Bill Murray and Jimmy Kimmel circled Earl Sweatshirt on their South by Southwest itineraries last week. The pair went out on the town during the annual music conference in Austin, Texas, with every intention to catch the 21-year-old Los Angeles rapper’s set. Murray kept calling him “Sweatshirt Joe.”
Sweatshirt, born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, was a no-show. But the prodigious talent—beneficiary of a five-year-strong hype cycle—can be excused for reportedly skipping one of the countless shows crammed onto his plate last week. If his new album I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside: An Album By Earl Sweatshirt is any indication, Sweatshirt is a massive introvert who hates handshaking industry strangers, especially after Columbia Records apparently botched his promotional release strategy.
“How are you doing and what's your motive?” he asks sullenly on “Off Top.” He’s been a high-profile artist long enough to experience a parallel romantic relationship and see it crumble like his bounty of herbal nugs. His grandmother passed away, and he’s reverted to drinking white wine—a housewife essential—at home as a coping mechanism.
But the despair facilitates and fuels Sweatshirt’s music. A member of controversial, misfit-kid supergroup Odd Future, Sweatshirt forfeited assistance from his clan’s production talents to unravel his feelings and lyrics over self-starter beats he crafted under the alias “randomblackdude.” Nine of the album’s 10 songs (dispensed over 30 minutes) are Sweatshirt originals, and the end result is as gloomy, anecdote-driven, and self-involved as an Elliott Smith record.
He tinkers with sparsely arranged beats that kind of remind you of old RZA tracks—here’s a little piano sample and it’ll ping over a mushy drum conveyor belt. Between orchards of multisyllabic raps, the tapes run and the end result is a vibrant, digital age Petri dish layered with snippets of conversations and coughs. The actual rapping is technical enough to be fifth best of all time (like, ever) in terms of structure—at least according to a Finnish data-mining algorithm.
During SXSW, I caught Sweatshirt at the makeshift Pandora House where he shared the stage with gregarious party guys like Fetty Wap, Rich Homie Quan, and Atlanta triple-threat crew Migos. That is, I showed up on time to catch the show only to stumble upon a one-in-one-out showcase wherein roughly 80 young fans stood outside filming the visible-from-the-street performance with phones.
Sweatshirt was a hammer, mildly engaged and intentionally picking dense passages for call-and-response gimmicks. There’s a deadpan wit to his music: On “Inside,” Sweatshirt precedes a verse by ironically telling his producer (who, again, is Sweatshirt himself), “You crazy for this one.”