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New Music: Earl Sweatshirt

By Troy Hasselman, January 18 2019 —

The first voice you hear on Some Rap Songs, the new album from Odd Future alumni Earl Sweatshirt, doesn’t belong to Earl. Instead, you hear a brief snippet of a 1962 speech from author and civil rights activist James Baldwin called “The Artists Struggle for Integrity.” In the speech, Baldwin states, “The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us.”

While this speech had clearly been on Earl’s mind during the making of Some Rap Songs, it wasn’t his singular focus. Before Earl released the album’s first single, “Nowhere2Go,” in early November, he mentioned in a tweet “This year has been the roughest of my life.” From the deaths of his estranged father, South African Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, and uncle, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, in January, as well as close friend and collaborator Mac Miller in September, Earl has had a lot to deal with lately. Baldwin’s speech outlines the ability of art to render answers to life’s difficult questions. But in trying to answer these questions, Earl has never sounded more confused.

In a scant 25 minutes Earl delves through a multitude of topics, touching on the death of his family members, his childhood, mental health and general anxieties. Some Rap Songs doesn’t pose any answers concerning these questions but rather swirls these themes around at the same frenetic pace its songs travel at, with only two songs lasting longer than a couple minutes. Ideas come and go just as quickly.

Earl manages to fit these heavy topics so effortlessly into such brief material, a testament to his virtuosic skill as an MC and ingenuity surrounding his rhyme schemes and word play. Earl’s rhymes are tethered together by the album’s lo-fi, soul and jazz influenced production.

The experimental feeling of the production is a far cry from Earl’s previous work, indicating progression into less polished, more esoteric beats that further carves out a singular lane for Earl. While Earl may sound deeply troubled and confused lyrically, the music on Some Rap Songs is highly confident, daring and illustrative that, above all else, this is the album that Earl wanted to make.

A mixture of confusion and confidence speaks to the contradictions that make up Some Rap Songs and Earl as a whole. He emphasizes the old-school focus on bars and lyricism while embodying the airiness of upstarts like Playboi Carti. Earl is oblique throughout the album but at the same time remians highly personal. Some Rap Songs is brief but manages to contain more musical and lyrical ideas in 25 minutes than Scorpion and Culture II put together. These contradictions are all embodied within this album and illustrate the brilliance of both Earl and this project.

Though the album is rife with personal tributes, some of the most affecting are those where Earl doesn’t even say a word himself, such as on “Playing Possum,” which interpolates the audio from a speech made by Earl’s mother, UCLA Law Professor Cheryl Harris, and a reading of a poem by Earl’s father that serves as a tribute to his family.

While Some Rap Songs does not pose answers to the questions Earl currently faces, it manages to make a strong, personal statement from the enigmatic MC and, stemming from this uncertainty, marks an artistic leap ahead.

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