Earl Sweatshirt confronts the pressures of hype with ‘Doris’
On a recent afternoon Thebe Kgositsile, 19, wandered around his sparse central Hollywood apartment lugging a gallon of orange juice and thinking about the logo to his fledgling music imprint Tan Cressida.
A piano melody looped from a computer plugged into the keyboard next to it. The early stages of a beat, its evolution would soundtrack the rest of the afternoon as he built it while meeting with his attorney and his manager and worrying aloud that he was getting sick. He’d been coughing all morning, and Bonnaroo was less than a week away.
Thebe is best known as Earl Sweatshirt, rapper, YouTube breakout, member of the Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future. He is the son of a South African poet laureate father and a civil rights attorney mother. His manager helped discover Tupac Shakur. Despite Thebe’s age, and whether he likes it or not (he doesn’t), his story over the last three years has become the stuff of legend in the rap world.
Bonnaroo was to be the second of two major North American festival performances this summer and one of a handful since his 2012 return from a Samoan juvenile facility that spawned both a mythology and a misguided Internet campaign to “free” him.
The high-profile Bonnaroo appearance meant he had only a few days at home to finalize the mix, sequencing and presentation of his debut studio album as Earl Sweatshirt — “Doris,” which comes out Aug. 20 on Tan Cressida through Sony Music Entertainment. A wildly ambitious, verbally dense, linguistically and musically explosive album, it captures the great distance he’s traveled since returning from the South Seas.
And today (to paraphrase him), he felt like crap. “I’m dying,” he complained, filling the words with overwrought drama. “I’m withering away.” A skinny young man with a calm disposition and already wary of press, Thebe is not one for forced conversation, especially when jet-lagged. (In fact, later that week he’d land in the hospital with pneumonia and have to cancel his Bonnaroo gig.)
He still had to sketch out a Tan Cressida logo to submit to Sony, which attorney Julian Petty was waiting for in an easy chair. A sample needed to be addressed on the Samiyam-produced track “20 Wave Caps.” Liner notes needed to be approved. Did he want to perform at a music festival in Maine?
Long in the making and the culmination of an introduction that began when he was 16 and he and some wannabe rappers started uploading videos and mixtapes to the Internet, “Doris” is one of the most anticipated hip-hop debuts in a long time. Its creator has been called rap’s prodigal son (a description he loathes), and despite his youth, his and Odd Future’s innovative if at times harsh work has been discussed in lecture halls, among relentless bloggers and during encounters on both American and South African streets.
“Doris” is also one of the best albums of the year and marks the arrival of a stubborn, forceful young Los Angeles voice with talent that, surprisingly, outruns the hype. A rapper with memorable ways around a phrase and ability to craft brilliantly imagined, internally rhymed lines and stanzas that blossom with each examination, he’s self-aware and increasingly fearless in conveying his emotions. He is a leader in a veritable second L.A. hip-hop Golden Age.
The pressure is on, and he rhymes about it throughout “Doris.” In “Burgundy,” he makes the drama clear: “I’m afraid I’m gonna blow it/ When them expectations rising because daddy was a poet.” A few lines later he further stresses his life as being “in the midst of a tornado/ Misfitted, I’m Clark Gable/ I’m not stable.”
It’s been quite a year, and asked to offer an overview of his life upon returning, he laughed.
“What is the easiest way to run through the past year?” he asked manager Leila Steinberg, who’s been counseling him for the last two years.
“Start with when you got off the plane from Samoa and the police in the airport were screaming ' Earl!’,” she suggested. He paused. “That happened. Then I graduated high school. Then I started working on the album.”
To understand the LAX cops’ reaction, jump back to before “that happened.” In 2010, Earl Sweatshirt and his fellow rappers Odd Future — the most famous of whom are the Grammy-winning singer Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator — uploaded a video to YouTube called “Earl,” one of among a half-dozen they’d offered in the previous months. It featured the namesake rapper, then 16, and kindred spirits in a kitchen pouring what appeared to be beer, cough syrup, pills and marijuana into a blender, drinking it and videotaping the effects.
It was raw and shocking, made on the cheap and reeling with menace — compounded because, while rapping about cannibalism and pulling bloody (fake) teeth out of his mouth, Thebe seemed even younger than he was. The video has since been viewed nearly 12.5 million times.
Just as “Earl” and the mixtape from which it was taken were exploding and labels started courting at the end of his sophomore year, though, Thebe was kicked out of the exclusive New Roads prep school. In “Chum,” he cites his descent “from honor roll to cracking locks up off them bicycle racks” as one reason.
The result was the trip to Samoa, to a location chosen by Thebe’s mom, Steinberg said, because she “wanted him to have a habilitation experience that was unlike any other, which I think was amazing.”
His absence, though, prompted members of Odd Future and fans to launch a “Free Earl” campaign, incorrectly implicating an uptight mom standing in the way of destiny. Online diggers found a photo that confirmed that he was in a Samoan juvenile rehabilitation facility, where he could legally be held until age 21.
