A funny thing happened on the road to fame for Earl Sweatshirt. A member of Tyler the Creator’s anarchic rap group Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the teenager impressed off the bat in the 2010 music video for “Earl.” With his tongue-twisting, unsettling lyrics and street-hardened persona, the young rapper was a fascinating new face. He seemed destined for the sort of name recognition Tyler currently enjoys.
Then, just as Odd Future was heating up, he dropped out of existence. Packed off to a Samoan boarding school by his mother, he sidestepped the spotlight he had only just stepped into. As Odd Future’s influence grew, his faded, and whether or not he’d ever feature on a major release again was unknown.
In 2012, Earl returned to the U.S., much to the euphoria of his fanbase. At first, he played into their perception of him as a rising rap god, primed to unleash both sonic prophecy and solemn self-reflection in a way no other Odd Future member was ever expected to.
“Chum,” the first single off his full-length debut Doris, was a breathtaking sample of Earl at his off-the-cuff best, openly discussing his absentee father, his feelings of alienation growing up (“too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks/from honor roll to cracking locks up off them bicycle racks”) and the fractures in his personal life exacerbated by fame. It was exactly the kind of mesmerizing, messianic music that his fans had been waiting for. But then came that final line: “Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits.”
He never asked for any of this, Earl was saying. Fame hadn’t only robbed him of his childhood. It had complicated his relationship with his mother, pushed him into darker lyrical territory than he wanted to go (remember, he was 15 while rapping about raping girls as part of Odd Future) and afforded him a noxious degree of public scrutiny. The spotlight had scorched him, and he was still smarting.
Fast-forward three years and I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside finds Earl’s contemplative reticence about celebrity expanded into full-blown reclusiveness. At 21, the rapper sounds scarily depressed and paranoid, as if something has validated his view of himself being against the world. The album is moody, downbeat and at times hazily nightmarish, a collection of ten songs (nine produced by Earl himself) most strongly linked by their sense of claustrophobia.
The album’s minimalism is also striking. Compared to Doris, there’s less of everything here, from guest stars to tonal variety to outside producers. For his sophomore album, Earl has withdrawn further into his shell. For many artists, that could be a death knell. But in removing any embellishments, Earl allows his music to speak for itself. And throughout, what he has to say is as gripping as it is gloomy.
On this sophomore album, the rapper deals with common problems for someone his age: smoking too much, staving off loneliness with a fistful of pills, hurting after a bad breakup, mourning the death of his grandmother. If I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is to be believed, Earl has locked himself away from the world, preferring to dig deep into the corners of his own mind rather than engage with anyone else.
The wordplay is still front and center, of course. Earl bitterly spits out rhymes with a morose, almost sedate conviction, fighting to be heard over ambient, bass-heavy beats.
“Good grief, I been reaping what I sow / Nigga, I ain’t been outside in a minute / I been living what I wrote,” he raps on “Grief,” addressing his misery about life, death and the damnable ephemerality of it all. He’s lost in a fog, trying to get a grip on his priorities and ending up too exhausted to stand.
That kind of darkness permeates I Don’t Like Shit… at every turn. On “Mantra,” he articulates the problem with his kind of fame: “Now you surrounded with a gaggle of 100 fucking thousand kids / Who you can’t get mad at, when they want a pound & a pic / Cause they the reason that the traffic on the browser quick / And they the reason that the paper in your trousers thick.” And on “Off Top,” he unloads deep-seated anxieties about how he’s treated his mother over the years: “Trying to pay my momma rent, figure that’s just what I owe her / I been trouble since I tumbled out that stroller.”
As much as the album finds Earl sitting slumped on his couch, lethargic and fed up with everything outside his own four walls, the range of topics he delves into indicate that his mind has been far from sedentary. His battles with autonomy and assorted agonies of fame may be happening in a solitary, substance-fueled stupor, but that doesn’t make Earl’s incremental steps forward any less meaningful. When he raps about grief, regret, pain, loss and heartbreak, he’s wallowing, to be sure, but he’s also rebuilding.
The issues Earl is grappling with on this insular album are far from wide reaching. He’s not looking to make any grand statements about race and crime in America or unleash the next genre-redefining masterpiece. Instead, the Earl Sweatshirt on I Don’t Like Shit is reaching up his own sleeve, inside his own mind, trying to work things out and act his age. And though the tracks here are dark and dismal, the fact that they exist at all is evidence that he’s making progress.
In self-imposed exile from a world that forced him to grow up too fast, Earl is wresting back the controls and, behind closed doors, doing the tortured soul-searching he needs before he can become his own man.