Emerging as a member of Odd Future in the late 2000s, it didn’t take long for Earl Sweatshirt to establish himself as one of the most prolific alternative rappers of the past 15 years. With his troubled past and brooding attitude, he played the role of a reclusive, murder-fantasizing weirdo in a creative collective whose main claim to fame was being extremely weird.
Born Thebe Kgositsile in Chicago, Illinois, in 1994, he grew up in Los Angeles. He joined Odd Future in 2009, after Tyler, The Creator reached out because he enjoyed Kgositsile’s early work under the moniker Sly Tendencies. After the release of his 2010 mixtape county, his mother sent him to a boarding school for at-risk teenagers in Samoa, in a bid to keep him out of trouble. His disappearance from the spotlight was a mystery until Complex commonly went very far to find his whereabouts. Earl returned to Los Angeles in 2012 and soon resumed playing. His official debut, 2013 Dory, earned him wide recognition as a solo artist, while he also played a key role in OFWGKTA. His work with the crew was colorful and provocative, but his individual output was always darker and more stoic.
Odd Future slowed down and stopped touring in the late 2010s, after many members ended up pursuing more radio-friendly endeavors. Tyler, The Creator turned pop rapper turned queer icon. Frank Ocean has canonized himself as one of the most ambitious and poetic songwriters of the past decade. Syd The Kid’s music with The Internet embraced Sade-style R&B. Meanwhile, Earl’s art takes a turn towards the avant-garde. Over the course of just three studio albums, two EPs and a mixtape, his sound has flirted with everything from simple boom-bap to freewheeling jazz. So ahead of his fourth album Sick! (out tomorrow, January 14), we take a look back at Earl Sweatshirt’s 10 best songs to date, from his work as a teenage misfit to his masterpieces as a prolific rap experimenter.
county is the quintessential mixtape of the early 2010s. With its cheeky bars and gritty instrumentals, it set the tone for releases by blogging artists like Das Racist and Run the Jewels. The band’s title track uses a jerky, distorted groove to set the framework for its supple flow. “More twisted than crazy cattle / In fact, I’m leaving / Six different alcohols”, he spits. Earl Miners’ artistic endeavors were definitely a bit uncomfortable – that’s exactly what made them so great.
Compressing seven tracks into just 15 minutes, Earl’s 2019 EP CLAY FEET was an exercise in efficiency. “MTOMB” is a cut with a filtered sound, built around a relaxing rhythm. In just 70 seconds, Earl serves up one of the most vague tracks in his entire discography. It can be a bit difficult to make sense of the song, which disappears almost as quickly as it begins, but it’s challenging in a rewarding way. It’s incredibly dirty, like watching long-forgotten VHS footage of your friends hanging out on a lazy afternoon.
“Nowhere2go” sounds weak in the most alluring way. Earl raps over a wobbly beat, centered on a chirping vocal sample and a crisp drum groove. Its delivery is usually quite brutal, but here it is as vocal as it gets. Naming the members of his crew, Earl seems both melancholy and witty. On his more recent albums, Earl has collaborated with some of the lofi-leaning artists that emerged after him, like Navy Blue and Mach-Hommy. You can feel the influence of these artists on “Nowhere2go”, which appears to have been released by underground hip-hop collective sLUms.
Earl Sweatshirt makes music to drive aimlessly, reflect on life, and prepare for nothing good. Therefore, it’s fitting that it has a song that cryptically pays homage to fast food. “EL TORO COMBO MEAL” is based on a dusty cut from the 1970 track “Your Kiss of Fire” by The Hopkins Bros. His bilious production makes it sound like it was recorded with the mic on a flip phone. With a drained-sounding verse from up-and-coming leftist rapper MAVI, it’s a latter-day Earl song that leans into the grit of his roots.
