When Odd Future first tumbled out of Southern Los Angeles County in 2010, it wasn’t the high-strung antics of the group’s de facto figurehead Tyler, the Creator that tipped them into the spotlight. It was Earl Sweatshirt, unbelievably young (15? 16?) and skilled beyond his years, a methodical wordsmith whose splatterpunk murder fantasies were rendered all the more unsettling by his incredible poise. The video for “Earl” (off the mixtape of the same name), wherein Sweatshirt and company down a risky drug cocktail and party until they begin to decay, was integral in setting the then-unknown collective on its crash course with hip-hop notoriety. But just as Odd Future took off, Earl appeared to vanish. Once a menacing presence over Tyler’s post-Neptunes synth wheeze, Earl was frustratingly absent from the group’s inaugural round of live shows and festival spots as well as the second round of Odd Future solo efforts. The group refused to provide an explanation for the lingering absence of its best rapper when pressed, opting instead to lead fans through a quixotic “Free Earl” campaign immortalized in t-shirts, records, and elaborate satirical fan fiction.
After a winding investigation, Complex was eventually able to trace Earl to a Samoan retreat for at-risk teen boys. It seems his mother, a civil rights activist and law professor, had shipped him overseas to clear his head after behavioral problems bled into his schoolwork. Barring an expository chat with The New Yorker, Earl fell silent after the reveal until turning up unexpectedly on Twitter one night in early 2012 with a new song called “Home” that closed with Sweatshirt giddily announcing his return: “I’m baaaack. Bye.” He appeared on various ephemera afterward: a supremely anesthetized spot on “Super Rich Kids” off Frank Ocean’s Grammy Award winning Channel Orange, an unannounced freestyle on the posse cut “Oldie” from The OF Tape Vol. 2 compilation, and tracks with OF compatriot Domo Genesis and Flying Lotus’ rap alter ego Captain Murphy. He seemed to pick right up where the maleficent EARL left off, the new verses touting the same deadpanned orgies of bloodletting and misanthropy.