GQ – GQ&A: Earl Sweatshirt

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[GQ]
When I turned 19, I spent my birthday watching "Bruce Almighty" with my parents. Or maybe I went bowling? Please tell me yours was cooler.

[Earl]
Nope. I played video games with my friends and ate tacos.

[GQ]
Still better. What's the biggest difference between Earl Sweatshirt in 2009 and Earl Sweatshirt now?

[Earl]
I'm fucking grown now. I was a little-ass kid in 2009. I've figured shit out – well not figured shit out. That's ridiculous. Not in some pretentious way, just as a result of time.

[GQ]
Same question, but this time for Thebe.

[Earl]
Same shit. I don't draw a line between them.

[GQ]
Let's talk about Doris. There's a lot of pretty overt talk of mental illness on the album. At one point in the track "Sunday," you and Frank Ocean rap in unison, "What good is West Coast weather if you're bipolar?" At another point, in "Burgundy," there's a voice-over that asks, "Why you so depressed and sad all the time like a little bitch?" How did your own experience with mental illness inform this album?

[Earl]
I don't know about mental illness, but I'm a sad bitch sometimes. That's the shit I'm more attracted to, so even if I'm not, the shit that gets me excited is all very moody and unstable. That's some shit that I don't even see changing. Like, I can't make that good of music when I'm happy. Some shit has to happen that either pisses me off or that's very grave.

[GQ]
It's a really personal record – very different, content-wise, from Earl.

[Earl]
Yeah. I didn't know how to say anything [back in 2009]. I didn't know how to keep a thought focused when I was young, and it kind of sounds like that. Like, it's tight or whatever, but it's just all over the place. I'm still figuring that shit out. I feel like that's probably my next thing – focusing more. Because I can do it when I'm writing. That's probably better for the music anyway, when it's more impulsive.

[GQ]
Doris is still impulsive, but it's far less abrasive than Earl. I tried to count how many times there's a reference to raping or killing someone on Earl, and I just gave up.

[Earl]
I'm an adult. I can't be fucking talking about raping people and shit. That shit's crazy. As an adult, if you want to talk about rape, there's certain shit that comes along with it.

[GQ]
As part of your program in Samoa, you worked with victims of sexual assault, yes?

[Earl]
Yeah, so you get to see that side of the fence, and then it's just fucked. That's what I'm saying. That fully draws the line, where it's like you can stand on either side. Either you're a fool that is down with fucked up shit – I mean, I'm a fan of macabre shit, you know what I'm saying? But not like that. At the end of the day, I'm not some evil guy.

[GQ]
Was there a crucial moment you realized that?

[Earl]
It was instant. There was nothing you could do when you're looking at a fucking little girl that's been horribly abused. It doesn't even need to be gradual. And there was never a moment where I was trying to fucking perpetrate like I was some [rapist]. I still have so much fun performing Earl. That shit was what it was. That was our way of like, screaming. That was my way of screaming, because I don't yell.

[GQ]
Any subject, whether it's raping people or swag or some fucking shoes or something – if you rap about it enough, it's going to get boring. It was sick.

[GQ]
Do you worry that not dealing with the same things that Earl dealt with will make you less appealing to people who loved all that rape and murder?

[Earl]
I don't care. Hey, one thing I've learned in this past year is that motherfuckers are really stupid. There's a lot of really retarded people. That's not being a dick or anything; that's some real life shit. Like, I've actually been amazed.

[GQ]
You're pretty upfront about dealing with addiction issues on Doris. Was it something you were struggling with before you left for Samoa?

[Earl]
Yeah, it was before I left. Now I can go through these awesome little two-week things where – well, not anymore because I don't have time to – but when I didn't have to do shit, I could go through two-week things where I could just get fucked up and then explore that, and then be done with that when I got over it. Then make some sick music.

