can be hard to know what to make of “Earl.” Calling it “brash” is an understatement – the subject matter is alarmingly volatile (representative lyric: “Earl puts the ‘ass’ in ‘assassin’.”) Some way, somehow, the album is guaranteed to offend.

However, upon the release of “Doris,” Sweatshirt said, “I’m just trying to make pretty music,” stating that he hopes to lose fans that only liked his previous work for its violent subject matter. Here, he makes clear that he does not intend his artistry to be reliant on shock value.

So what do we make of “Earl” then? Why is the album written off as simply crude, in our delicate and nervous age? Why is it, instead, one of the most critically acclaimed modern rap mixtapes – and according to Pitchfork, one of the best 100 albums of the decade so far?

There’s the fact that Earl is undeniably a strong wordsmith (appropriately, his middle name is in reference to poet Pablo Neruda) – the New York Times described him as “a savvy, schooled rapper: gross, entrancing and thrilling.” After all, he’s actually the son of South African poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile. Even though Kgositsile left the family when Sweatshirt was six years old, he and his son share the same blood, evident in Sweatshirt’s aptitude for language. Even at his youngest on “Earl,” Sweatshirt possesses a measured boldness in his rhymes; his verses contain a confident expertise that’s notable for any age, not to mention a teenager’s debut.

But amid all of its obscene bravado, there are many cracks in “Earl” that expose it to actually be a quite vulnerable record. And this is its most interesting facet. As Pitchfork wrote, “The young Sweatshirt was a shock rapper, to be certain, but he shocked in the service of a greater vulnerability. For all its bluster, “Earl” is an oddly introverted record, one that would almost certainly sink to the bottom of today’s rap internet.”

In the 2006 short internet film, “How to Be Emo,” rappers such as Tupac are discussed as actually some of the most “emo” figures of all, claiming that their verses spoke with “such raw and powerful emotion.” There’s a similar kind of sensibility on “Earl.”

Take for instance, “Luper” where Sweatshirt raps, “Maybe if you looked in this direction/I’d pick my heart up off the floor and put it in my chest then/feel this f—cking life rushing through my body,” and then revealing, “Most wanna tap and score, I want a fam of four/not like a family of four/just like…f-ck it, you’ll never listen to this sh-t anyway.” It’s an interesting examination of masculinity, especially of teenagers – carnage juxtaposed amit veiled and almost hesitant admissions of desire and emptiness. It’s well-documented of men’s struggles to express themselves without seeming weak or petty; “Earl” seems to come to a compromise. Cut away the sinewy obscenities of “Earl” and you’re left with a surprising amount of tenderness.

Earl Sweatshirt in person is different than the Earl Sweatshirt on the album – he is reserved, quiet and thoughtful. In his first ever interview, he nervously called out for his mentor Tyler the Creator, vanquished from the room for continual interruptions, leaving Earl alone and uncomfortable with the spotlight. Poet Charles Bukowski, who shares a similar crude thematic style, once wrote, “It’s so easy to be a poet/but so hard to be a man.” Sweatshirt seems to battle a similar internal conflict on his debut album, inventing a persona that made his world easier to navigate, at least on the inside.

The thing about Sweatshirt’s work is that it feels so “right now.” For me, this album seems to be permanently evocative of the parties where I fell asleep to its beats pulsing through the walls and of the college years in general; and on a deeper level, the culture and society that created both Earl himself and the people that flock to him. I wonder how it will age.

A poem by Sweatshirt’s father, entitled “Recollections,” seems to eerily echo his son’s own trajectory: “Though you remain/Convinced/To be alive/You must have somewhere/To go/Your destination remains/Elusive.”

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