Enlisting Brooklyn free jazz collective Standing On The Corner to provide a murky sonic backdrop, Earl’s “Ontheway!” is a great example of some rap songs‘ Tendency towards gender bending. In less than two minutes, it rocks old-school New York hip-hop tropes until it morphs into a choppy, screwed-up haze. Although Earl’s voice was shaped by the sun-washed strip malls of LA, he always had the laid-back cool of an East Coast rapper, like Prodigy or Raekwon. “On my way!” showcases his talent for timeless winter gloom at its finest.
It’s hard to imagine an artist like Wiki existing without Earl’s influence. He made a name for himself as the loudmouth frontman of New York trio RATKING, which fused the rap noise of Death Grips and the cool city kid of OFWGKTA. On “AM//Radio,” the two rap over a wispy halftime beat that eventually turns into a featherweight trap. Even though Earl had known a lot of fame and fortune before recording I don’t like shit, I don’t go out, it manages to play like a record out of makeshift studios in crummy basements. The duo complement each other perfectly on “AM // Radio”. It is a collaboration at the limit of perfection.
Teaming up with Ocean, “Sunday” is Dory‘ ode to the party. Much like the duo’s other iconic collaboration, Orange Channel“Super Rich Kids” by “the track has the energy of a lonely Californian night spent getting fucked just because there’s nothing better to do.” And where I walk is is studded, and half ****** I stumble / Where she parks where she visits, I take the bottle and the food / I see the car in the distance, I know the darkness does not come, ” raps Earl over a warm, organ-heavy beat. Earl was one of the definitive voices of a generation of teenagers raised on Loiter Squad videos and Supreme drops. “Sunday” sums up this lively spirit.
Press play on Earl’s 2015 album I don’t like shit, I don’t go out, it immediately became clear that the cartoonishness of his early music was nowhere to be found. “Mantra” is a disturbing and diabolical song. It’s driven by sparse instrumentation, centered around slamming drums and reverberating guitars that sound like they’re radiated from the depths of hell. “Bold and wild, you broke and mad, my nigga / The name gets bigger than the difference between us / N***as is wrong, I limit the features that I give them,” he raps. The track touches on the stress of stardom, and Earl looks tired and downcast. For better or for worse, that’s exactly what makes “Mantra” one of the most memorable works on his discography.
Dory is marked by honesty and austerity, but its exit was actually quite triumphant. He landed Forkit is Best New Music, found Sweatshirt millions of new listeners, and even tagged it a live appearance with The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “Whoa” captures the exciting energy of that era. Driven by a drawling groove and high-pitched mono synthesizer tracks, it’s a loud hype track. It also happens to feature some of Earl’s most verbose and dense lyricism to date. On his cocky guest feature, Tyler iconically raps about earning $250,000 from Odd Future sock sales while standing on the block looking like shit. Earl’s character generally plays in the messy and sometimes creepy angst that made his presence in Odd Future so compelling. “Whoa” finds him and Tyler going wild, bragging about the fruits of their labor.
“Chum” isn’t just Earl Sweatshirt’s best song, it’s also one of the greatest songs about childhood, suffering and community ever written. In an almost disturbing youthful voice, Earl calmly talks about his absent father, plays around with drugs, and finds his chosen family thanks to Tyler. “Mom would often give peace offerings / Think, whistle, cough, laugh and off he goes / Looking for a big brother, Tyler was it / And besides he liked the way I rap, blunt mice in the trap,” he raps in a surprisingly calm, yet spirited flow. Its bars are backed by a wandering, piano-laden instrumental that sounds as if it could have been taken from a Golden Age Wu-Tang record. Like the best thematically heavy music, “Chum” isn’t easy to listen to, but it’s also nearly impossible to turn off.
Ted Davis is a writer, editor, and cultural musician from Northern Virginia, currently based in Los Angeles. He is the music editor of Carousel magazine. Above Pastry, his work has appeared in Fork, FLOOD Magazine, aquarium drunk, The alternative, Post-trash, and a host of other podcasts, local blogs, and zines. You can find Ted on Twitter at @tddvsss.