Nothing extreme, though. It's 2013 and everyone smokes weed, and I don't want to be that one guy that's like "Dude, I smoke weed." But I was very high for a really long time, just to see what that was like. When I recorded the bulk of the album, I got so skinny because I was smoking weed and drinking Red Bull and smoking cigarettes. And I'd eat Chick-fil-A like once every 12 hours.

[GQ]
This is after you're back?

[Earl]
Yeah.

[GQ]
OK. But if addiction is one of the things you were hoping to address by going away, and then you get back and do this sort of thing, is your relationship to this stuff at all different?

[Earl]
Hell yeah! I just know what the fuck I'm doing now. That's why I'm not mad that I went away. A lot of niggas don't figure out the shit that I had to figure out until they're like 30 years old. I don't get attached to [drugs] anymore. I know the signs. Going away basically put tools in my toolbox. So I know how to use the shit – so if there's any red flags or anything, it's just like "alright."

[GQ]
What does a red flag look like?
I don't know. If I'm doing some shit too much. I did some stupid shit when I was recording. And I'll probably do some stupid shit when I record the next album, too. I'm going to go to like London or something. Fucking Trainspotting.

[GQ]
One thing that's stayed similar on the two albums is this dynamic you and Tyler have on songs where you're both featured. He's got a sort of big-brother complex – half protective, half intimidating. Are you competitive in any other ways? Skateboarding?

[Earl]
No. I'm way better at skating than Tyler. He skates better transition than I do, but I skate way better. Because he's too goofy.

[GQ]
Arm wrestling?

[Earl]
He'll fuck me up at arm wrestling. That fool's a fucking freak athlete. I hate him. He's fucking good at everything. I don't like it.

[GQ]
Who got a better SAT score?

[Earl]
Ha! I got a fucking better SAT score. This is the thing: I know I'm more eloquent than Tyler is. Like as far as school and shit goes, I'm technically better than him. But that's a smart nigga. That's a very smart man right there. He's also a fucking idiot.

[GQ]
One thing that's really compelling about your return is that you've sort of bypassed all of the shitty parts about being a rapper.

[Earl]
I bypassed a lot. I also missed the sick part of it too, though. Like, I didn't get to fully live in the world where we were still mysterious, like when we were cracking – when we were blowing up more, but not on a level where little girls would fuck with us. It was still kind of scary. I missed that. It was charged with dark energy.

[GQ]
After you went away, you made it pretty clear that you weren't forced away – that the decision was the right one for you.

[Earl]
I mean, I had to get forced away. But yeah, like I said, end result: I wasn't mad.

[GQ]
Was there a moment before leaving where things got so bad that you realized you needed to go?

[Earl]
I didn't even give a fuck. I was so heated when I went. And I was heated right after I went. And for like a year. I don't know if there was a moment when I realized shit was best for me, but my mom was just like – I was just fighting her back and forth all night on why the "Free Earl" shit wasn't fucked up or whatever. Every week, you'd meet with the therapist and talk to your parents. She was telling me she was afraid to go to work and she was having trouble getting dressed in the morning – to like get up and go to work and shit. She just didn't know what to do. I guess it's just one of those things where the line is drawn. You get to stand on either side of it. That was a fucked-up feeling.

[GQ]
You mentioned tools in your toolbox before. What were some of the other things you found most useful during your time away?

[Earl]
I learned how to be patient. Some of the worst kids ever were there. Ever. No words could describe what it was like living twenty-four-seven with someone who, on the outside, you would vocalize your hate for. You have to live with him; you have no other option, you know what I mean? Like, your option is you either put up with some shit that you don't want to put up with, or stay till you're fucking twenty-one years old.

[GQ]
Who determined that you were ready to go? How did that work?

[Earl]
The therapist. There's like a level system that you have to work through. So you come in at a level one, and you leave at a level six. It's basically left up to you how long it takes to get through the shit. You don't have anything at level one. You don't have shit. You can't go to the bathroom by yourself. Then you slowly work your way through the level system and you get more privileges, more independence.

