Rapper Thebe Kgositsile tries to move past his pseudonym and his past music
“Mask off, mask on, we trick-or-treatin’ / back off, stand-offish and anemic.” These lines broke the four-year gap between Thebe Kgositsile, known as Earl Sweatshirt’s 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and his most recent Some Rap Songs. The grim imagery, disjointed syntax and nine-syllable close rhyme are tools of Kgositsile’s trade.
With his latest album and tour, Kgositsile has tried to distance himself from Earl Sweatshirt, the moniker that symbolized his come-up in 2010 alongside Odd Future. At 16, Kgositsile was spitting horrorcore bars about knocking blunt ashes into the caskets of catholics. His lyrics were as brash and boorish as they were vivid and dense, with a monotone that magnified their intricacies. After his mother sent him to a reform school in Samoa for acting out, he came back to release three of the best rap albums of the decade. As Kgositsile grew up, his maturity came with reclusion. Once a foul-mouthed delinquent, he wrestled with depression and his music became more lucid and introspective.
Some Rap Songs deals with the death of his father in January of last year, who was a lauded South African poet and absent during Kgositsile’s childhood. The ensuing album is predictably dark, but where I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside was brooding and focused, Kgositsile’s footing on Some Rap Songs is unsure. The album cover is a blurred closeup of his face, and much of the tape has him sorting through wreckage and piecing his story together. His bars come across as poetic and that’s because they’re intended to be: “It’s really dense. It can be overwhelming and have an air of exclusivity to it, a pompousness that I feel is only balanced out by me being like, I know what I’m doing to you. So I’ma sprint for you. I’ma act like your time is valuable,” Kgositsile told writer Sheldon Pearce.
Kgositsile entered stage in a flannel, sweats and Air Force 1’s. His lyrics rang out with a force like flowing water, these were his truths. He moved slowly, like a wise elder and had no time for the extraneous. Every word hit even harder than on the album and there was no sign of backing vocals. He took playful jabs at the audience, almost trying to calm them down. I overheard a conversation about how a girl was switching lockers to be next to her boyfriend. These were the kids that he had made fans as the best rapper in Odd Future. It felt like Kgositsile was a prophet that had grown up simultaneously with the crowd but not alongside them. He was telling tales of pain and tumult as well as a spectrum of fame and experience that were just beyond the audience’s grasp. As he shuffled from one side of the stage to the other, he would rap into the air and, as he glanced at the audience, would look away as if he couldn’t face them. It was powerful to see the struggles in his music manifested.
Kgositsile played consecutive songs from the new album, dipping into I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and hesitated to go back further in his catalog, even though tracks from 2013’s Doris had the crowd the loudest. Kgositsile was evading a past that his fans haven’t let go of. Some Rap Songs is Kgositsile’s definitive album; it is unique in how excruciatingly personal it is. Hopefully as Kgositsile takes the mask of Earl Sweatshirt off, his fans will embrace the storied character of Thebe Kgositsile.