“I made a promise," says a young voice, hesitant, "I would never rap seriously on the radio. I’m ‘bout to break it for you.”
The voice is Thebe Kgositsile, the teenage rapper and producer better known as Earl Sweatshirt, if you know him at all. At 19 years old, Earl looks much younger in the YouTube upload from the hip hop show “Sway in the Morning.” Earl is skinny - sitting next to the hulking, 42-year-old host Sway Calloway, he’s really skinny - with a high forehead and wide-set eyes. His motions are two-parts measured, one-part unsure, as he speaks cautiously into the mic. They’re talking about one of the most anticipated hip hop releases of 2013 — his debut major label studio album “Doris”.
Sway interviews some of the biggest and soon-to-be-biggest rappers in hip hop, today. From Snoop Dogg to Tech N9ne to Kendrick Lamar. He’ll test their skills; drop a beat, and see what the rapper’s got; what he or she can spit off the cuff. And typically those rappers are itching to tear up the mic.
Earl’s performance is much different. As Sway gives him a beat, Earl breaks protocol and turns it down. Next beat; he turns it down again. “I’m only gonna do this for you, Earl." Three more beats. Nope. Finally, a trickling, low-speed rhythm oozes into the headphones. Earl smiles wide. He inches closer to the mic. Closer. Closer. Clo–he backs off.
“I’m not sure I can rap on this,” he says. Sway laughs awkwardly and it looks as though he’s not so sure Earl is going to even try. “Hold on,” Earl stalls, “let me listen.” Ten more seconds. Twenty. Thirty.
Then, the young rapper pushes forward, his lips split, and the words flow. Steady, woven, precise. He’s in another world, and when he stops the freestyle, Sway nearly falls out of his chair.
“That was dope, dawg."
“That was butt,” Earl cuts in, “that was awful.”
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In its 40 years of life born from Bronxian block parties and mastered in black America’s spartan urban grit, hip hop and, especially, the art of rapping have never been a game for the insecure. “Everybody wants to be hard,” as Fat Joe once said. In a rapper’s verbal playground, that hardness manifests most clearly in what hip hop technicians formally call “braggadocio.”
Rap is ego-driven. A platform for the disaffected to assert themselves; to inject hard life into the soft arts. Whether you’re N.W.A., shouting “F–– tha police” or Yeezy, calling from the mountaintop, “I am a god,” the thread through it all is an air of boast as a way of denying one’s own human frailty — frailty well-documented as hip hop’s downtrodden socioeconomic situation.
But braggadocio — the genre’s intrinsic emotional shield — is even more rooted in the evolution of rap as a craft, which is what makes it such a hard habit to break. Before there were glossy studio albums and mixtapes, there were the battles. “Back in the days,” hip hop legend KRS-One remembered, “we used to call it ‘the Dozens.’ ”
The Dozens is a verbal game with a long and murky history through the African-American narrative stretching as far back as the slave era. In the game, two or more participants square off in a round of verbal insults slamming one another as weak, impotent, dirty (and there are a lot of mom jokes, too). With scores of theories as to the philosophical and psychological purpose of the game, the clear, more visceral point is a verbal expression of toughness. The same toughness found in rap.
In my lifetime, the height of this expression came in the early 2000s with muscled-up rappers like 50 Cent and Juvenile and DMX who were either shirtless or donning bulletproof vests and littering MTV’s screens and the covers of Rolling Stone. Every facet of hip hop back then — the rapping, the masculine imagery, the gangstaism, the near-nude groupies, the off-mic feuds — was an expression of the artist’s invincibility.
I remember, sitting in my basement as a teenager, watching the videos with the volume down low, thinking that this is what rap is: guns and money and booties and fame. I remember watching 50 Cent and Ja Rule trade campaigns of hate. When Ja Rule released his tear-filled video for his song “I Cry,” I remember 50 tore him apart. Called him out before crowds in the tens of thousands. Ja Rule isn’t a rapper, so said 50, because rappers don’t cry.
My priorities f–– up, I know it, I'm afraid I'm going to blow it
And when them expectations raising because daddy was a poet, right?
