Written by: Timmhotep Aku
If the title of Earl Sweatshirt’s long-awaited third studio album feels like he’s underselling it, it’s because he is. He’s intentionally reducing the magnitude of an offering from one of the most lauded artists of the decade from a grand gesture to a gift with no wrapping. The rapper born Thebe Kgositsile’s worst enemy is—and has always been—our collective expectations and the entitlement that comes along with them.
It’s always been Earl versus the world. Fame found him at the age of 16, making him an internet sensation, then a meme, then an enigma, and finally, an icon. For an introverted kid who knew he could rap but was reluctant to accept the exposure and invasions of privacy that came with being a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, it’s been an uncomfortable evolution. Voracious fans threatened to consume not just his music but his personal life too. That same entitlement caused the “FREE EARL” campaign to mutate from eager appreciation to scary obsession and stoked fans’ demand for music during the three years since his last album—even as he was mourning his father’s death earlier this year. Rather than bask in the attention, he recoiled from it, setting himself apart from peers who maintain relevance through carefully strategized ubiquity. As he receded from the spotlight, his mystique grew—as did fans’ desire to hear him to do what he does best.
His followers tend to come in two flavors: those who gravitate to Earl, the spitter—the guy who dazzles with multisyllabic couplets and clever similes; and those come for Earl, the relatable mope—an avatar for their own emotional pain. But on Some Rap Songs listeners are challenged to take him not in parts but as a whole, in the form he is in now: a poet philosopher who is also the face of an emerging sound and scene.
Earl has always been a reflection of the collaborators around him. His first tape, Earl, and his official debut, Doris, rest squarely in the Odd Future canon. His second album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, established Earl’s identity as a man apart from the then dissolving crew and saw him working with East Coast rappers also dealing with dark emotions and budding rap careers in New Jersey’s Da$h and New York City’s Wiki. Now, on Some Rap Songs, the 24-year-old has become the OG to a vanguard of younger artists who are blurring the lines between avant-garde jazz and hip-hop.
The world created by Earl and his new cohorts—including up-and-coming NYC rappers Medhane and MIKE, producer-rapper Sixpress, aka Ade Hakim, of the Bronx collective sLUms, and Gio Escobar, frontman for genre-bending ensemble Standing on the Corner—is based on abstraction, where form is secondary to mood. It’s where the concept of Blackness is radical and the practices of soul-searching are channelled through a lo-fi sound replete with off-kilter loops, samples that get chopped beyond recognition, and audio clips that feel both random and apropos.
Take first single “Nowhere2go,” produced by Darryl Johnson and Ade Hakim, which rides a jittery beat replete with stuttering loops, warped vocal samples, and loose percussion. The instrumental lands somewhere between disorienting and soothing, and it is the oddly perfect backdrop for a matter-of-fact Earl as he deadpans a heavy revelation about himself: “I think … I spent my whole life depressed/Only thing on my mind was death/Didn’t know if my time was next.”
The project is distinctly rough around the edges, to great effect; there’s the sound of dust popping off vinyl and cassette hiss throughout. With these imperfections, Earl and company tap into the same sort of illegible, yet undeniable, feeling jazz musicians capture in slurred notes. The cross-influence between Earl and his cohorts is evident in his vocals too. On the Navy Blue-produced “The Bends,” Earl flexes what feels like a MIKE-like monotone to get off his stream-of-consciousness raps. That is, until you realize that MIKE’s own delivery is influenced by Earl. This is symbiosis, not thievery.
If the fact that Earl is a product of his circle of friends is the explicit story being told here, the implicit one is that he is a product of his parents. Though most of the album was written before the death of his father, South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, in January of this year, his presence looms in a way it hasn’t on past Earl projects. Resentment and laments of abandonment are replaced with acceptance and embrace. “My momma used to say she see my father in me/I said I was not offended,” he raps on “Azucar,” showing signs of reconciliation but only after acknowledging how the women in his life held him down during the bad times. “My cushion was a bosom on bad days/It’s not a black woman I can’t thank.”
On “Playing Possum,” we hear a cobbled together duet composed of recordings of his mother, Cheryl Harris, thanking Earl and describing him as a “cultural worker” in a keynote speech interwoven with his dad reciting an excerpt of a poem called “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow.” Taken altogether, the track is a letter from a loving son honoring his progenitors, a letter that his father did not get to hear before his death. Then, on penultimate song “Peanuts,” Earl grapples with his grief over a slow and out-of-tune piano sample and shouts out his uncle, African jazz legend Hugh Masekela, who passed away shortly after his father. The mourning gives way to catharsis on the Masekela-sampling finale. At the very end of the album, the second-hand guitars begin to wobble before glitching into silence. His uncle and father are gone, but Earl is still here, carrying on their artistic legacy—and, with the help of his collaborators, building his own.