Earl Sweatshirt has hinted at new music arriving at some point this year, but before we can properly receive any new offering we need to finish digesting what he’s already given. Here we unpack the complexity of Earl’s discography and life through his lost album: “Gnossos”.
The irony of Earl Sweatshirt’s elusiveness has always confounded me. The figure who has spent so much of his musical career delivering raw, unfiltered ruminations about his life on wax, is the same distant and mysterious musical figure fans clamor for any and every morsel about. But that delicate balancing act between lyrical honesty and public secrecy is a necessary aspect of existing as a musician in 2018 and keeping your sanity. Half of me has always sought to pierce that secrecy, wondering if there was some comparable figure to Earl; someone or something that would help identify more about the man born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile.
my third album (counting earl as the first) is called Gnossos. if you were wondering
— thebe kgositsile (@earlxsweat) November 12, 2012
After finishing Doris, Earl Sweatshirt offered a hint by suggesting his next album would be called “Gnossos,” but within a year he announced that he had decided to take the album in another direction. Earl’s third album would come out in 2015 under the name I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside, but the concept of Gnossos hasn’t lost relevance. Much can be learned about Earl’s artistry and personal journey through the story of his lost album’s namesake: Gnossos Papadoupolous, the protagonist of Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.
Gnossos & Earl Sweatshirt: Parallel Paths
In Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Fariña paints Gnossos Papadoupolous as an aloof and jaded figure carrying an air of invincibility, a badge earned through witnessing, what he imagines is, incomprehensible pain and raw power. The novel centers around Gnossos’ life as a socially distant nomad after his return to a fictitious Cornell University during the 1958 university uprising, while he attempts to reconcile the truth and wisdom gleaned in his journey.
When Earl disappeared from the public eye in 2011, he was discovered at the Coral Reef Academy in Samoa, where his mother had sent him in response to trouble he was getting in at school–not simply as a punishment for the content of his raps, as many people assumed. This journey is where Earl and Gnossos find their first connection, and ironically, Samoa is where Earl presumably came in contact with Fariña’s novel. Their journeys share the same weight and illusory vagueness–Earl references his time in Samoa through monotonous and distant deliveries similar to Gnossos’ own deadpan recollections. They both wandered back home with a newfound enlightenment, a fleeting grasp on how to translate their awareness to practicable wisdom, and a desire to simultaneously explore and numb themselves from the depth of their feelings.
Gnossos reappeared at a fake Cornell University and immediately began searching for a new home and old friends, who had kept his name and image alive to be the figurehead for a campus social movement. Earl returned home and searched for a home to creatively explore his experiences in Samoa, and found his name attached to an increasingly ravenous Odd Future fan base.
#FreeEarl had become a movement and his stay in the Samoa had been overblown and misconstrued by fans. Once Complex broke the story of Earl’s disappearance, he was elevated from the voice of teenage rebellion to a figure of protest. Earl’s mother, a UCLA law professor, became the target for unwarranted vitriol; she was seen as the progenitor of a devious plot to uproot Odd Future and not the mother trying to protect her suffering son.
But Earl was remembered for his breakout mixtape EARL, and I, like many others, sought the incisive lyricism and vulgarities that sound-tracked my own teenage angst. In Earl Sweatshirt—and Odd Future at large—there was a prodigious voice to youthful indifference. My adolescent ignorance believed this indifference would last forever, but I—and Earl—quickly learned you have to live with empathy, or neither of us would ever achieve anything near our full potential.
So, Earl matured in Samoa. From Earl’s declaration “something sinister to it, pendulum swinging slow/a degenerate moving” on the opening of his first single upon returning, “Chum,” it was obvious something was different. He was darker and more morosely self-aware. Earl Spoke to GQ about his time in Samoa back in 2012:
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.”
Earl had interacted with victims of sexual assault and violence and had the time to sort through his own personal conflicts, like the twelve prior years of fatherless life, interactions which made him unwilling to exist as the same mouthpiece for “macabre shit.” Doris mitigated the abyssal pressure of Earl’s cultural prominence by being incisive and honest, in a way breakout mixtape EARL didn’t even attempt. Earl’s ability to maneuver his experiences and reflect and grow from them made him different from Gnossos Papadoupolous.
