Here’s a shortlist of some hip-hop albums released in 1994.
Ready To Die – Notorious B.I.G.
Thug Life vol. 1 – Tupac
Illmatic – Nas
The Sun Rises in the East – Jeru
Tical – Method Man
Blowout Comb – Digable Planets
Fantastic Voyage – Coolio
Ill Communication – The Beastie Boys
…and Shaq Fu The Return.
I’m thirty years old, and I was just discovering music when these records came out. This makes me feel extremely old, but at the same time lucky to have had this sort of groundbreaking innovation in music; to my generation, 1994 is like 1966. Gen-Xers got in on the ground floor of hip-hop as we know it today from Public Enemy, Run DMC and Boogie Down Productions—all groups I learned to appreciate only in college once I’d developed a palate sophisticated enough to put the careworn beats into context.
But nothing has ever compared the forbidden pleasure of those “Parental Advisory” stickered albums, so hot Wal-Mart wouldn’t sell them. So dangerous, I had to hide them from my parents and listen to them on my Discman behind my closed bedroom door. As an 11-year old, I didn’t understand rap as a changing form, only as a forbidden gateway into a shadowy world of sex, violence, drug money, chronic and gin and juice—the very evils my middle-class upbringing was trying to protect me from.
Thebe Kgositsile, better known as “Earl Sweatshirt” was born in 1994. That makes him seven years younger than Kendrick Lamar, six years younger than A$AP Rocky and three years younger than Tyler, The Creator, his collaborator in the hip-hop collective known as “Odd Future.” On his recent major-label debut, “Doris” he illustrates a remarkable maturity relative to his past output with Odd Future, but also a stripped down approach that is reminiscent of the legendary albums of his infancy.
Kgositsile’s personal history is a sort of mythology. He grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a South African poet named Keorapetse Kgositsile. Thebe was discovered at the age of 14 by Tyler via his Myspace page and was integrated into Odd Future just as they became internet and underground sensations, bolstered by a prodigious output of mixtapes including Kgositsile’s Earl. In a bizarre twist, Kgositsile and his unreleased material suddenly disappeared from the public spotlight and rumors spread about his whereabouts before it was revealed that his mother had sent him to a boarding school in Samoa for at-risk teens. He returned the spotlight in early 2012 with a performance of a new track called “Bergundy” on Jimmy Fallon.
Kgositsile has shown himself most comfortable with a bleak and stripped-down tone; “Doris” is no exception. The lyrics aggrandize neither Kgositsile as a real person or Earl as a fantastical alter-ego. Rather, “Doris” is an earnest and straight-forward effort to address Kgositsile’s desire for a relationship to his estranged father and the realities and possibilities of fame.
Yet, what matters most is lyricism and verbal acrobatics in the most poetic sense. Kgositsile may use himself as a subject matter but no matter what he raps about, content is always an excuse for aesthetics.
Note the brilliant hook to “Chum,” Doris’s first single:
Something sinister to it
Pendulum swinging slow, a degenerate moving
Through the city with criminal stealth, welcome to enemy turf,
Harder than immigrants work, “golf” stitched into my shirt,
Get off the pavement, brush the dirt up off my psyche.
In a song about longing for a father who was never there, Kgositsile references Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” envisioning the slow, steady motion of back-and-forth as having a destructive effect. As broken promises and disappointments accumulate the narrator loses more and hope and must continually maintain his feeling of self-worth.
The use of a literary allusion is rare enough in hip-hop, but the steady, seamless flow of delivery keeps it in a safe realm of subtlety. This is Kgositsile’s gift. While Kanye seems intent on delivering a quota of pop-culture references whether they fit the song or not, Kgositsile works in the flow-first tradition of MF DOOM, Ghostface Killa and Big Daddy Kane for whom delivery dictates the message being transmitted. The rhymes have a stream-of-consciousness to them, but they are by no means random, rather each line effectively inspires the next creating natural transition as a by-product of verbal acuity.
To an 11-year old, there is no consideration about which level a song is working. If there are swear words, noise and naughty things happening, that’s plenty—at least that what it seems like to him. But without the rhythm, swear words remain thoughtless vulgarity, and without the flow, sex is just something mysterious and uncomfortable. We realize later, that aethetics have the power to not only make the unknown palatable, but to make it appealing and invigorating.
Earl is gifted enough to get this at 19.