2018 was a brutal year for Earl Sweatshirt.
His father, South African activist and poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, passed away in January. The death was announced just days into the new year, and less than a week after Earl promised “new music” after what had already been a rocky 2017.
Earl was set to headline a show in Australia shortly after his father’s passing, but he ended up canceling it, along with all other nights of his tour with the xx. In June, he canceled more shows, and it soon became clear why. “Earl is battling anxiety and depression, which has been compounded by the grief from the recent passing of his father,” his representatives told Pitchfork. “He thought he would be ready to perform, but simply is not yet able to. He would like to apologize to his fans and promises to be back as soon as he is able to.”
After an understandably quiet summer, Earl returned to the stage late last month, for the Mac Miller tribute and benefit concert held in L.A. (Mac Miller’s passing was yet another difficult thing Earl was faced with this year.) Then, shortly after the event, he began teasing on social media that something was right around the corner.
On Wednesday, Earl officially dropped his first song of the year, “Nowhere2go.” To keep it a buck, it’s a dense listen. It takes a few plays to wrap your mind around the beat, which is elementally fragmented—at once indistinct and crystal clear. The lyrics of the song could easily take a backseat here, but the music envelops Earl’s words and lifts them up like a buoy.
“‘Nowhere2go’ was, I guess, kind of a reflection of where I was at at that time,” he told Zane Lowe on the morning of the song’s release. “It's also the first one that's getting released, because I'm not a single-ass nigga, and it's the closest thing that I got to a damn single. I'm just trying to complete thoughts for myself, because them being unfinished is like... I don't know. It can beget anxiety for me, and then vicariously, because my platform involves me with a lot of people, you could subconsciously put that out. I think that putting in a conscious effort towards completing thoughts is highly important right now.”
“Nowhere2go” is the most fluid stream of thoughts Earl has released in some time. This song seems to indicate that he needed to just take some time and get his mind right, after experiencing setback after setback. With time comes introspection, and through that, revelations—which Earl sets up in his first verse:
I think, I spent most of my life depressed
Only thing on my mind was death
Didn't know if my time was next
In his own words, Earl says he’s been preoccupied with the thought of impending death, or something close to it, for “most of [his] life.” That’s a fucking scary thought. Perhaps even scarier is the realization that life just is what it is. Enter, depression, which Earl directly speaks about throughout “Nowhere2go.” The song sounds like what depression feels like: a tiny seed of self-awareness buried in a cocoon of cacophony. If you’ve never experienced a bout of deep depression, think of it as the Pit from The Dark Knight Rises. It feels desperate, bottomless and inescapable—even though you can clearly see a speck of light beckoning you. It seems like the only way out is with the perfect plan, the perfect attitude, and the perfect support system.
Instead of falling for the idea that he has to flawlessly defeat depression once and for all, Earl is evolving with it, and learning how to incorporate it into his art:
“Tryna refine this shit, I re-defined myself / First, I had to find it.”
This line gives us a sense of a reemergence of Earl. Not only has he been working on refining his musical approach all year, he’s also used this time to look at himself differently, and subsequently present himself differently. That includes the beat he’s rapping over, produced by Booliemane & Adé Hakim. Earl has always moved the way he wants, but he’s done so with an ear trained to the appeals of popular music. On “Nowhere2go,” Earl is musically flipping the bird to not just depression, but anyone who wants an easy listening experience out of him at this point. This song is not palatable for a mass, commercial audience, and that’s fine: This song is literally by Earl, for Earl.
Artists like Future and Kendrick Lamar have long-mastered the art of turning terrible life experiences into slick and catchy bangers. Earl could probably do it, too, but he’s laser-focused on his own journey: “I found a new way to cope, it ain't no slave in my soul.”
It seems likely that this new sound is his “new way to cope”—or at least part of it. Making music for himself is what’s important to Earl right now. It’s what keeps him going. Creating is his mechanism for self-preservation, and he seems both proud and happy to have finally made it to this point, after an arduous year.
But he knows he’s not out of the woods yet: “I keep the memories close by, even when I hit a low.” Sadly, he may never be. Depression is a bitch. What Earl can do is be his own guiding light in the darkness of mental warfare—all he has to do is keep creating.