Getty Images / Kevin Winter

It’s a phrase we’ve all heard innumerable times without ever really contemplating its widespread applicability – absence makes the heart grow fonder. Far from a schmaltzy sentiment, the notion that people have to make themselves scarce in order for their merits to be truly appreciated is one that has real precedent in all walks of life. In the case of the torrid sphere of modern music – where the biggest artists tend to err on the side of cautious omnipresence – lengthy absences often strike us as perplexing or cause for concern rather than an attempt at garnering some necessary respite. Whether spurred on by the need for creative replenishment, personal problems, disgruntlement with the industry, or any number of extenuating factors combined, D’Angelo, Dr Dre, Kate Bush and countless others are all testament to the benefits of giving yourself time to decompress from the spotlight only to emerge anew some ways down the road.

In the case of one Thebe Kgositsile, better known as virtuosic wordsmith Earl Sweatshirt, his hiatus and subsequent reemergence may have begun as a voluntary period of solitude, but it would soon be exacerbated by forces that far outreached his earthly grasp.

A chaos-inducing event for rap Twitter and ravenously excitable subreddits, Vince Staples’ offhand revelation about his new project FM! would have doubtlessly captured the collective imagination without the inclusion of a track entitled “New earlsweatshirt – Interlude” but the new air of gravitas it afforded couldn’t have hurt. As fleeting as this 20-second segue between tracks turned out to be, there was a palpable sigh of relief elicited by Earl’s fanbase just by virtue of hearing those tangential, precisely chosen rhymes rendered in that immersive drawl once more.

Over two whole calendar years since he’d last proffered a whip smart set of bars to the masses (on Danny Brown’s star-studded cut “Really Doe”), the prospect of a new Earl Sweatshirt record had gradually dwindled from an impending arrival at the start of the year to being shrouded in an opaque air of uncertainty and ambiguity. Once considered a foregone conclusion, courtesy of a buoyant New Year’s Eve tweet that claimed “new chunes 2018, don’t think i wasn’t at work,” this wry allusion to upcoming material on his frequent collaborator’s record allowed a cautious sense of excitement to creep back into the consciousness.

Sure enough, less than a week elapsed between Vince’s release and the revelation that Earl’s first track in over two years was mere hours away. A similarly succinct burst of tantalizing wordplay to the prefacing teaser teamed with a mesmeric and ethereal soundscape, the arrival of Earl’s “Nowhere2go” instantly cleared the way for a body of work forged from the time spent on the fringes of his own notoriety and torrents of unyielding emotion. Met by widespread praise from Earl’s sonically inclusive fanbase, this brief indication of what is soon to come has, somewhat predictably, been a small fragment that has launched plenty of hyperbolic statements about the as yet unearthed album’s speculated merits. Setting fanaticism to the side, what becomes clear when you examine this return in a broader context is that the stage is perfectly set for not only Earl to deliver an accomplished and thought-provoking piece, but for the project to account for the most vital collection of his career to date.

For starters, anyone that’s traced the prodigiously talented rhymer and former Odd Future firebrand since the outset of his career wouldn’t be too disconcerted by the extended drought of new music. Quickly emerging as the standout MC of the provocative LA collective that galvanized a youth movement of suburbanites clad in tie-dye and box logos, the arrival of Thebe’s debut tape EARL in 2010 left an irrevocable scorch mark on the brains of each and every single person that found itself in its boundary-breaching snare. Propelled forward by its lurid title track and those infamous visuals that wilfully fell foul of YouTube’s community guidelines, the then-15-year-old’s no-holds-barred approach to lyrical content and pervading nihilism marked him out as the group’s breakout star after Tyler, the Creator made their first unfiltered foray into the mainstream.

