“I didn’t know how to say anything [back in 2010],” Earl Sweatshirt tells GQ in an interview pegged to the release of his new album Doris. “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.” It’s an appropriate self-assessment to kick off an interview that’s substantially about the space between place Earl was in when he released his previous album, and the one he’d arrived at when he recorded Doris. And a substantial part of that conversation is about how his music handles sex, consent, and assault.
It’s a subject that’s come up in the New York Times profile of Earl on his return from what was effectively a reform school in Samoa. “You can detach imagery from words,” he said, by way of explaining how he’d deployed macabre language without actually envisioning the images he conjured up. But he acknowledged that detachment had become impossible for him after working with victims of sexual assault, some of them children, as part of his school’s curriculum.
And in GQ, he lays down some standards for how to talk about sexual assault going forward.
“As an adult, if you want to talk about rape, there’s certain shit that comes along with it,” he explains. “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.”
This is not exactly a shocking realization. But I find it somewhat touching because it’s so obviously the kind of thing you realize as you grow up a bit, and Earl is, after all, only 19. It’s easy to draw a bright line between acts and speech, and to say that as long as you confine yourself to the latter category rather than the former, you’re in the clear, and anyone who flinches from your speech is an oversensitive coward. If you’re one of those people, though, whose heart gets bigger and more open as you get older, who gets more sensitive and capable of handling the results of that tenderness instead of developing a rhinoceros-like skin to ward off the outside world, you can develop a capacity for magnanimity that’s rewarding to exercise. Shock, it turns out, is a limited part of the spectrum of human emotion.
I think it’s no particular mistake that the member of Odd Future to achieve what seems like the sturdiest mainstream success so far is Frank Ocean, who at 25 is one of the older members of the collective, and who is distinguished by his ability to elicit exceptionally precise and often gentle emotions, even on something as slight as this interlude on John Mayer’s new album:
And maybe the most impressive thing Earl says in GQ is in response to the question of what happens if fans want the material from Earl rather than the ideas from Doris, if they want to feel shocked and transgressive. “I don’t care,” he says, bluntly. “Hey, one thing I’ve learned in this past year is that motherfuckers are really stupid.” If what Odd Future fans like about Earl is that he’s young, it’ll be interesting to see if they understand that youth is temporary–you can’t both capture it in amber and keep it alive–but that sometimes growing with someone is just as exciting and rewarding as living out your glory days over and over again.