While there, Odd Future’s music gathered media attention, positive and negative. Amid the punk-suggestive shock, playfulness, a love of button-pushing language and sinister, minimal beats, members joked about rape and tossed around immature homophobic insults while showcasing a keen understanding of social media and self-promotion.
Despite the criticism, Thebe’s renown expanded into the literary establishment when he was profiled in 2011 by the New Yorker, a peak for artists of any age. The 8,000-word story reported not only on his situation but identified his mother as a teacher (later reported to be respected civil rights attorney and UCLA professor Cheryl Harris) and his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, as the lauded South African poet and activist for the African National Congress as it pushed toward reform in the apartheid-era country.
The son had scored hip-hop, literary and genetic cred before he’d even issued a proper debut album. To add to the mystique, noted the New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh, one of the father’s most important poems had prompted an influential New York proto-rap group to name themselves the Last Poets.
That was long before Earl Sweatshirt was born, and the genre the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron inspired is now more than three decades old.
Asked about the state of hip-hop, though, the young artist was blunt: “I think rap is either on the cusp of dying or having a renaissance. It’s one of the two. You can hit your head against the same wall a bunch of times, especially now.” He referred to the genre as “a dusty-ass bucket.”
He became a lightning rod a few weeks ago when he dismissed Jay Z’s new album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” in a simple (cussed) tweet: “If you really [messed] with Magna Carta then unfollow me.” The tweet prompted much backlash and a few more tweets from Earl, including: “I hope that opinions on my material throughout my career are based on the quality of it and not how big my name is.”
To say Thebe was overwhelmed by the attention upon returning is an understatement, he said, easing into conversational mode while trying to sketch out the Tan Cressida logo, the piano loop echoing behind him. The pressure to dive into the chaos of an Odd Future tour was heavy. “It was like, get on the stage and everybody has these huge expectations. ‘Oh, my God, the prodigal son!’”
He paused, then added: “And I have my own self-esteem issues, so [stuff] like that doesn’t get to me. It actually just makes me question people’s agendas and tastes.”
While he was away, Harris was searching for a business advisor with integrity, one whose agenda would help guide her son through the tangles of the music business.
“Thebe and I had been talking quite a bit about his music and his desire to build a career when he got back,” said Harris. She and administrators and board members at New Roads brainstormed, and Steinberg’s name came up as someone “who would understand that it’s Thebe’s well-being and not just his career. It’s about Thebe as a human being and not just Earl as a commodity.”
So Harris reached out to Steinberg, who, after Shakur’s death, had quit what she described as a “toxic and painful” music business. “I lost so many people that I love.”
Steinberg founded an L.A.-based nonprofit called Alternative Intervention Models, which helps needy kids find artistic outlets and offers regular workshops at San Quentin penitentiary. Still, she continued to contemplate a return to management. “I felt like I’d learned so much, but I felt like I needed the right time to come back in and do something.”
That moment occurred just after Thebe was sent to Samoa. Coincidentally, the week before she was contacted, Steinberg had focused a lecture to USC law students on the ways in which music drives culture and art — and the focus was the “Earl” song and video.
For his part, half a world away Thebe had just finished the only hip-hop book in the library: “Holler If You Hear Me,” the Michael Eric Dyson biography of Shakur that detailed Steinberg’s role in his ascent.
They began phone and Skype conversations, and it seemed a natural fit. “I fell in love with him just as this young, brilliant kid who has an artist and activist and an attorney sitting on his head,” said Steinberg.
Thebe found someone he could trust in a business he was wary of. “In the music industry, it’s hard to find somebody with actually good intentions. Leila has this Mother Teresa complex,” he said. “Whatever it was, I didn’t have to worry about her trying to snake me out of anything. That was my number one concern, and that’s why Leila stuck.”
Trust earned, he submitted to her stipulations as part of his juvenile rehabilitation program. “I was writing all the time because I had to. Everything that came up, I had to write about it.” Such obsessive self-reflection is all over “Doris.” He writes about love and distance on “Sunday,” frustration and loneliness on “Chum,” about the tension between following your own dreams at the expense of others’ agendas.
Too, Thebe was required to perform community service, where he learned the reality of a word, “rape,” that he and Odd Future had so flippantly tossed around. He worked daily at a victim center that housed children who had been sexually abused. Thebe gave Steinberg a tour of the facility when she arrived to accompany him back to Los Angeles after 18 months on the island.
Calling herself “blown away” by his work, Steinberg offered specific assignments: “Give me your ideal life. Write it out.” He did, and she understood one of the seeds of his troubles: “He was in pain. He was a teenager missing his dad.”
Keorapetse Kgositsile was born in South Africa, became active as a poet in the ANC in the late 1950s, was exiled in the early 1960s and landed in New York a half-decade later, where he published work including “Spirits Unchained,” “For Melba” and “My Name Is Afrika.” He met Harris in Chicago. After their son was born, the family moved to Los Angeles.
Harris said that, growing up, Thebe was obsessed with comedy, including Monty Python, but “was not the kind of kid you’d find in the corner with a book. But there was another side to him, and that was that he really loved a good story. I think he studied comedians as a way of sort of understanding the craft of storytelling.” At various times, she said, he got obsessed with the vampire-centered “Cirque du Freak” series of young adult novels and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. “He liked the macabre.”