Earl Sweatshirt’s music is strikingly honest, self-aware, and self-doubting across the board. In the song “Burgundy,” Earl battles internally over his reluctance to step out of the recording booth, even as his grandmother Doris is at the end of her life. “Grandma's passing,” he notes, “but I'm too busy tryna get this f––in’ album cracking.” As a young rapper who’s risen through the ranks of the L.A.-based hip hop collective Odd Future (whose full name is, technically, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All — the most famed members being Frank Ocean and the group’s de facto leader Tyler, the Creator), critics have been eyeing the kid with the poet’s pen since he was 16 and the pressure to perform now, is at an all-time high. To that, Earl is perfectly blunt: He’s not so sure he can pull it off.
The dense, introspective words lap over the listener, emphasizing the intensely focused and gifted wordplay, and the deeply progressive take on storytelling.
The MC’s voice rolls like a cool fog on his latest album, named for his grandmother. He just barely skims along, almost sounding afraid to bump up the heat, as if he’ll burn away his lyrics sheet. But the calm is perfect, letting the dense, introspective words lap over the listener, emphasizing the intensely focused and gifted wordplay, and the deeply progressive take on storytelling from a personal meeting with the dark side. He’s unafraid as an artist to admit he’s afraid. There are failures and absences in his life, and instead of hiding those with the ego, he opens them to the beat. Take, for example, the opening lines of “Chum,” reflecting on the oft-told story, but rarely embraced emotions that come from a young man, abandoned by his father:
It's probably been twelve years since my father left, left me fatherless
And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest
When honestly I miss this n––, like when I was six
And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it
Sixteen, I'm hollow, intolerant, skip shots
I storm that whole bottle, I'll show you a role model
This level of emotional clarity is rare in hip hop, and it’s even more rare that he seems to be pulling it off.
___Earl Sweatshirt walked into the limelight in the same fashion as Justin Bieber: YouTube. The video that set off a firestorm in the hip hop community isn’t exactly a mom-uploaded audition tape, however. His debut, which first appeared on the site Vimeo in May 2010, and then on YouTube a month later, shows off Earl at age 16, rapping with a not fully-formed teenage voice, as he and the rest of Odd Future mix and drink a cocktail of prescription pills, cough syrup, hard liquor, marijuana, and other various items, and then film the (what turn out to be fake, but no less disturbing) effects. His lines are incredibly dark - cannibalistic horror fiction that revel in violence and captures O.F.’s love for vandalism - but the treatment is skillful. Since it was released, the video has earned nearly 12.5 million views, and while the images are exciting at first go, the rapping is the main dish.
Earl’s friends and their recordings (a lot of them with his voice) would surge in popularity, but the little 16-year-old wiz was nowhere to be found.
O.F.’s fans started to notice and as they began chanting, “Free Earl,” music journalists went to work trying to figure out just what Earl needed to be free from. They discovered his mother, Cheryl Harris, a civil rights attorney and professor at UCLA. They found his father, the South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, who had moved back to his home when Earl was six. Finally, they managed to track down a kid named Thebe Kgositsile, living at the Coral Reef Academy - a school for wayward boys in Samoa.
As the story goes, Harris saw her son’s talent and rising popularity and wanted to give him a chance to finish his adolescence out of the spotlight. She sent him to Samoa where, from 5000 miles away, the young Kgositsile watched Odd Future and the legend of Earl Sweatshirt grow on the Internet. He took a break from writing rhymes and dove headlong into Manning Marable and Michael Eric Dyson’s biographies of Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur, respectively. He started volunteering at a victim center for children who had been sexually abused.
Then in February 2012, after a little over a year in Samoa, he returned to literal cheers from Los Angeles airport police.
Thebe Kgositsile went right back to being Earl Sweatshirt, but the vibe was much different. His skill was the same, if not better, but the lyrics turned inward. He started to play more off of his emotions and the focus drifts far from braggadocio, even to self-loathing — as if he’s in a rap battle with himself.
On his return, Earl was still a teenager, but after a long eye-opening trip, he was not going back to the prepubescent rapper that bathed in pointless macabre and found violence funny. His opening lines in “Home” — recorded almost immediately after landing in L.A. - spell out who he was, is, and hopes to be:
Spittin' crowbars out the back window of cars and s–t
He also recorded the song, “Chum” on which the last lines refuse to hide Earl’s already mounting fear of a fame that was now being thrust upon him: "Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits."Since, “Home” and “Chum”, Earl has reconnected with hip hop and Odd Future. He and his mother hired former Tupac manager Leila Steinberg (who up until now, quit the managing business following Shakur’s death in 1996). He teamed up with producers and rappers like Pharrell Williams, Flying Lotus, RZA, Mac Miller, and his O.F. gang members Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator to put together one of the most awaited albums of this year. No pressure.
