by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
Earl Sweatshirt infamously opened his first formal full-length Doris with an arguable act of misanthropy. Rather than meet his eager audience eye-to-eye, Earl opened his album with a verse from obscure West Coast rapper SK La’ Flare, simultaneously dashing expectations and confounding fans eager to hear Earl on his own terms. Similarly, after the red-carpet-rolling features of his debut, when his follow-up album was announced, the title and album artwork reveled in Earl’s seeming distaste for ALL things, audience included. While each of those albums included transcendently insightful lyrics (moreso on the latter) and scarce jams, each was leaden with the weight of what felt like Earl’s disdain, whether it was for his art, his audience, or himself was yet to be made clear. Like an LP-sized 1,000-piece puzzle with several missing pieces, I tediously listened to deconstruct and reconstruct his albums, not for analytical purposes, but so that I could feel like I was on the inside of whatever it was he was offering to the public.
Going to see him live at the Ram’s Head Live! In August 2015 provided no succor in my quest to feel included in his art, in his journey. Earl took to the stage and performed entirely to backing tracks, performing, but seeming completely removed from the room: present, but not entertaining. The merchandise prices were similarly designed as a means of conveying his disdain for his audience - “$40 bucks for a fucking t-shirt? This isn’t a U2 concert for fuck’s sake”.
So, with the announcement is his third proper album Some Rap Songs, it’s no wonder I took the title to feel like one last gut punch. Earl Sweatshirt doesn’t give a shit about me. And why should he? I’m a suburban, 30-something, straight, white male seeking out the pacification of a 24-year old rapper whose life experience is far more tumultuous and heartbreaking than anything the fucking New Yorker has offered me in the last year - stupid Amazon automatic re-subscriptions! I only wanted three months! More than ever it felt like Earl couldn’t give two shits. His music, which over each subsequent release grew less melodic, less articulate, less vibrant, less....well...enjoyable, was clearly headed somewhere near unlistenable and early single “Nowhere2go” left my head spinning trying to catch a discernible rhythm, trying to differentiate Earl’s lyrics and vocals from the ad-libs in the background, trying to stay afloat each syllable amidst his blasé annunciation.
Maybe this was it. I was willing to follow Earl down the rabbit-hole for two albums. Hearing him battle his demons on Doris and I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside was confounding at first, but after years of sitting with me began to feel completely beautiful and naked in its honesty. Despite their seemingly uninviting nature, I lived for the singular buoyancy of “Huey” and Earl’s humility in lines like “My bitch say the spliff take the soul from me” and “And there ain't no time limit, I'm toasted as hell/And I gotta jot it quick cause I can't focus so well” somehow felt entirely transcendent, a picture of the artist not just as his own harshest critic, but as someone keenly aware of his flaws and not only that, but also the futility in recognizing them. Not a day the hypnotic beat to “Mantra” didn’t float through my skull, reminding me of my own emotional desperation, when I didn’t roll the lines through my mind, not only feeling the visceral joys in his cadence, but also the nascent guilt inherent in feeling ungrateful.
Suffice to say, I was firmly within his grip. My relation to Earl’s music nurtured a sense of guilt in me. After all, I was just another fan grappling with persona, eagerly anticipating his output, and waiting to pick over it with extreme prejudice, searching for any clue to unlock the enigma he has (or has not) cultivated. I was the indignant fan who grimaced when I first heard an alien voice open Doris; I was the one who felt the impact of his misanthropy when he named his album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, when he seemed to refuse anything approaching an earworm.
And much like every adult relationship I’ve ever had, the more he didn’t give a shit about me, the more captivating his persona, his music, and his lyrics became. Albums that upon first listen inspired little more than indifference came to feel lived-in and essential to my own life. Whether that is a result of my own shortcomings or Earl’s strengths has yet to be determined, but, here we are, in 2018, with Earl continuing to elude us, and Some Rap Songs is one of the most beautiful and honest albums I’ve heard all year.
Does it have the touchstones of earlier Earl releases? Yep. Are there beats that defy rhythm and accessibility? Yep, in spades. Are his lyrics barely audible? Yep, whether low in the mix or performed barely above a warble, they are difficult to discern. So what is the difference? What makes this album so different from his past releases?
Maybe it’s context. Earl has always had something to respond to, whether it’s his excommunication from L.A. and the states, the death of his grandmother, or severe depression, there has never been a shortage of drama, both mundane and tragic in Earl’s life and art and Some Rap Songs is no exception. Despite the fact that most of it was written and recorded before the death of his estranged father, South African poet Keorpatse Kgositsile, the beauty and pain of Earl’s music has never felt more apparent, more on his sleeve, more honest.
The music alone - mostly the work of Earl himself, who has sole production credit on 60% of the album’s fifteen tracks - despite the stunted rhythms is breathtaking. Saturated with soulful pastiche of another era, tracks like “Shattered Dreams,” despite its truncated waltz, pairs plucky jazz guitar samples with a burbling keyboard and deep bass to produce a song unlike any prior in its feigned levity. The guitars reek of effervescence, while the deep bass keeps us grounded in Earl’s stark reality. “Cold Summers,” “Ontheway!,” “The Mint,” “The Bends,” and “Azucar” are all characterized by precariously distorted samples anchored by lovely instrumentals and tones, the latter of which is arguably the most beautiful track Earl has ever recorded. Meanwhile storm clouds linger near in the form of ominous instrumentals like “Red Water,” “Nowhere2go,” and “Peanut” offering an even bleaker musical narrative than what we’ve gotten in the past, each tethered to to simultaneously jazzy and foreboding loop.
Talking about the lyrics, much like the music, ropes the listener in with golden confessional nuggets (“Why ain’t nobody tell me I was bleedin’?” & “of course my old lover was scorned,we grow from it”) standing alongside indecipherable prose (“Sterilize your clique, paralyze maritime n*ggas when/ Every time Wavy Don tappin' in/ Savion Glover caught a couple Ls/ Took 'em to the neck, motherfucker”), feeling, more so than ever, like he is reeling us in only to cast us back out. In what proves to be his most emblematic song yet, “Playing Possum” fittingly serves to be his most revealing and personal track ever all without including a single world from Earl himself.
More than any of his other albums Some Rap Songs feels like its showing us the top of the mountain and reminding us that, despite our fandom, despite our insistence that we WANT to be there, despite our “hard work,” despite our entitlement, the top of that mountain isn’t meant to sustain life or joy. It isn’t meant to reward our efforts, our fandom. Rather it is a place simultaneously offering beautiful vistas and some of the most forbidding weather known to this planet, which is why it’s all the more fitting for Earl to be there. Keeping us at arm’s length, reminding that to get too close would be to feel his pain, but willing to let us embrace just a few fleeting moments at the top with him, enough to soak up the grandeur and beauty without ever having to endure the same afflictions that he attempts to exercise in release after release. Somehow, despite all the odds, despite the limitations of the body and of the mind, Earl stands there, perched at the peak, enduring extremes that we could never begin to understand and, likely, we never will.