Her son started writing raps at 11, then tried them out on her. “But let me be clear. He probably didn’t share all of them,” she added, laughing.
Too, there was “lots of music around the house,” said Harris. “Jazz, blues, classic R&B, stuff from all over the world. And we took him to see a lot of music as well.”
On the phone from Johannesburg, South Africa, Kgositsile said that Thebe from an early age would get obsessed with what he read. “He used to read and walk,” he recalled. “And he was always — always — extremely articulate. He could play around with language quite a bit.
“By the time he was around 7, our rules had changed,” he added. “He would read me to sleep instead of me reading him to sleep.” After Kgositsile and Harris split, the poet returned to South Africa. Thebe spent many summers there with his father, but tensions neither would detail led to frustration.
In the spring, he and his father, along with Thebe’s girlfriend, met for dinner in New York.
Kgositsile said that, among other things, he was reassured by an observation that his son made about how he’s adapted to his life in the spotlight. “He said that in terms of the pain and fear and frustration and whatever else, that before he didn’t even know how to say ‘no’ if he didn’t like whatever it was. But now he can.”
The visit with his father, said Thebe, was illuminating for a few reasons. Yes, he’s thoughtful and fascinating, but “he’s short too,” he said, laughing. “Tiny. I’m way taller. And this may seem like a questionable way to describe my dad, but my dad is actually adorable. He’s so small that it’s cute.”
But, he added, he’s also realized that his dad is “an awesome dude. He’s a sick-ass guy — but a really bad dad. But I’m not tripping off him being a bad dad anymore, because I don’t need a father.”
There’s a bonus too: The struggles with his father fueled the creative energy of Odd Future. “It made for good music when we were angsty teens. Daddy problems are tight when you’re trying to make angsty music.”
“Doris” is much less aggressively angsty, but a percolating anxiety drives it. It’s a simmering, searing, 15-song collection that showcases a writer and rapper able to weave words and meaning through the sonic patterns of spoken poetry. He tosses out lines and phrasings as shifting and expansive as the PCH.
“I’m a bubble in the belly of the monster/ With a duffel full of troubles,” he rhymes on “Molasses,” a standout track produced by Wu-Tang Clan co-founder and actor RZA. “Trunk rattle in the Mazda/ Ragged with the contra/ Phantom of the opera and I’m standing on a cops truck/ Stacking for the long run,” he continues as a dubbed-out, weed-heavy groove offers support.
On “Hive,” he captures a singular version of Los Angeles: “From a city that’s recession hit/ With stress niggas could flex metal with/ Peddle to rake pennies in/ Desolate testaments/ Trying to stay Jekyllish/ But most niggas Hyde.”
But most impressive is its breadth. In addition to the beats and verses, “Doris” is connected through musical interludes, expanded rhythms and sharp sequencing that make it feel of a whole. The curious instrumental “523,” written and produced by Thebe, sounds like a twisted Captain Beefheart outtake. “Centurian” features a drum sample from 1970s German rock group Can. It’s an album of exploration, quite ambivalent to the pop charts.
“His voice has gotten deeper, and the content has gotten stronger,” said producer and rapper Steve Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, who during his set at Coachella in 2012 introduced Earl Sweatshirt onstage in his first public appearance since returning from Samoa. Under the guise of his Captain Murphy moniker, Ellison has recorded tracks with Thebe, and during Earl’s 2013 Coachella performance Ellison served as his DJ.
For “Doris,” Thebe said he pulled many all-nighters vibing with rapper Vince Staples, worked with Frank Ocean and Tyler on beats, and built his own productions under the pseudonym randomblackdude.
“I have a small circle of people I’m comfortable making music with,” he said, adding that he’s “a weirdo with the way I write. Me and Vince would go to the studio at 5 p.m. and we’d stay in there all night till the song was done, till 8 a.m. the next morning. Sleep till 4, and go to the studio at 5.” Other guests and producers include the sibling team called Christian Rich, Mac Miller and the Canadian band Bad Bad Not Good.
Such a schedule will no doubt continue. At his apartment while he added a beat to accompany the loop that kept running, he said his interest extends beyond the craft of writing. “I never thought I would make a beat, ever, when I was 16. But things change instantly without you having any idea they’re going to change at all.”
The options are wide open. “I don’t know what they are, but I know this isn’t it. I mean, I might go into real estate, I don’t know. Maybe acting. It seems like that would be fun. I don’t want to close any doors on myself — but I want to get really good at music.”
Such focus has already paid off, said Steinberg. “He made his own record. He wouldn’t listen to anybody. And there were songs — I’m just going to say this, and he’s probably going to get mad at me — that could have been top hits on the charts that he recorded but he chose not to put them on the record. He wants to grow into his voice.
“He was like, ‘I don’t want to have a number one my first time around with this. Can I take my time with this?’ I mean, we’ve had some crazy conversations.”
[For the Record, 4:39 p.m. Aug. 2: An earlier version of the headline on this article said the album “Doris” was Earl Sweatshirt’s debut. It is his major label debut.]
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