It’s a few minutes to showtime, and Earl Sweatshirt, one of the most compelling, confounding young rappers today, needs to do one final bit of preparation. Sitting in a dressing room at The Ready Room in St. Louis — where he’s launching a world tour days after releasing his new album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (Tan Cressida/Columbia) — the 21-year-old takes out a vial of liquid chlorophyll, squeezes a few drops into a glass of water and ceremoniously chugs the resulting algae-green mixture down. “This shit got oxygen in it, bro,” he says excitedly. “It’s for my health. It goes straight to your red blood cells!”
Earl’s taste in beverages has evolved, to say the least. In 2010, when he first came to public attention in the video for the title track of his eponymous mixtape, he and his friends were concocting, drinking and then promptly vomiting a disgusting drug smoothie made of weed, malt liquor and prescription meds. Shots of the then-16-year-old rap prodigy seemingly pulling out a tooth and fingernail, and lyrics about violent sex and poking “Catholics in the ass with saws” followed. It was a mission statement for Earl and his crew Odd Future‘s nihilistic, DIY, part-backpack-rap, part-skater-punk movement, and it catapulted them to stardom. World tours for notoriously crazed young fans and the Cartoon Network sketch-comedy show Loiter Squad followed, as well as five top five albums on the Billboard 200 among Earl, Odd Future leader Tyler, The Creator, Grammy Award-winning R&B anomaly Frank Ocean and the 2012 compilation The OF Tape Vol. 2.
And, Earl says now, it was misguided: “What the video and I were pushing was a culture of being loud and wrong,” says the rapper, wearing a Supreme hoodie with a picture of The Last Supper on the back. “There are idiots who took that shit serious.”
The first steps in Earl’s bumpy road to ostensible enlightenment were taken in an unlikely place: Samoa, at the Coral Reef Academy, the reform school to which his UCLA law-professor mother sent Earl, born Thebe Kgositsile, in response to drug use, bad grades and what he calls “poor decision-making” in mid-2010, right as the video was blowing up. “I was plucked out my life and broken down to zero,” he says. “I didn’t have my phone. I didn’t have weed. I had palm trees and human interaction. I was the purest I had ever been in my life.”
Returning home in 2012 at the age of 18 was a jarring change. Earl’s reform-school respite wasn’t public knowledge at first, and while he was gone he had become a sort of music-biz urban legend, complete with a “Free Earl” fan campaign and a media manhunt. He immediately hit the road with Odd Future — “I was trying to get far away from my mom,” he says — and was confronted with rabid fans copycatting his crew’s look and lifestyle. But he wasn’t flattered. “It was pissing me off,” he says. “I was like, ‘Dude, these Odd Future kids suck. They’re these spitting images of myself.’ “
Struggling with his new fame, Earl relapsed to his pre-Samoa routine. In early 2013, he and some friends moved into a Hollywood house they dubbed “the brothel,” where he spent time between tours drinking, smoking and having emotionless sex in the wake of a breakup. Earl lost a scary amount of weight — he blames avoiding unhealthy food on the road — came down with pneumonia and canceled several shows. The debut LP he released later that year, Doris (110,000 units sold, according to Nielsen Music), showed a very different Earl than the video that had rocketed him to notoriety. Instead of a marauding wild child, he seemed like a self-flagellating lost soul, with sad songs about the pitfalls of celebrity, his grandmother’s fatal illness and his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, a South African poet-activist who left the family when Earl was 6. (Mirroring his move away from Odd Future’s shock-rap, Earl released Doris on his own label, Tan Cressida, and Columbia rather than the crew’s eponymous indie.)
Earl gained back most of the weight in late 2013, but fell back into old habits while touring in 2014. “I was f–ed up for whole months,” he recalls. “It was nonstop.” That summer, he canceled several more shows, tweeting that he was “physically and mentally at the end of my rope” and weighed “a fraction of what I’m supposed to.” Suffering from what he called “medical exhaustion,” he moved into a new Mid-City Los Angeles apartment in July, concentrated on his health and poured himself into writing, recording and producing I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside at home in isolation. Earl says he inherited this ability to shut out the world from his father. “There’s a coldness, an ability to cut people off, that we share. It’s borderline sociopathic.”
Maybe, but the seclusion also helped Earl face his demons. “People think being alone is a luxury, but it’s crucial: Whatever you’re not down with about yourself gets loud and in your face,” he says. The result is a dark, insular album that’s the “first honest representation of me,” adds Earl. “It’s about being OK with yourself, for better or worse. You can’t really start living until you can live with yourself.”
Chance the Rapper, a close friend and former tourmate, lauds this self-awareness. “He has a hold on his own reality,” he says. “Earl knows what’s right and wrong with himself and speaks his mind on it.”
Today, Earl drinks detoxifying green drinks, but claims he’s cutting back on other green things. “When you’re smoking weed, you get lost in your own head,” he says. “When you’re sober, you’re grounded.” Instead of a druggy fog, Earl says he can feel things again, both the ups and the downs. “The good is amazing now; the bad is just as bad,” he explains. “I got all those real emotions, and I’m hella excited to express them.”
Earl did just that on March 16, when he unloaded several angry tweets that accused Columbia of mishandling the album rollout (it has sold 31,000 units total). But today, he hints that he may have overreacted. “I was mad, but it’s not like they botched it,” he says with a laugh. “We all like to indulge ourselves.”
One person he’s no longer mad at: his mother, whom Odd Future fans once demonized as an evil oppressor of Earl’s genius. Now, he claims, they’re closer than ever. “I’m a momma’s boy-ass n–a,” he says proudly. “My mom is hella happy. She says I’m doing some real work with my music. She called me a student of life. I’m f–ing with that.”
This story originally appeared in the April 18th issue of Billboard.