It should be noted, that this is not hip hop’s first edition of unsheathed insecurity, however. In 2009, Rolling Stone editor Christian Hoard tagged the young college dropout-turned-freshman rap star Kid Cudi “sensitive enough to have an emo moment over a plate of french fries.” Hip hop devotees will even recall five years before that, Cudi’s mentor — the college dropout — Kanye West packed his double platinum debut album with, yes, big-bellied boasts, but also open-hearted admissions of an “insecurr” rapper:
Man I promise, I'm so self-conscious
That's why you always see me with at least one of my watches
It seems we living the American dream
But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem
In both MCs, their emotionalism, while present, is tinted. For Cudi, his debut studio album “Man on the Moon” has lines like, “They all didn’t see / the little bit of sadness in me,” but Cudi’s heart is covered by a wash of protective buzzy auto-tuned rhymes that do no justice to exposing an honest whole. That wash of sound burns with more R&B than “rap,” and there is a big difference when you’re talking confidence.
West’s music is more clear, but his lines come with barely veiled braggadocio. He hides his self-worry with expensive jewelry and cars that he already has (he was an established producer before a rapper). His voice projects extreme confidence, often in spite of his self-questioning words. He even finds a way to boast about his slim certainty. “We all self-conscious,” he shouts, as though he’s trying to pick a fight, “I’m just the first to admit it.” He believes he’s a better man than the rest because he’s upfront about his lack of surety that he’s a better man than the rest. Good luck trying to break down that logic.
Kgositsile’s insecurity is different. It’s naked. And that insecurity isn’t simply indicative of Earl Sweatshirt, nor is it indicative of “a whole new world of rap,” but it does reveal a thread of self-reflection that is weaving through some of hip hop’s youngest and, often, more progressive artists.
Take J. Cole, the 28-year-old Jay Z protege from Fayetteville, N.C. While not exactly progressive, he’s a big deal in the pop hip hop game; his second album, “Born Sinner”, outsold Kanye West’s “Yeezus” in it’s third week on release. Cole takes an open approach to softness in his music and his persona. The most visible example came on his latest album - a song called, “Let Nas Down”. When rap legend Nas heard J. Cole’s “Work Out," a Paula Abdul-infused pop single, he wasn’t happy. The young rapper abandoned poetry for popularity, so said Nas. Word got out and Cole was crushed.
Put that narrative in a different era — the early 2000s with 50 Cent or Eminem — and you’d find yourself witnessing a very angry feud over who’s the bigger expletive. But J. Cole took the grape-vine criticism to heart and came out with a therapy session set to a beat:
But while I shot up the charts, you mean tellin' me
That I was not up to par? When I followed my heart?
Cole asks the question, before he goes on to worship his insulter:
Long live the idols, may they never be your rivals
Pac was like Jesus, Nas wrote the Bible
Back in Odd Future, Earl Sweatshirt’s emotional transparency even seems to rub off on the rest of the crew. Tyler, the Creator, the 22-year-old that masterminded Odd Future’s success, ran a hard game in his early music. He’s attacked other rappers. He’s also been attacked by loads of reporters and bloggers for joking about rape and violence and for using the homophobic f--- word in his songs — all not terribly great qualities. But, his music (and his persona) has evolved in just a few short years.
Last year, after O.F. groupmate Frank Ocean came out as having fallen in love with another man when he was 19, Tyler was one of the first to come out with major support.
Tyler’s rhymes have also evolved. On his latest album “Wolf”, the track “Rusty” plays with braggadocio, pushing it over the edge into parody, then reeling back into reality:
I'm harder than DJ Khaled playing the f––ing quiet game
The f–– am I saying? Tyler's not even a violent name
About as threatening as stained windbreakers in hurricanes
All of this is not saying that the young class of rappers are beyond braggadocio. There is still plenty of it. But there seems to be a conscious want for humanness in hip hop, and that means more complex heroes on the mic.
Whether or not the trend sticks — whether or not it grows — is up to hip hop’s youngest. With their last albums, today’s rap elders Jay Z and Kanye West show no sign of recognizing their human flaws any time soon. Insecurity, while it may shine proudly in other genres, is still mostly uncool in hip hop. It will be up to the “relatively famous,” as Thebe Kgositsile writes; the freshly discovered Earl Sweatshirts and more to take the mic and see where they can go with it.
Dean Russell is a producer and assistant director for NPR and WBUR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook
This program aired on August 29, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.