Earl Sweatshirt Is Back From the Wilderness
AT Coral Reef Academy, a therapeutic retreat for at-risk boys in Vaitele, outside of the Samoan capital of Apia, your progress is tracked on a map with a bus. Around the island the bus goes, until eventually it lands at the airport, at which point you’re finally free.
Get in trouble, as Thebe Kgositsile did from time to time, and you end up spending your time in a separate house — the bus barn — more or less alone, waiting to be allowed to rejoin the group. Mostly he would get into trouble for sneaking onto the Internet, trying to check in on his other life, 5,000 miles away. Before leaving his native Los Angeles he’d made a name for himself as Earl Sweatshirt, the most intense and talented rapper in Odd Future, the crew that in the last two years has helped upend hip-hop business models, remade ideas about the meaning of the rap underground and stoked the hip-hop culture wars as no act in recent memory has, thanks to its rowdy, outlandish and sometimes offensive content and its motormouth frontman Tyler, the Creator.
Much of the early Odd Future buzz centered around Earl Sweatshirt, whose video for “Earl” was a teen-rebel fantasia of drug use and other misbehavior. A provocateur with a dry wit and an outrageously dexterous gift for wordplay, he was a clear inheritor of Eminem’s macabre humor and Lil Wayne’s dyspeptic logorrhea. He was a savvy, schooled rapper: gross, entrancing and thrilling.
And also one of the only pop mysteries left. By the time Odd Future began performing and doing interviews, he was nowhere to be seen. In a time of Internet-speed information flood, Earl Sweatshirt’s absence — he was sent to Samoa by his mother — a striking rarity.
He returned to Los Angeles in February maybe more popular than he would have been if he’d never left. In his absence Odd Future had used the Internet to trump old ways of doing things. Earl Sweatshirt, by largely staying off the Internet, found himself benefiting from all that had happened and with a bully pulpit in front of him. What would he say?
IN EARLY APRIL Earl Sweatshirt was in California, spending his days finishing his final semester of high school at New Roads School, in Santa Monica, and spending the rest of the time regaining his footing.
“There’s so much in the balance,” he said one afternoon at Ohana, a Korean restaurant in Studio City. “ For me, for my mom, for Tyler, for everyone I care about.”
Mellow and thoughtful, he isn’t an introvert so much as slyly shy. The eight weeks since he’d been back had required constant calibration: spending time with his mother; easing himself into the rhythm of Odd Future, which has become a successful touring outfit; patching up his friendships with Tyler and others. Often doing one of these things meant ignoring another. Just as often they were at odds.
The relationship between Earl’s mother, Cheryl Harris, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Odd Future, which kept Earl Sweatshirt’s name alive while he was gone, was minimal at best. His music, Ms. Harris said, was part of a larger suite of concerns that led to her decision to send him away. “He was really very clearly going through a rough patch emotionally,” she said in an interview in the Beverly Hills office of her son’s manager, adding that it was “very evident that he was struggling.” That meant smoking marijuana to excess, having a serious falling-out with the Hwa Rang Do teacher with whom he’d studied for years, and getting caught cheating on an English assignment. Instead of memorizing a Shakespeare recitation, he relied on a hidden iPod.
“I’m my mom’s everything, so there was nothing else to distract her” from his troubles, he said. (Ms. Harris and her son’s father, the South African poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, split up about a decade ago.)
The “Earl” video was posted online on May 26, 2010, and within days, Earl Sweatshirt was gone. First he