Every young man needs a hearty breakfast, and right now, Earl Sweatshirt is having his.
It’s a Wednesday around noon, and he’s sitting at a small wooden table at a health-conscious café in Mid-City. Before him sits a hearty one-man feast designed to add some bulk to his small, 142-pound frame. On a plate there's egg whites, potatoes and chicken sausage. In a bowl, goji berry oatmeal dotted with sliced bananas and raisins. And in two big cups: a “Sun Power” smoothie infused with hemp protein and chia seeds, and a rejuvenating serving of ginger punch.
“Shit is flight,” the 21-year-old rapper says between mouthfuls.
Earl, whose real name is Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, has been making big inroads towards self-preservation lately. He's been working with a personal trainer at a gym in Hollywood. He's been eating better, maintaining a strict five-meals-a-day regimen. He recently even stopped smoking weed, putting away the Backwoods blunt wraps in an effort to uphold mental clarity.
The new shift in lifestyle is in part an effort to counteract the malnourishment and exhaustion the Odd Future member experiences when he goes on tour, which over the past year has forced him to intermittently cancel and postpone concert dates. But it seems Earl is also thinking in the long term. It’s been five years after he achieved sudden fame while hidden away at a boarding school in Samoa. He’s had to grow up a lot faster than most kids his age, and his excellent new album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, shows a youngster who’s become hyper-sensitive to personal and social fault lines — not to mention his own strengths and weaknesses as a human being.
“I have a weird resilience. Like, a weird threshold for pain. I’ll go really far and not say shit. I’ve had to train myself to do the opposite,” he says, looking healthy in a black Adidas track jacket and thickening sprout of facial hair. “Now, when I’m hungry, I turn into a bitch because I have to. I literally have to nag or else I’ll fuck around and do what I did in Europe, not eat or sleep for fucking five days.”
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside was an intimate project for Earl. Dark, beautiful and mercilessly honest, it doesn’t feature contributions from prominent names like RZA and Mac Miller, who appeared on Earl’s full-length debut, 2013’s Doris. It has no simple pop messages or chart-worthy hooks. If Atlanta rappers Migos craft hits simply by repeating the same word over and over (see: “Versace,” “Bando”), this new record finds Earl on a more circuitous path, deploying offhand references and complex internal rhymes over beats that move like foggy fever dreams.
Most of the album was written in the spring of 2014. Thematically, though, it came together later that summer. He’d just gotten back from tour, and he'd lost a ton of weight because he wasn't eating or sleeping enough on the road. One day he went out skateboarding, and when he tried hard-flipping a five-stair at a local skatepark — a trick he could normally do, no problem — he ended up tearing his meniscus, a rubbery disc in the knee.
What followed was an intense two-month period of indoor exile. His leg muscles atrophied, his ego bruised. He felt like his whole body was out of balance.
"It starts with your body, then it moves into everything. Couldn’t fuck my girl right," he says. “I’ve never been injured that seriously. That shit does something to you. I was an athletic-ass kid. I really have always prided myself off being able to do crazy shit with my body. So once that happened, it fucks your whole ego over, because you’re not the same you. Your life changes in that moment... I was a dead weight almost to my friends. You can’t run from police. You can’t fight. You can’t move. It fucked me up. I was like, ‘I gotta go inside.’”
The experience was brutal, but it also gave him the inspiration to write “Grief,” one of the most important songs on the album. In it, Earl offers up a stark examination of mistrust and isolation. Over a snare that snaps into place like a bear trap, he describes seeing “snakes” in peoples’ eyes, “feeling stranded in a mob.” His verses close out with a line delivered in painstaking half-time: “I just want my time and my mind intact/When they both gone, you can’t buy ’em back.”
“That’s the hardest shit I ever said in my life, because it’s the truest shit ever. And it’s some shit to move forward with," Earl says.
Still, Earl Sweatshirt doesn’t want to seem like a huge downer — or, worse, a #sadboy type who uses depression as a cheap dramatic device or viral marketing tactic. In a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live that was taped last week and that broadcasts tonight, he managed to bring out more colorful and even downright whimsical shades of the song.
Onstage, Earl was backed by the Toronto instrumental jazz/R&B outfit Badbadnotgood, who drew out the tension with dusty-sounding electronic drums and a moody, two-note sax line. But then, the song suddenly shifted gears into a circus-like funk groove, and out came Gary Wilson — a legendary avant-pop oddball whom Earl samples on “Grief” — who immediately began wrapping his face with a roll of duct tape.
The performance probably flew over the heads of a lot of audience members. But Earl has no apologies for listeners who struggle with deciphering his venomous metaphors. For him it's not an issue of being overly complicated — it's that some listeners might not be thinking hard enough.
“I just write like a grown man, because that’s what I listen to,” he says. “I’m not even speaking complicated English… I don’t do five-syllable words, I don’t do four-syllable words. This is English. Rudimentary English. Let’s go. You know what I just said.”
Still, Earl Sweatshirt is aware he's not perfect. That's what's led him on his current journey of self-improvement. The way he sees it, people need to look inside themselves and work out their issues, because otherwise they'll end up lost. And they need to eat right and exercise, because the consequences of not doing so catch up with them later.
At his most unhealthy, Earl weighed a mere 118 pounds. At his healthiest, he's been at 160. He wants to get back up to 100 percent, because he doesn't want to end up as a burden to the people who depend on him most.
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“Nobody wants a crumpled-up helping hand,” he says. “You gotta get strong first or you can’t lead. And it’s literal. I can’t be an anchor and be withered. You know what I mean? Think about the word 'anchor.' You gotta be heavy. You gotta be able to sit. You gotta be strong and stand against your shit. If I’m 118, I’m disappearing with the wind.”