[GQ]
Were you quick to work through those levels?

[Earl]
Hell no! I was terrible. I was awful. For that whole year that I was talking about, I was the worst. I became the one example that people give. Like, when I came in, they always give new kids the examples like, "Now if you want to leave here, you act like him. You don't want to be like him." After a year, I was the "you don't want to be like him." I actually couldn't believe it. I turned into that one guy. I hated everything. If I thought I didn't like shit when I was at home, I really learned how to be a real piece of shit that hated myself and literally everything.

After that year happened, I convinced myself that home wasn't real, that it was a figment of my imagination – that I was going to die there.
Because as far as I was concerned, I was like, "What the fuck can you show me of home?" When I closed my eyes and opened them, all I see is the palm trees.

[GQ]
And yet here you are.

[Earl]
I was like, "I want to go home." And it's entirely up to you. That's what I realized. For that whole year, I was like, "You motherfuckers gonna keep me here?"

[GQ]
Do you ever worry that the more individual success Odd Future members get, the harder it will be to stay cohesive as a unit?

[Earl]
We'll see with time, but yeah. That's a fucking weird thing to think about. Wild. I don't worry too much, because everyone was friends before we did music. So with or without music, everyone's still going to be straight. Odd Future's like a network, as opposed to like a rap group. I mean, obviously it's a rap group. But still, there's a lot of other shit going on than a bunch of fools that rap together.

[GQ]
How do you keep things close? Group meditations? Sweat lodges?

[Earl]
We've got the [Odd Future] store, and we're trying to make this vacation shit we do a yearly thing. We went to Hawaii last year. Everyone went to Hawaii. So tight. It was so tight. I was shrooming for like three days [he makes the sort of wide-eyed, happy zombie face one makes when pantomiming a psilocybin-laced beach vacation]. But I've got a girlfriend now. I can't do that shit around my girlfriend. Oh, man.

[GQ]
Where'd you meet?

[Earl]
They [Tyler and other Odd Future members] were out here, and they were in a restaurant somewhere, and this girl and my girlfriend walked by. I wasn't even out here. Tyler got the one girl's number, and it turned out they lived in California. So then he hit her up while they were out there. They came to hang out with Tyler one time. I met that girl, and I thought she was hell-of annoying at first, and then somehow that shit worked out. I don't know. She got my number. I don't know how. She got my number and texted me.

I'm not an asshole anymore, either. She's making me fucking soft. It's like we're married, dude. I smoke weed like a fucking scared dad [He takes a few hasty puffs of an imaginary joint, his eyes darting back and forth]. I'm like, "Keep that outside!" And she's not even pressing me. I'm just paranoid.

[GQ]
But you're happy.

[Earl]
Yeah. See, when I start recording new shit then I've got to like stall her out for a second. Because she makes me too happy. Shit won't work out.

[GQ]
On the final verse of the last song on Doris, you rap "Young, black and hazy vision strolling through the night." Was that meant to be a sort of synopsis?

[Earl]
That's a pretty perfect summation of where I'm at most of the time. Like, kind of aloof and salty. And also young and black.

[GQ]
Last question. There's a poem about you, written in 1995 by your family friend Sterling Plumpp, called "Poet: for Thebe Neruda." It ends this way:

"You
were born with blues.
With an ANC [African National Congress] imprint
on them. How you gon
do anything but rule?"

Do you feel fated to do what you do?

[Earl]
I still have a hard time recognizing that you're good at something and not being a fucking dickhead. A lot of times, a lot of really talented people are dickheads. So I still have to get comfortable. My friends have to remind me that it's OK to own the fact that you're good at something. I think it'll just come with getting older. But I don't ever want to be a fucking asshole. So until I feel like I'm able to find that balance – of not being a prick and fully owning the fact that I maybe am very good at something – I'm very tired by it. Because a lot of times, it's a very, very thin line.

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