The Ghosts of Earl Sweatshirt
It seems like every breakthrough in Earl Sweatshirt's career has been marred by loss. While Odd Future was redefining the rules of rap for new millennials, he was in boarding school on the isle of Samoa; a punishment for a rambunctious teenhood. His debut album, Doris, memorialized his late grandmother. His second, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, was produced after a skateboarding accident left him housebound, immobile and emaciated. In the process of creating Some Rap Songs, his father, the notable poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, passed away. This time, Earl is not hidden away. He is not geographically removed from his friends or his audience. This time, Earl’s procession of grief is decidedly public, but ever personal. His influences are on full display as he engage with the loss and depression that has followed him his whole career. On Some Rap Songs, he takes the opportunity to grieve visibly and create an album that assesses his past and, perhaps, gives him the tools to signal his future.
It's clear that a trip to South Africa–rediscovering his family after death, and the culture surrounding it– influenced Earl’s musicianship. Percussion on Some Rap Songs is reminiscent of the jazz, and spoken word poetry that came before it. Samples are sourced from heavyweight South African legends, funk and soul records. Most of the time signatures are slowed down to a crawl, with disorienting drum loops, allowing space for his ever-consistent, syllable stacking flows. For the most part synths are muffled and his voice is canned. On Nowhere2Go, he engages with livelier accompaniment. He expounds on his past and takes note of his current worldview over a swirling vocal sample. Formerly the precocious Odd Future powerhouse, he’s now acutely aware of his mortality, but he does not stagnate on it. He affirms himself: “I’m tryna refine this shit/ I redefined myself/ I had to find it.” It’s touching to hear especially after what he’s been through.
It’s one of the few quotes that one can immediately pick up on through the first listen. Earl has become the master of internal rhyme his teenage output predicted he would become. Lyrics are coiled tight; it takes time to unspool the references, and subtler notes. If you stop to think about one line, you will certainly miss the next three. In that, the 25-minute runtime becomes an impressive exercise in brevity. On his Red Bull radio show, Earl invoked Tierra Whack, the Philadelphia wunderkind, and her 15-minute video-mixtape Whack World, as a source of inspiration. He likened their common ability for wordplay as lingual gymnastics. “To do it gratuitously– for a long time– is overstimulation. “What it comes down to isn’t length,” he says decisively. “What Tierra Whack did was complete her thought. She went on with an intention.”
Earl himself is similarly intent to complete his thought. Loosie features a looping piano sample, stylistically similar to a Thundercat beat. His lyrics guide down the rabbit hole: “doubt can be an abyss.” The next, Azucar, looks skyward, acknowledging the “ghost of where [he] was;” allowing him forward momentum. The back half of the album, even shorter than the front, is full of moments of affirmations–acceptance for his past and expectation for the future. It’s worth noting Earl’s string of missed tour dates this past summer. In a Pitchfork statement, his reps cited “anxiety and depression” for his cancellation. His most recent return to the stage, a quick appearance at Camp Flog Gnaw, previewed what fans had waited for. He voices his determination as he announces his special guest, and his new music. He does the same on Vein as he grits “it’s been a minute since i heard applause.” If Earl is poised to return to the spotlight right now, just behind that is the shadow of self-doubt, as he “sits on a star thinking how he’s not a star.” It’s a painful reminder, the road to recovery after depression is rarely linear. It takes constant work to affirm yourself and be self-assured. Insecurity is always around the corner.
In that the title itself, Some Rap Songs, earns a cautious intonation. 'Some Rap Songs' asks listeners to expect nothing more than that. I’ve always liked Earl’s poignant tweet regarding the journey toward manhood. Like purgatory, Earl appears to circle the same struggles. He’s always been conscious of his territory, and of the darkness of his mindset. Now however, he has tools–and the outlook– to engage with his lows.
Daniel McIntosh is a special contributor to Play Underground! You can find him on Twitter @danieljawshua.