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Earl Sweatshirt confronts the pressures of hype with 'Doris'

Thebe Kgositsile, who raps as Earl Sweatshirt and is a member of Odd Future, is the subject of legend even before his major label debut 'Doris' arrives.

August 01, 2013|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic | This post has been corrected. See note below for details
  • Earl Sweatshirt, of the rap collective Odd Future, at his apartment in Hollywood.
Earl Sweatshirt, of the rap collective Odd Future, at his apartment in Hollywood. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

On a recent afternoon Thebe Kgositsile, 19, wandered around his sparse central Hollywood apartment lugging a gallon of orange juice and thinking about the logo to his fledgling music imprint Tan Cressida.

A piano melody looped from a computer plugged into the keyboard next to it. The early stages of a beat, its evolution would soundtrack the rest of the afternoon as he built it while meeting with his attorney and his manager and worrying aloud that he was getting sick. He'd been coughing all morning, and Bonnaroo was less than a week away.

Thebe is best known as Earl Sweatshirt, rapper, YouTube breakout, member of the Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future. He is the son of a South African poet laureate father and a civil rights attorney mother. His manager helped discover Tupac Shakur. Despite Thebe's age, and whether he likes it or not (he doesn't), his story over the last three years has become the stuff of legend in the rap world.

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Bonnaroo was to be the second of two major North American festival performances this summer and one of a handful since his 2012 return from a Samoan juvenile facility that spawned both a mythology and a misguided Internet campaign to "free" him.

The high-profile Bonnaroo appearance meant he had only a few days at home to finalize the mix, sequencing and presentation of his debut studio album as Earl Sweatshirt — "Doris," which comes out Aug. 20 on Tan Cressida through Sony Music Entertainment. A wildly ambitious, verbally dense, linguistically and musically explosive album, it captures the great distance he's traveled since returning from the South Seas.

And today (to paraphrase him), he felt like crap. "I'm dying," he complained, filling the words with overwrought drama. "I'm withering away." A skinny young man with a calm disposition and already wary of press, Thebe is not one for forced conversation, especially when jet-lagged. (In fact, later that week he'd land in the hospital with pneumonia and have to cancel his Bonnaroo gig.)

He still had to sketch out a Tan Cressida logo to submit to Sony, which attorney Julian Petty was waiting for in an easy chair. A sample needed to be addressed on the Samiyam-produced track "20 Wave Caps." Liner notes needed to be approved. Did he want to perform at a music festival in Maine?

Long in the making and the culmination of an introduction that began when he was 16 and he and some wannabe rappers started uploading videos and mixtapes to the Internet, "Doris" is one of the most anticipated hip-hop debuts in a long time. Its creator has been called rap's prodigal son (a description he loathes), and despite his youth, his and Odd Future's innovative if at times harsh work has been discussed in lecture halls, among relentless bloggers and during encounters on both American and South African streets.

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"Doris" is also one of the best albums of the year and marks the arrival of a stubborn, forceful young Los Angeles voice with talent that, surprisingly, outruns the hype. A rapper with memorable ways around a phrase and ability to craft brilliantly imagined, internally rhymed lines and stanzas that blossom with each examination, he's self-aware and increasingly fearless in conveying his emotions. He is a leader in a veritable second L.A. hip-hop Golden Age.

The pressure is on, and he rhymes about it throughout "Doris." In "Burgundy," he makes the drama clear: "I'm afraid I'm gonna blow it/ When them expectations rising because daddy was a poet." A few lines later he further stresses his life as being "in the midst of a tornado/ Misfitted, I'm Clark Gable/ I'm not stable."

It's been quite a year, and asked to offer an overview of his life upon returning, he laughed.

"What is the easiest way to run through the past year?" he asked manager Leila Steinberg, who's been counseling him for the last two years.

"Start with when you got off the plane from Samoa and the police in the airport were screaming ' Earl!'," she suggested. He paused. "That happened. Then I graduated high school. Then I started working on the album."

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Much-watched youth

To understand the LAX cops' reaction, jump back to before "that happened." In 2010, Earl Sweatshirt and his fellow rappers Odd Future — the most famous of whom are the Grammy-winning singer Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator — uploaded a video to YouTube called "Earl," one of among a half-dozen they'd offered in the previous months. It featured the namesake rapper, then 16, and kindred spirits in a kitchen pouring what appeared to be beer, cough syrup, pills and marijuana into a blender, drinking it and videotaping the effects.

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