Emboldened by hyperconnectivity in the social media era, the intoxicating and often dishonest optics of fame have muddied our perceptions of success and happiness. At a time when depression and anxiety have the cultural zeitgeist in a vice grip, it’s become common practice for up-and-coming artists to view stardom as a sure-fire escape from their internal pain; an illusion often shattered by the realization that hollow reverence isn’t a lasting antidote to emotional misery. As pessimistic as that might come across, it’s a reality that California rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s music reflects.
Almost a decade removed from his days as Odd Future’s 16-year-old MF DOOM disciple, Sweatshirt’s music and demeanor have completely transformed; exchanging youthful exuberance for thoughtful stoicism and self-medication. For Earl, fame and a complete loss of privacy has gradually become more of a condition to endure than a luxury to enjoy — a conflict with roots dating back to his time in Samoa at the dawn of his career.
Between his debut mixtape Earl and his third studio album Some Rap Songs, Earl’s evolved from a bright-eyed teenager with lyrics about “jacking off to Asher Roth eating applesauce,” to a curmudgeonly 24-year-old poetically grappling with the death of his father over an avant-garde collage of jazz samples.
Emblematic of his mental state during a period of unthinkable agony, Earl’s dark lyricism and dejected delivery on Some Rap Songs make it one of the most raw and essential listens this year.
At 15 songs and just 25 minutes, Rap Songs is Earl’s shortest and most chaotic album to date. With each track clocking in between 59 seconds and 2:45, there’s little room to linger on any single motif or musical idea, allowing Earl to push sonic boundaries without defaulting to over indulgence. Had songs like “The Bends” been stretched out to two minutes or more, the potency of Earl’s monotone delivery might decrease and the instrumental would risk becoming tired. In having such a hectic and fast-paced tracklist, Earl made his impact with urgency.
Lyrically, this is Earl’s most powerful work. His 2015 album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, had consistently absurd flows and crushingly honest lyrics, but Earl dives a layer deeper on Some Rap Songs. There are moments throughout this album that are genuinely difficult to listen to because of how precise Sweatshirt is with his language in articulating his ongoing battle with crippling depression. On the album’s lead single “NOWHERE2GO,” Sweatshirt raps “I think I spent my whole life depressed/ only thing on my mind was death/ didn’t know if my time was next.” A blunt confession of his pain and uncertainty following the deaths of his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and his longtime friend/collaborator, Mac Miller.
Despite Earl not making an appearance, the most soul-crushing moment on the album is the track “Playing Possum” featuring his parents. The track is under two minutes of Earl’s mother speaking directly to her son while Earl’s father intermittently recites lines from one of his poems. According to Earl, this track was made as a surprise gesture to try to mend the gap in his family, but his father passed before he got the chance to listen.
From a production standpoint, Some Rap Songs is consistent with some of the sounds Earl experimented with in singles and live performances after I Don’t Like Shit. Every instrumental is as lo-fi as possible, completely drenched in vinyl crackle and background hissing. While mixes sometimes bury Earl’s voice and plague tracks like “Red Water,” the overall sound of the project is tastefully warm and sepia-toned. Had each track been mixed at least as cleanly as “December 24,” Earl’s bars would’ve cut through the beats and held more weight.
For some of Earl’s older fans looking for “Whoa” or “Hive” part two, Some Rap Songs will disappoint. In taking on such an unorthodox and rough around the edges sound, Earl completely removed the small sliver of accessibility from I Don’t Like Shit. However, in completely doing away with compromise, Earl created the most honest body of work in his discography. Simply put, Some Rap Songs is an incredibly powerful album from one of the wisest young souls in hip-hop. Here’s to hoping we hear from Earl again before 2021.