Earl Sweatshirt wants to clarify something.
"One thing that I’ve been exploring with [the stuff people have been] referring to as 'dark' is just, like, honesty," he tells The Times of his recent surprise record, "I Don't Like ..., I Don't Go Outside." The album dropped March 23 after an abrupt announcement about the release just days before (though it's been a long time coming: "I been sitting on a completely finished album since June, just shut up and wait," he told his Twitter followers last October.)
"Is the true nature of honesty just dark? Because it attracts problems?"
It's one of many philosophical questions the 21-year-old prodigy seems to ask himself constantly, not only on his deeply introspective records but also in day-to-day life as a self-proclaimed perfectionist.
He certainly has enough time for it at the moment. Almost immediately after "I Don't Go Outside" dropped, he and his crew hit the road, starting in the Midwest before coming back this week for a West Coast stretch. During the interview, he's on his way up to San Francisco, where he played a show last night at the Warfield. Earlier today he came all the way back down for a hometown gig at the House of Blues on Sunset Strip tonight (April 8).
That’s a lot of traveling. Have you gotten used to it?
No, not at all.
Well at least you don’t have to be at Coachella. That’s gotta be a relief.
Nah, I gotta go -- Tyler [, the Creator] got a set on Saturday.
Oh right. Well, at least you don’t have to perform?
True, true facts. I guess you can’t play two years in a row or some ....
Really? I always feel like there are some artists who play every year.
[Audibly perking up] I feel the exact same way. I swear it’s always, like, Arcade Fire too. Like, Black Keys.
Surprisingly, neither of them are playing!
Is Radiohead there?
Ha, not this year. How has the tour been so far?
It’s been pretty good. I mean, like, it changes the tone of the performance when I’m performing some ... that happened more currently. There’s more of … not an unpredictable factor, but like…
You don’t know what to expect when you put all of that out there for the first time.
You’re coming from a pretty dark place on this record.
What I found to be more the theme of [“I Don’t Like …, I Don’t Go Outside”] is just ... clarity. Darkness is just clarity. And a lot of times that’s what we [name] the issues that we have: darkness, because it’s easier to not deal with them. When there’s not a spotlight on them. There’s ... that’s dark but there’s also just like, a tone that’s dark, but it’s just me checking in at the time, being honest with myself.
As you finished writing and recording this record, did you feel like you had more clarity about your life?
Yeah! Well, music and my day-to-day life haven’t been in separate hands. It’s just a reflection of whatever’s going on. It’s, like, a documented journey toward clarity. It’s not like I’m 21 and I’ve reached any [big epiphany].
I mean, you do start realizing things around that age, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I’d say it’s like, honesty ... and awareness. [Making music] forces you to live your life in a certain way. It’s a check-in for you. You have, like, morals with your music. So when you get to the point where you have to record, you can only record honestly what’s been going on with you. You gotta throw some ... up.
So it makes you live more honestly, or awarely?
Yeah. Fighting the right fight is such a crazy [thing] for me. Because when you got a spotlight -- especially when things have negative connotations -- people actually [listen]. There’s real-life interactions and then there’s, like, the consumer/provider vibe. Like, people will do what you tell them to do [even if it’s], like, Instagram. Me and my li’l homie were talking about that yesterday: Like, we sit around scoffing at Instagram and Twitter and all this ... but like, it works. Everyone’s [screwed]. This is really what you all are ... with?
We have to deal with that a lot in journalism, too -- what do we do because it’s a good story and what do we do because it’s just what people love clicking on?
Yeah, that’s why I’m thankful to have had a sense of what’s good, from when I was little, to fall back on. A lot of people don’t have that, and I feel like that’s where integrity gets compromised. You [gotta have] really amazing people around you, or other people’s definition of what’s good and what’s not is not gonna get you nowhere.
One wall that I feel a lot of people hit is the “I’m trying my best” wall. Like, when people are like, “He’s trying -- I mean, it’s heat, it’s fire, because he’s trying his best.” For a lot of [people] [their best] is garb-o. If my best is garbage…
It’s like what I was saying earlier, it changes how you live your life. I’ve been saying this to people, it was kinda funny but I’m also dead-ass serious: If “I Don’t Like ...” wasn’t tight -- like, actually wasn’t tight, not debatable, not good -- then I would have to go, like, kill myself. Because I put my whole life into it. When you put your whole life into something, and it’s not good, that’s a reflection of you.
From things you’ve said in previous interviews, it sounds like the second you’re done with a record you’re immediately looking back at all the ways you went wrong.
Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty bad.
But that’s just having high standards.
Like it’s not enjoyable, though.... I tell my friends this all day: I wish I could give them this feeling. It’s such a strange feeling. It’s like a weird romantic relationship.
With your music?
Yeah. It’s so consuming -- the good is too good and the bad is like, the most trash.
But the alternative is to be middling the whole time, isn’t it?
Right -- well, no. It’s balance. That’s what I’ve been struggling with so much in the past few weeks, direction-wise. Like, figuring out where I’m going to go. There’s two types of being in the middle: [bad] in the middle, getting blown around, but then there’s this necessary part of the human experience, which is like, finding balance.
Yeah, it’s a healthy balance.
There’s always a balance, no matter what: However hard I work, that’s how hard my body shuts down. So no matter what -- that’s why I feel like being mindlessly happy isn’t helpful. It’s on such thin ice that it’s not real.
And you’d rather feel the real thing?
Yeah. At least if you’re being real you can track every step of the [way], you know what I’m saying?
Yeah, you’re more present in your life.
Yeah, like, this is a real human thing. This wasn’t always perfect. That’s what I feel was the benefit and the drawback of coming in when I did. A lot of [rappers] that came before our generation came in the game at ... 29 years old. Kanye came in when he was full-grown, Eminem came in when he was full-grown. But you’ve got this wave of kids, like me, that get picked up ... and your teenage years are the most fleeting years of your life. It feels very flimsy.
But you’re good and persistent enough where you’re able to grow with your career in public, as opposed to some artists who burst onto the scene full-grown.
[Deadpans] Like Charles Bradley. That [guy] dropped his debut when he was 65. He is too tight.
Is it difficult to recoup from writing something this emotionally taxing and go immediately into touring it?
I need recuperation. I’m still not doing it right.
But you’re getting better, right?
Yeah. It’s really like training. It’s a lifestyle, it’s the touring lifestyle. I wish there was a simulator for it. This is the tour simulator: This is waking up at 5 a.m. after you haven’t slept in two days. This is the first real meal you’ve eaten in three days.
That’s how artists could train for the road, like astronauts and no-gravity simulators.
I’m just gonna get buff [in the simulator]. I’d get buff as ... so I wouldn’t have to eat once.
Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, Remy Banks, Nyku
Where: House of Blues Sunset Strip
When: Wednesday, Doors at 7 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m.