Earl Sweatshirt On Dealing With Grief And Giving Himself A Chance To Be Selfish Beachside in Santa Monica, Calif., Earl Sweatshirt spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about memorializing his father, working through anger and his latest album, Some Rap Songs.

Earl Sweatshirt On Resentment, Growth And Giving Yourself A Chance

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Here in LA, there are a bunch of posters plastered downtown - a blurry face on a white background with bold black text.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: It says, Thebe Kgositsile, professionally known as Earl Sweatshirt, presents the studio album "Some Rap Songs."

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EARL SWEATSHIRT: This makes me so happy.

SHAPIRO: Thebe Kgositsile, aka Earl Sweatshirt, hadn't seen these posters until I showed him a photo as we sat by the beach. He told me he loves that the posters have his birth name and his stage name. The play between those identities Earl and Thebe is a key part of this album "Some Rap Songs."


EARL SWEATSHIRT: (Rapping) Bend, we don't break. We not the bank. We all we got. Switch whips, relocate way out of state.

This is the most involved fusion that is between my actual self and this, like, other thing.

SHAPIRO: The persona.


SHAPIRO: The persona Earl Sweatshirt carries baggage. He became famous eight years ago at the age of 16 with music and videos that were deliberately shocking and violent. And we should mention that there's language in our conversation that might offend some listeners.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: Earl Sweatshirt is a loaded phrase. Like, if you write a article about me right now, you have to do the obligatory first paragraph about Samoa. You have to do the thing.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EARL SWEATSHIRT: It comes with something. Earl Sweatshirt comes with something.

SHAPIRO: So that obligatory paragraph about Samoa - just as Earl started to get famous, he disappeared. His fans turned Free Earl into a meme. Turns out his mother had sent him to the South Pacific to attend a school in Samoa for at-risk boys. He says the experience helped him grow up and cemented his love for the ocean.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: Yeah, we are at the beach. We're looking at the beautiful California coastline, baby.

SHAPIRO: At this beach club, he looked relaxed in a black hoodie. And this album feels relaxed. There's less of the acrobatic wordplay that made him famous. These are the first sounds we hear.


JAMES BALDWIN: Imprecise words.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: Yeah, chief, get it 'cause we mean it.

SHAPIRO: I asked Earl - Thebe - about the album title "Some Rap Songs."

EARL SWEATSHIRT: I was going to say that it was, like, some tongue-in-cheek thing, but even saying that is tongue-in-cheek...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EARL SWEATSHIRT: ...'Cause it is what it is - swear to God that's some rap songs right there.


EARL SWEATSHIRT: (Rapping) We back, yeah. You dig?

SHAPIRO: It's funny 'cause Pitchfork said that this album blurs the line between avant garde, jazz and hip-hop, which doesn't sound like a description of an album that would be called "Some Rap Songs."

EARL SWEATSHIRT: I mean, well, then you got to look at really, like, what is rap - black expression, bro. And what was jazz? It's black expression, bro.


EARL SWEATSHIRT: (Rapping) I couldn't find a friend, had to rely on my wits. I be with MIKE and Med. Nowadays I be with Sage and with Sixpress.

SHAPIRO: Are you trying to expand the definition of rap to, I mean...

EARL SWEATSHIRT: No. I'm trying to get - I'm going back to what it is. Black expression is directly related to pain. At least this black expression is. And then if you want to compare it to jazz when it started getting avant garde, niggas was wailing, niggas using these instruments to express very crazy emotions that come as a result of these sometimes cursed existences.


SHAPIRO: You come from a lineage of wordsmiths. Your parents work with words. Your mother is a UCLA law professor, and your father was the poet laureate of South Africa. You had planned to reunite with your father, who you had not seen for years. And then he died very suddenly. And one of the tracks on this album samples his voice and your mother's voice. It's called "Playing Possum."


CHERYL HARRIS: To my mentors and comrades in arms, those presence and those gone on, thank you to my family.

KEORAPETSE KGOSITSILE: Can you see them now?

HARRIS: To my partner Mysteria, who I love...

EARL SWEATSHIRT: This excerpt from my mom's keynote speech that she gives is this really beautiful opening that she did. And then from my dad's poem, "Anguish Longer Than Sorrow"...


KGOSITSILE: Consider...

HARRIS: Who have let me be distracted and inconsistent in my attention.

KGOSITSILE: ...The premature daily death of their dreams.

SHAPIRO: One of the things that strikes me about the voices of your two parents is that your mother, if I interpret this right, seems to be talking about family in a very immediate, literal sense, and your father seems to be talking about family in a much more global, human sense.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: Yeah, that's them, bro.

SHAPIRO: That's who they are.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: That's them. My mom cares about the global human family but has made it very clear that she cares about her family family before that, where my dad - his commitment - you see it. Well, his commitment to people - and it was an unapologetic one. There's parts, though, where my dad at the beginning just, like, takes some [expletive] my mom says and just real - in just one fell swoop just decentralizes the West as the center of that statement.


HARRIS: Thank you to my brothers...

KGOSITSILE: But displaced.

HARRIS: ...My niece...


HARRIS: ...My nephews, sisters, my friends...


HARRIS: ...My whole family network.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: The last line of that poem is, let me borrow the rememberer's voice while I can and say...


KGOSITSILE: And say...

HARRIS: You know the real deal.

KGOSITSILE: ...To have a home is not a favor.

SHAPIRO: To have a home is not a favor.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: Which just, like, scratches a good itch.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel like you're carrying on his legacy, I mean, as a rapper, the son of a poet?


SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That sounds like a no.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: It's the word, man. It's not...

SHAPIRO: The word legacy?

EARL SWEATSHIRT: No, not even that. I'm just talking about - I feel like that takes away from the [expletive] work that both of them put - like, that just went into making words what they were to me. But I don't - yeah, I think what kind of turns my stomach about it is this man, when he was 21 years old got exiled, and was - you feel? Like, it was...

SHAPIRO: He left South Africa for the United States.

EARL SWEATSHIRT: ...Different. When I was 21, I was at South by Southwest. You know what I'm saying?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EARL SWEATSHIRT: Different lifestyles, bro.



EARL SWEATSHIRT: (Rapping) Know I'm on the way. Family saw you on that stage, left it not amazed.

SHAPIRO: This loss is now coming up on one year ago. And how are you feeling about the journey you've traveled in that year?

EARL SWEATSHIRT: [Expletive] Man, it's been so much, the frustration - right? - of losing my pops.


EARL SWEATSHIRT: (Rapping) Picking out his grave, couldn't help but feel out of place. Try and catch some rays. Death - it has the sour taste.

I think I'm still resentful.

SHAPIRO: Of what?

EARL SWEATSHIRT: That, like, this weird set of experiences is happening to me. I know I shouldn't be, but I - like, not shouldn't be, but I know that this is a step in a series of steps towards, like, not being in this place.


EARL SWEATSHIRT: (Rapping) Dark face on the news, clouds gray on the move, on the way like the truth.

SHAPIRO: Thebe Kgositsile, the rapper Earl Sweatshirt - his new album is "Some Rap Songs."

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