Written by Tom Baumser
Perhaps a little late with this one, but the mad dash of the holidays and the post-holidays work rush doesn’t allow for the kind of free time one wishes for in order to complete criticism on a deadline. Earl Sweatshirt, born Thebe Kgositsile, had a year in 2018; on January 3rd, his father (who has loomed large in Earl’s music explicitly or not) passed away. He was a poet laureate of South Africa who left Earl and his mother to bring his people’s culture back to the country post-apartheid. Earl and he had promised to have a man-to-man chat about the decision. It never happened. Subsequently, Earl went into hiding, citing depression and consternation at the fact. Who could blame him?
TAN CRESSIDA/COLUMBIA - 2018
This bring us to Some Rap Songs; more fragmented than The Life of Pablo while more dense and insular, his track runtimes speak to a hardcore punk aesthetic that he has utilized since his beginning, consciously or not. Hip hop as a whole has been trending towards shorter song lengths thanks in large part to the abundance of internet rappers, of which Earl was a pioneer, but his focus on brevity here seems to stem from the fault of language in the hands of those who speak without context. Tellingly, the first phrase on the album is “Imprecise words” on ‘Shattered Dreams,’ followed later in the tracklist by the intentionally audible, “closed lips make the mouth breathers frown” (‘Ontheway!’) and bookended by “say goodbye to my openness” (‘Eclipse’).
In between those songs is a thick murk of the dirty avant-garde usually found on an Earl Sweatshirt album, now with lower fidelity and vocals lower in the mix. This space is utilized so that when the album kicks up its energy initially in ‘Cold Summers,’ the muffled piano and drums come off with serious momentum. This strategy also forces the listener to pay attention to the lyrics as they come; most clearly on ‘Nowhere2go’ where Earl gives as close to a thesis as he’s ever come to: “Tryna refine this shit/I redefine myself.” After his troubled youth led him to be canonized as a woman-hating messiah, Earl has tried everything to walk that image back, and with each new album comes a slight reinvention of his sound, granting him that chance.
The album twinkles and shrouds itself in haze, it tumbles and shuffles and clangs and hobbles, acting as some cross between an infant and a coal powered engine. Its short runtime optimizes it for repeated listenings since its fragmented nature makes it easy to miss noteworthy soundscapes the first time around, and seems to reflect Earl’s state of mind during recording. A candidness about mental health and his own depression has littered Earl’s work and Some Rap Songs is no different; most tracks have a reference to what’s going on in his head and it’s usually not pretty. It even earns Earl’s first solo jab at the presidency of The Great Cheeto (‘Veins’) and his problems with white supremacy (‘The Mint’).
After all that Earl has been through, it’s also telling that on an album full of his most self-dissecting songs to date, comes his warmest. ‘Azucar’ is Spanish for sugar, and over the course of its minute-and-a-half, Earl expresses gratitude to women in his life—“it’s not a black woman I can’t thank”—including his mother when she compliments him on looking like his father —“said I was not offended”—rounding it out by name—checking most of the oddball NYC rappers he’s had to keep him grounded. All the while, the production breaches from and dives repeatedly into the depth of his psyche. This is Earl at his most levelheaded, proud, and not coincidentally, strong.
After dragging through the painful depressive and semi drunk-dredges of ‘Peanut,’ he ends on the highest note possible by invoking his recently passed Uncle Hugh Masekela’s song ‘Riot.’ The treatment on the song is so full of poignancy, one could be forgiven for forgetting that it’s a moment of celebration, best experienced on a warm spring afternoon. It’s here that Earl does redefine himself. He is a man; a bridge between the jazz his father and uncle loved from South Africa, the literary background he was gifted by his parents, and the off-key hip hop that he is so inherently gifted at creating. He best shows this in ‘Playing Possum’ featuring his mother and father each speaking (her, an award from the university she teaches at and him, one of his poems) with juxtaposing subject matter illustrating the reconciliation Earl is committed to finding within himself. If I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside was him feeling “more like [him]self,” then this is one hell of a cardinal direction to be traveling in.