Much of today's rap world is obsessed with full-blast visibility: 24/7 Twitter immersion, nonstop Instagram documentation and an all-press-is-good-press PR strategy. But 21-year-old Los Angeles MC Earl Sweatshirt, who came up with the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All crew and is now a beacon for introspective, self-conscious hip-hop, has relied on a much more mysterious method of ducking and weaving.
Born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile to a South African poet and a Southern California civil rights activist and law professor, Sweatshirt has two universally acclaimed major-label albums, 2013's Doris and 2015's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, to his name. And although he used to evade interview requests with the deftness of a Hollywood star, he seems more comfortable in 2015 matching the personal nature of his work with an increased desire to speak on it.
"I can only talk about the truth," Sweatshirt says. "For the music to have a grip on someone, it's gotta be outlandishly truthful and super honest. That's the only thing that sticks out now. It takes a lot of self-awareness to make something that has a visible, palpable start and ending."
Sweatshirt's early ascendance was anything but visible, though. In 2010, with fans flocking to download free material from Odd Future's Tumblr page and critics scrambling to understand the new Internet-driven phenomenon, Sweatshirt remained little known and conspicuously absent. Then crew ringleader Tyler, the Creator started pushing a "Free Earl" social media campaign that reached a fever pitch in 2011, when Complex and The New Yorker finally figured out what had happened to the then-17-year-old rapper.
To condense months of investigative reporting: Before joining Odd Future in 2009, Sweatshirt went by Sly Tendencies, which led to evidence of acquaintances calling him "Thebe," which led to YouTube videos of a young Thebe Kgositsile – son of South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile – performing a Korean martial art called Hwa Rang Do. Once Sweatshirt's true identity was revealed, hip-hop sleuths noted a cryptic line in an Odd Future song about "free[ing] Earl from the Samoans," which led to online rumors of his stay at a school for troubled boys in Samoa, where a student confirmed that yes, Earl Sweatshirt was in attendance while his friends in LA were becoming crazy famous.
At the time, no one knew whether he went to Samoa voluntarily or at the behest of his mother, but on Feb. 9, 2012, his dormant Twitter feed unexpectedly sprang to life, and he requested 50,000 new followers before he'd release a new song, appropriately titled "Home." Three hours later, Sweatshirt was officially back, quickly following "Home" with other lyrically mind-blowing moments like "Chum, "Whoa" and "Burgundy," all of which were combined onto his 2013 debut Doris. This year's follow-up, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, is equally brilliant – especially claustrophobic lead single "Grief."
"When I take a step back and look at it honestly, I'd say I'm doing all right," Sweatshirt admits. "A lot of the things I say about myself on [I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside] [are] a cleansing of the person and spirit. A lot of it is 'dark,' but [criticism of that] is coming from people not trying to hear that shit every day. These are heavy truths, and in this day and age, that's not what people want. So it is a bit shocking and has a coldwater effect. But when [those dark truths] are ignored, it can envelope the person."
And Sweatshirt is definitely down for such drama. He avoided it earlier this year when Tyler, the Creator hinted about the demise of Odd Future. He's avoiding it now on tour, where he says he's far healthier (eating well, sleeping normally and studying the Buddhist Paths) than in years past. He even avoided blaming his label, Columbia, for botching the release strategy of I Don't Like Shit earlier this year.
In short, this is one 21-year-old who's learning at a fast clip — constantly shifting the contours of his public persona (Earl Sweatshirt) while remaining true to the person inside (Thebe) about his limitations, his future potential and his role in rap's ever-changing landscape. "Odd Future and [Lil B] The BasedGod tore rap music open forever," Sweatshirt says. "It's a hellhole right now, both good and bad. It's like Mad Max. People's careers mirror how fast the Internet moves – the lifespan of these young rappers is like that of a mosquito. But I just look at myself in terms of the fact that I'm interested in growing. I don't ever want to stay in one spot."