Or at least, that was the case until he was forcibly removed from their ranks and taken far, far away from the trappings of his newfound acclaim. The soon-to-be catalyst of a grassroots fan campaign under the banner of ‘Free Earl,’ it was the persisting fretfulness about the direction of her son’s life that led his mother, Cheryl Harris, to uproot the burgeoning rapper from his Ladera Heights-based crew and ship him off to The Coral Reef Academy in Samoa. Essentially designed as a reform school for wayward teens, his mother’s decision may have been met with derision from OF’s rapacious fanbase, but any insight from the recipient of said rehabilitation has pointed to it as being a pivotally important facet of his development. In conjunction with dissuading him from the more vulgar or irresponsible facets of his lyrical scope through working directly with sexual assault survivors, Earl has also been quick to speak of the much-needed restorative effect that it had on the psyche of a young man that had been unceremoniously burdened with the weight of the world. Speaking to GQ after his re-entry into the fray, Earl claimed that in addition to learning to be “patient,” there was a demonstrable dichotomy between the brash young upstart that had first courted the industry’s attention and the level-headed man that emerged from the ether:

“I’m fucking grown now. I was a little-ass kid in 2009. I’ve figured shit out – well not figured shit out. That’s ridiculous. Not in some pretentious way, just as a result of time.”

Far from a vapid sentiment for his mother’s benefit, this progression was demonstrably exposed to the world in the form of his return to the mic just months after his reintegration into his own environment. Penned while at Coral Reef, his return to the forefront of Odd Future’s bustling pack came in the form of his loquacious verse on “Oldie,” the concluding track on 2012’s OF Tape Vol 2. Laden with the razor-sharp wordplay and poetic contortionism, this reentry has been widely praised ever since, but it holds a deeper place in his legacy as being endemic of the real changes he’d made since stepping away from the spotlight.

Just as he did when following up the ambitiously scatter-brained debut Doris of 2012 with the foreboding and somber I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside three years later, this belief in retooling away from the public’s glare and delving into the innermost depths of his mind has proved itself as a viable means of taking his music into new terrain in both subject matter and musicality. Based on what was presented on “Nowhere2go,” it’s immediately clear that the musical direction has drastically evolved from his last project. Even its cover – which features Earl standing contently and seemingly free of the agoraphobic allusions of his previous record’s title – seems to signify that this is indeed a departure from what we’ve come to expect from him in recent years. However, what becomes equally apparent is that the lingering specter of one of life’s cruel certainties is poised to make the album’s bars some of the most profound and heartrending of his entire career.

From the very moment that the first excerpt of new material hit social media, it was quickly revealed that every ounce of this project has been of a soul-baring nature to the man born Thebe Kgositsile: “YEEAAAAOEOOEOEOE TO SAY IM EXCITED TO B GIVING YALL MUSIC IS BIG UNDERSTATEMENT”, he revealed on Twitter. “THIS YEAR BEEN THE ROUGHEST OF MY LIFE, BUT HERE WE ARE !!!”

Earl seemed both jovial and recharged as he headed into 2018 courtesy of the welcome revelation about new material being inbound this year, but there was no way for the artist or his fanbase to predict was just how quickly all of this ebullience would be brought to a screeching halt. Four days on from those jubilant remarks, Earl would once again take to Twitter in order to convey a far more solemn message and thank fans for their thoughts and love after the sudden death of his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile. Better known by the pen name of ‘Bra Willie,’ the South African poet laureate and Earl weren’t renowned for having the most tightknit of relationships, and his ongoing misgivings about their estrangement regularly manifested itself in his lyrics. Sometimes forlorn, other times defiant about its inability to define him, the dynamic between Earl and this regular source of inspiration would soon be irretrievably altered, and it is clear that Keorapetse’s permanent departure has had a pronounced effect on son’s mindset.

