“I’ve been trying to tell a different story,” Earl Sweatshirt exhales on “Balance.” Since returning from Samoa’s Coral Reef Academy in 2012, the L.A. rapper and producer has decisively reclaimed the reins of his career, distancing himself from Odd Future, creating his own record imprint and redefining his image. Long past the shock rap of his teenage years, he now fills his songs with unstated tensions that he confronts obliquely, clearing the air but never the static. “I was a liar as a kid, so now I’m honest as fuck,” he says on Danny Brown’s “Really Doe” — both a confession and an oversimplification.
Earl dwells in this liminal area between emotional transparency and coded detail, using his words to simultaneously divulge his deepest fears and cast shadows. This approach allows him to broach a range of personal topics while still maintaining privacy, an advantage he’s used to publicly explore that most intimate of relationships: mother and son.
His mom, law professor Cheryl Harris, has been a presence in Earl's music since the beginning. On a skit from Earl's self-titled breakout mixtape, Harris is impersonated by Syd tha Kid, beckoning her son to wake up and prepare for school. Earl responds petulantly, as does his mom, their patter escalating until she tells him to wake the fuck up and he tells her to shut the fuck up. That heated exchange turns out to be a fantasy — the next track, “Luper,” opens with a more realistic scenario: “Mom said wake up son, good morning/I rolled out of bed, greeted mama with a yawn” — but the tension is clear, even in jest.
Earl’s fans missed this nuance, interpreting this tension as a line in the sand and siding with Earl. “Free Earl!” they chanted at early Odd Future shows, which Earl was absent from while he went to boarding school overseas. Encouraged by his bandmates and by Earl’s radio silence during his absence, fans turned Earl into a martyr for artistic freedom and rebellion. “Free Earl!” rang out on Twitter, on songs, even at basketball games. He wasn’t absent, he was exiled, fans insisted. In their eyes, Harris embodied everything Odd Future railed against — authority, structure, school — and “Free Earl” transformed from a rally cry to a hostage negotiation, culminating in a threatening note being left at Harris’ door, according to The New York Times.
Earl sided with his mom. “With the ‘Free Earl’ chants come a barely indirect ‘Fuck Earl’s Mom’ and in the blink of an eye my worry changes from ‘Will there still be this hype when I get back’ to ‘Oh shit I just inspired a widespread movement of people who are dedicated to the downfall of my mom,” he wrote while he was still away. “Please listen: I’m not being held against my will,” he pleaded.
The movement subsided once Earl returned, but the tension between him and his mom, both real and perceived, remained. His debut album, Doris, recorded during the year after his return, is replete with punchy vignettes that hint at their ongoing strain. “Sold sniff: mama knew,” he deadpans on “Centurion.” “Mama often was offering peace offerings/Think, wheeze cough, scoffing and then he’s off again,” he reflects on “Chum.” “Noncooperative with his mama’s wishes for college,” he raps on “Sasquatch.”
This willingness to acknowledge the reality of their relationship, especially at the risk of imperiling it further given its public history, doesn’t really have a precedent in rap. Moms in rap are typically revered, praised for their patience (Wiki's “Living With My Moms”), guidance (Game's “Mama Knows”) and love (Kanye's “Hey Mama”), especially when single or unsupported by their children's father. Even when moms were drug users (2Pac's “Dear Mama”; Jay Z's “You Must Love Me”) or strict or overbearing (Kendrick Lamar's “FEAR.”; Ghostface Killah's “Whip You With a Strap”), rappers generally have found a way to praise them, cherishing their voicemails, apologizing to them, thanking them, upholding them as ideal women. In rap, baby mamas excluded, every day is Mother’s Day. “Rap’s only mother-hater of note is a white guy, Eminem,” Ta-Nehisi Coates once observed.
Earl fills this void between reverence and revulsion. More than a muse or a symbol, his mom appears in his music as a presence, her concerns weighted and foregrounded. On producer Samiyam’s “Mirror,” Harris looks over Earl’s shoulder as he confronts himself in the mirror, proud of who he’s become. “Look in the mirror and what do I see?/Only the nigga I wanted to be/When I was in rehab, like, ‘Mama, you see now?’/Who's fuckin' with me? You don't want it with me.”
On “Faucet,” Harris draws Earl home. Torn between the need to tour to make money, and the need to stay home to mend fractured relationships, he again finds himself in the bathroom. “I gotta focus on my family problems,” he raps. “It hurt ’cause I can’t keep a date or put personal time in/A reverse of the times when my face didn’t surprise you/Before I did the shit that earned me my term on that island/Can’t put a smile on your face through your purse or your pocket.” Face in the faucet, he’s seized by inertia, eager to maintain some semblance of contact with his mother but reluctant to deal with the confrontation that contact will entail. Visiting his mom means looking at himself honestly, facing the person he promised not to be when he left for Samoa.
Earl’s time in Samoa functions as a contract in these songs. Earl feels the weight of his undisclosed debt to his mom but can only repay it haphazardly, his balance always precarious. This one-sided tab is implied in all rap odes to motherhood — the generosity of black mothers is utterly unquantifiable, after all — but Earl dwells on the terms, not just the sum. Thank yous and gifts and greeting cards are trifles; Earl settles his debts with bristling, unflattering truths.
“Solace,” a 10-minute song cycle dedicated to his mother, is unmitigating in its realness. Rapping in a muted gasp, Earl evacuates his being, wishing for death and grasping at oblivion. Deprived of food yet gorged on drugs, he ambles through despair, clinging weakly to the few relationships and memories that give him meaning. The song is harrowing from start to finish, the specter of suicide looming over his every word. “Me and my nibbling conscience/Nigga, I'm fixin' to give up,” he raps unambiguously. He finds truth by the final verse, confessing problems with drug addiction and loneliness and an eating disorder, but the rawness of the experience hangs in the air.
But that’s the price of his truth, and it’s what makes his recurring mentions of his mom so potent. Earl can dedicate “Solace” to his mom because he’s committed himself to a real relationship, not an ideal. He knows that black sons aren’t always thankful for their lives and that black mothers expect more than thanks. He knows that black sons make mistakes and that black mothers deal with them, that sometimes truth can’t be made into anthems and memorials and apologies. He knows that there are different stories.
Earl Sweatshirt plays the Day N Night Festival at Angel Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9.
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