From the outside looking in, Gnossos and Earl experienced something similar in their absences. Gnossos witnessed a boy scout beaten and tortured in New Mexico, he watched as a man conned New Mexican Native Americans while in a haze of alcohol and peyote, and he, most impactfully, witnessed an atomic bomb test in Las Vegas. His journey took him all over the United States and beyond, but the details stayed behind, slipping out in Fariña’s willingness to write in vignettes and flashbacks. Gnossos found only one medium with which he could consistently express himself: his sage-like friend Calvin Blacknesse.
Earl Sweatshirt’s music became his way of interfacing with both himself and the world around him. Gnossos had nothing but Blacknesse. While they both witnessed pain and came home shaken and awe-inspired it was Earl’s willingness to explore himself through music that shook the foundation of his fandom and himself. Earl excoriated the adolescent lyricism of EARL and took responsibility for his former content, choosing to delve into the darkness of his own experiences and the depths of his addiction and turmoil. Gnossos Papadoupolous mostly floundered under the weight of his experiences.
What Gnossos Teaches Us About Earl
Listening to Doris and I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside, I never get the feeling of an overwhelming happy ending, but set against his foil Gnossos, it’s hard not to see Earl’s story as one of success.
Been Down So Long canonizes the hedonistic escape offered in sexual depravity and drug usage. Like Future’s Dirty Sprite 2, it lists vices as necessity and turns its protagonist into an impervious hero. Gnossos’ worldview stems from the declaration, “I am invisible… And Exempt. Immunity has been granted to me, for I do not lose my cool.” This sense of ‘Immunity’ was his response to what he witnessed on his trip and propelled his self-indulgent descent; the exaggeration of his own capacities. Conversely, Earl’s story is one of success because he never succumbed to this pressure to exaggerate his resilience. Gnossos’ drug-fueled feeling of imperviousness left him susceptible to what eventually brought him to his knees, but Earl returned to music with an unwavering commitment to explore his faults, including drug addictions, on wax.
Doris is our proof. The album is a symbol of growth; from the decision to exercise his production chops as “randomblackdude” to his evocative vulnerability. In one moment, Earl Sweatshirt is considering his inadequacy as a lover on Frank Ocean-assisted “Sunday” and in another moment he’s unpacking the scars of a fatherless childhood on “Chum.” Doris is Earl’s attempt to practice the lessons learned, to move past violent rape jokes and childish lyrical content, to be a mature force of the hip-hop lexicon. Earl’s experiences didn’t make him invincible, he realized they forced him to wade through the awareness he is far from perfect.
Gnossos’ self-indulgent quest for drugs and love left him susceptive to exploitation. He became a lightning rod in a campus social movement over dorm housing and cohabitation he was ambivalent towards and then he watched as his close friend Heffalump was shot by soldiers in Cuba while on a quest for revolution Gnossos initially warned against. The failure to move forward is the cautionary tale Earl’s fascination with Gnossos taught him.
Been Down So Long ends with Gnossos vanquished, his freedom taken, and his care-free drug-induced haze concluded. Earl gets to continue to move forward, by making Doris and then I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside, the album that ultimately came from “Gnossos”. Both albums expanding the goal of self-examination started at Coral Reef Academy, which exposed pock marks of solitude, distrust of love, displacement, and, put simply, grief. Earl manages to wield his technical proficiency, balancing murky lo-fi production with poignant lyricism reverberating in the listeners ear with every syllable.
Earl Sweatshirt seizes the opportunity to continue with his freedom intact, aware of the looming presence of social forces trying to take over his music and his image, even if he avoids their gaze by remaining a hip-hop hermit. But like Gnossos Papadoupolous, and all of us listening, Earl hasn’t finished processing his experiences. His next album projects to be another step in this journey of self-actualization, another step in Earl evaluating his own experiences amidst the backdrop of a world seeking to use his voice for its own voyeuristic consumption of musical pain. The cautionary tale of Gnossos taught Earl to reconcile his tensions for his own sake, and not for anyone else.