Getty Images / Scott Dudelson

In the wake of his father’s abrupt passing, Earl spent an extended period of time in the late wordsmith’s home base of Johannesburg before cancelling a litany of shows later in June due to an ongoing battle with anxiety and depression that stemmed from the bereavement. Yet amid all this turmoil, 2018 saw Earl’s world thrown into disarray once more by the premature death of his close friend Mac Miller. A tragic event that prompted a rare public appearance at the emotionally fraught tribute concert, the accidental overdose of his frequent collaborator doubtlessly added to any ruminations on the matter of mortality and likely caused it to cast an increasingly formidable shadow over his creative output. Just as surmised, the invasive ponderings on our fleeting time on the earth are there right from the outset of “Nowhere2go.” Hot on the heels of his tribute to “my pops and my boy Riley” during his enticing appearance on Vince Staples’ record, his dizzying new track sees Earl remark about its encroaching presence in his mind by stating that:

“Yeah, I think I spent most of my life depressed, only thing on my mind was death. Didn’t know if my time was next. Tryna refine this shit, I redefined myself.”

Described to Zane Lowe as a “reflection of where I was at that time”, the emphasis on the past tense in each of these lines as opposed to these macabre thoughts being an ongoing affliction is interesting in isolation but becomes increasingly so when viewed alongside an offhand tweet from after Mac’s passing. Three days on from the devastating news, the zeal with which Earl discussed his artistry at the start of the year finally returned as he explained how “Mac spirit allowing me to fuck with my music RN and I’m THANKFUL.”

Getty Images / Theo Wargo

On the subject of musicality, one thing that immediately lurches out at the listener when encountering “Nowhere2Go” is the sheer brazenness of its production. Helmed by Ade Hakim (Sixpress) and Booliemane of the New York collective sLUms, its sound extracts Earl far from the purview of the trap-infested waters in which many rappers dwell in order to dive into uncharted territory. More akin to the subversive work of artists such as They Hate Change, JPEGMafia and Clipping than any of his contemporaries, this development sees Earl firmly shed the lo-fi sounds of his previous eras in favor of the experimental, and it’s a move that correlates with the company he’s been keeping of late. While there’s been no culture-shaking project of his own that’s been unveiled since 2015, that’s not to say that there haven’t been scarce morsels of content and guest verses that serve as corroboration for this new transcendent direction. His aforementioned dabbling with Danny Brown aside, Earl’s sporadic work on tracks from Knwlxdge and LA beat music innovator Samiyam now seem indicative of a creative restlessness that’s drawing him towards more far-flung and unorthodox sounds and textures than ever before.

Alongside his forays into the studio with those two, it has also become clear that Earl has reconvened with a previous partner in The Alchemist. Having intermittently teamed up over the years, the prolific NY producer (who is slated to have an Earl feature on his new EP Bread) opened the floodgates to his mentions after declaring the rapper’s forthcoming album to be a “masterpiece.” Although he may have tried to backtrack, it is safe to assume that he will be yet another forward-thinking mind that’s left its imprint on the forthcoming project. Rather than the in-house approach that informed I Don’t Like Shit, there appears to have been an onus placed on fraternizing with as many likeminded individuals as he can, alongside a desire bring an eclectic mix of artists together under the collective umbrella of his new album.

At once his greatest attribute and a poisoned chalice that’s been welded to his grip since he was barely out of adolescence, the weight of expectation that accompanies his prodigious greatness means that these long layoffs are not a want but an imperative. Sure, it’s easy to fire off an assembly line of tracks when each one isn’t expected to be life-affirming or change the course of hip-hop itself, but that is not what’s expected of a man often heralded as a ‘genius.’ By giving him the “cape” and heroic status that he refers to in “Nowhere2Go,” Earl’s impassioned fans have both offset the possibility of him getting complacent in his output while also ensuring that these lengthy embargoes between projects will resolutely remain in place. Armed with a new outlook, the new Earl album is going to be anything but pedestrian. In fact, it’s likely to be divisive, confrontational and, at times, uncomfortable. Nearly a decade removed from his first brush with hip-hop’s mainstream, Earl Sweatshirt is a man with a more cogent sense of self than he’s ever had before. Exhibiting all the signs of an individual that is as creatively untethered as he’s ever been, the time is ripe for this immensely talented artist to deliver the vitally important, genre-shifting album that has always resided within him.

For more like this, read how Syd shed her role of Odd Future’s DJ to become an artist in her own right here.

Words by Robert Blair
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