The wear and tear of experience birthed the still-young legacy of Earl Sweatshirt.
A problem child from the start, his transition from playing Class Clown to spitting ruminative slacker bars began just as he was on the cusp of adulthood. Diverging from an established zone of popularity, it turns out, ended up being the most critical move of his career. Consistency is comfortable, but the slightest contrast unlocks the prospect of striking equilibrium — this trait and its timely development is what set him apart from his contemporaries.
A drop of gray proliferates the potential of a palette spilling over with bright colors, and that is the exact effect Earl’s formal arrival in the music industry had on the machine’s voltage.
2013 marked the inception of a two-year phase in Hip Hop best characterized by vibrant imagery, abstract themes and vigorous drive. With the cyberspace becoming the primary outlet for unleashing art into every corner of the world, the kids pretty much took over immediately and embellished the music circuit with more pigmentation than it had ever held, all at once.
Top Dawg had the bars, A$AP Mob dictated style and Beast Coast possessed the oomph necessary to assert regional dominance, but Odd Future (aka. Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) had it all. Looking back, no entity in the creative space at the time had a stronghold on culture quite like the youngins from Los Angeles.
Raised on the scandalous audacity of Eminem and the tasteful weirdness of MF DOOM, their influences culminated in the shock factor that also became central to the collective’s brand … it was rousing and magnetic, and something you simply had to be there for.
Truthfully, though, Odd Future never had a future; it was a fleeting moment and a remarkable one at that, but the group that breaks up too soon tends to have more longevity than the one that fades off into the twilight. To that point, the brightest of the lot began branching out exactly when their long-term success became a viable prospect.
Just like that, the thrill of watching the teens get stupid together subsided and the growing pains set in.
Letting go, crushing though it may have been, was no different than submitting to maturity. Odd Future, frisky and spectacular, was always more of a set up for its stakeholders rather than a force centered on making serious music. Left Brain, Hodgy and Casey Veggies were amazing, but Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean and Syd were destined for greatness.
On August 20, 2013, 19-year-old Thebe Kgositsile dropped his debut LP, Doris. Fresh off the disciplinary exile in Samoa that birthed the #FreeEarl movement, many believed his return meant that Wolf Gang was once again complete and back in business. His solo project, however, entailed something far greater: an identity of his own.
With a voice like his, stepping away from the noise was the only sensible move that would add merit to his pen. Droopy eyed and saggy faced, Earl brought to the scene a humorous gloom that worked as well as it did back then because he took the lead on it. Morose subject matter was by no means exclusive to him, but his matter-of-fact, almost bored approach to the human condition was unique to his character because he did it with a hyper-awareness that belied his body language — a trait that perfectly complimented the seamless incoherence of Doris.
To this day, Earl sounds like he’s rapping in his sleep, but at the time, it was tough to tell if he was indeed as disinterested as his tone suggested. Upon closer inspection, however, it became apparent that there was a mindfulness to the lyricism of his solo work that Odd Future kept him from nurturing.
Thebe had the entire generation’s attention when his debut record dropped and he took full advantage of his leverage. Most people get one shot at that kind of notice and he used his to distinguish himself. By putting his prowess as a beatmaker on full display, his writing took on a new luminosity, albeit a decidedly dim one given the nature of the product.
Make no mistake, the nuttiness never quite left Earl and there’s plenty of evidence of that throughout Doris. The brooding, though, is worth emphasizing more because that’s what informed his discrete outlook and prompted his creative autonomy.
Doris is what truly freed Earl.
On Saturday (August 19), just hours before the album turned ten years old, Earl Sweatshirt, now 29, took the stage at Los Angeles’ Novo Theatre to celebrate a decade of keeping things outlandish, original and fresh.
Earlier in the day, he greeted fans at the GOLF store for an in-store merch drop presented by WMX, announced by Earl and Tyler via Instagram less than 24-hours prior, but with Odd Future’s fandom, the line stretched down the block.
Come showtime, he served up select items from the tracklist and then some.
Vince Staples and Domo Genesis (who also opened the event) came out for their parts on “Hive” and “20 Wave Caps” respectively, stoking the devil’s music of yesterday to ensure the fire continues to burn bright.
After rapping the dingy chorus on “Sunday” — “All my dreams got dimmer when I stopped smoking pot/ Nightmares got more vivid when I stopped smoking pot” — the man of the hour even had the cheek to tease the audience by announcing, “Los Angeles, ya’ll make some motherfuckin’ noise for the one and only …” Of course, everyone’s heart skipped a beat for nothing because Frank Ocean never popped out, but something just as big followed right after.
Tyler, the Creator’s cameo for “Whoa” wasn’t entirely shocking, but it was the closest the boys had been to being back together in years. As he and Earl stood arm in arms, it became clear why they both embarked on separate paths of evolution over the past decade.
Still, the pair will never not make sense.
The crowd erupted into a choir-like coherence — the loudest they had been all evening — to invigorate T Boogie and Earl’s rendition of the alphabet: “G-O-L-F-Dub-A-N-G.” From the cadence of the recurring “Golf Wang” chants throughout the night to the donut merch that continues to sell to this day, OFWGKTA was and still is Gen Z’s Wu-Tang.
The family Odd Future created in its brief time together has had a cross-generational impact on the civilization of music and beyond, and the ten-year anniversary celebration of Doris helped put that in perspective.
That night, Earl & Co. set aside adulthood for a few hours to come out and play together again. Doms looks more and more like a dad, Tyler now sings and Earl got dreads … Vince is more or less the same. Regardless, the spirit of the late 2000s and early 2010s remains airtight.
A lot has changed since the summer of 2013. Odd Future, like pretty much everyone’s childhood, never had a formal end … it just stopped being. Their last body of work as a collective came out in 2012, and by 2014, their comedy series, Loiter Squad, had aired its final season. The members each went their separate paths and, looking back, it would’ve been a shame if they hadn’t.
Today, there’s no one quite like Earl Sweatshirt. He’s odd (there’s that word again) yet brilliant, silly yet focused and, above all, exceptionally inventive. All these virtues trace back to the commercial launch that strengthened his core, set him on the path he is still on today and gave those who came after the confidence to speak on the inner workings of the mind with an informed nonchalance.
Ten years after the release of Doris, it’s safe to say that Earl is free, more so than ever before.