Earl Sweatshirt has always been a very difficult person to understand. You would never guess that the goofy teenager doing a hilarious impression of Joe Budden on Loiter Squad would be the same guy to rap the words “Tell my momma to get the gun if I get too famous” on an album called I Don’t Like S**t, I Don’t Go Outside. Earl has always pushed the envelope and stoked the fire of controversy almost every time he has has hopped on the mic. However, on this new album, Some Rap Songs, he is pushing a different boundary, the boundary of what people are generally comfortable with when hearing music. Not lyrically, but sonically. This new record, at first listen, sounds like a horrible mess of sounds thrown together with no regard for your eardrums and Earl sounds uninspired, bored, and off beat at times. But it is actually so much more than that and this is where the brilliance of Some Rap Songs lies.
Earl did an interview with Craig Jenkins of Vulture on November 28th of this year, two days before Some Rap Songs was set to drop and gave some insight into his ideas when creating this album. What came as the most shocking to me was that Earl created the majority of this album in the time between IDLSIDGO and his father dying. I was expecting the main theme of the album being about his working through the passing of his father and the strange relationship that the two had. Earl’s father was a South African poet and his mother is a law professor at UCLA. Two parents that could not be any more different. Earl’s mom was certainly not supportive of his rapping in his early years. When his mother (Cheryl Harris) discovered his contributions to social group turned rap superstars, Odd Future, she was less than thrilled. Upon hearing his contributions to the OF Tape Vol. 1 and his first mixtape, EARL, she promptly sent him to a reform school in Samoa called Coral Reef Academy. In the time that he was there, Odd Future exploded across the world, popularizing Supreme and Bape, skateboarding, and youth uprisings, all lead by Tyler Okonma, or better known as Tyler The Creator. However, for most of the kids listening to Odd Future, the most exciting and inspiring figure in the group was Earl Sweatshirt, at only 15 years old he was practically a god to them. When the OF Tapes Vol. 2 dropped with only one Earl appearance (seen on “Oldie”) it prompted the “Free Earl” movement. The OF fanbase had banded together to get Earl back. He did eventually return at 18, a new man and ready to continue his music career, which is when he began recording his first studio album, Doris.
Earl faced troubles with adjusting back to a regular life, which is seen on Doris, he spiraled into depression after the passing of his grandma, almost 3 years later, which inspired the creation of I Don’t Like S**t, and then Earl went MIA. It had been two and a half years since his last album at the beginning of this year, and the news got out that Earl’s father (Keorapetse Kgositsile) had passed away. This is obviously a traumatic thing to happen to Earl at only 23 years old and many people assumed it was going to be an incredibly long wait for the next album. When I heard the news that Earl was dropping a single for his upcoming album I was getting ready to be left depressed as all hell after hearing it. But then “Nowhere2Go” dropped on November 8th as a world premiere on Zayn Lowe’s Beats 1 show. I was left completely confused. This wasn’t a dark, lo-fi beat with Earl ominously spitting heavy and crushing lyrics like I had expected. This was a looping and industrial sounding beat with an oddly placed chopped vocal sample with Earl speaking about his comeback from sadness and loneliness, “I couldn’t find a friend, had to rely on my wits.” and proudly explaining to us that he was in a better place than ever before, “Only thing on my mind was death, I had to refine this, I had to redefine myself.” This was great to hear from Earl because over the years of listening to his music I had developed a connection with him and I always was rooting for him to get out of the dark places he found himself in. Many of the feelings he spoke about on past albums I felt like I could relate to and he helped me deal with them. I was glad to hear this happiness from Earl but the song itself left me completely puzzled, there was no rhythm to really put my finger on and I didn’t understand the direction he was taking. This was the same situation I found myself in when he dropped his next single, “The Mint.” Loved the words, could not understand the music itself. This would all change after about 4 listens of Some Rap Songs in its entirety on the night it dropped.
Some Rap Songs is a complex dive into the mind of Earl Sweatshirt from the time right after he completed IDLSIDGO in March 2015 to November of 2018. The only 2 songs on the album that Earl made after his father’s death were “Peanut” and “Riot!” The final two songs on the album. Earl originally began creating this album in 2015 to use as a peace 0ffering with his father. Earl spent his entire childhood away from him and never had a true grasp or understanding of who his father actually was. As he says on “Chum” a cut from his 2013 album Doris, “It’s probably been 12 years since my father left, left me fatherless, and I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest, when honestly I’ve missed him since like I was a 6 and every time I got the chance to say it, I would swallow it.” So the fact that Earl made this album to play for his dad as an attempt to create some form of a relationship with him, puts a more intense emphasis on some of the thoughts and words that Earl expresses on this record.
The album opens with “Shattered Dreams” the song samples a song by The Endeavors, also titled Shattered Dreams. However, only the first five seconds of the song are sampled and then looped as the beat of the entire 2 and a half minute intro to Some Rap Songs. Here Earl lays down a verse detailing how often he contemplates taking his rap money and going away forever. Despite this he speaks on how he has never made any excuses for himself despite all of his problems with anxiety and depression throughout the years. One thing I think people need to pay attention to when listening to this album is Earl’s voice and flow. It’s easy to get lost in the mesmerizing and looping instrumentals all over the album but when you look at Earl’s flows and delivery it is still just as on point and sharp as it always has been. He is just taking a more poetic approach to his words and at points he is almost moving his delivery closer to slam poetry or spoken word.
Earl himself said that that when hearing the album, their aren’t exactly any hooks on it but he repeats certain phrases that he finds important or healing for him. This is first seen on “Red Water” where Earl repeats the same 8 bars for the entire one minute and forty-four second track with a glitchy beat as the soundtrack. The emphasis is put on the lines, “Blood in the water, I was walking in my sleep, blood on my father, I forgot another dream.” Here, I believe his reference to blood in the water is talking about his mental state and how things are very murky and jumbled, similar to when blood is mixing and floating in a pool of water. He would prefer to stay home and use drugs and be alone than face reality hence, “I forgot another dream.”
The album takes the listener on a trip through Earl’s brain, as I’ve mentioned. I believe this album is more of a downward spiral through Earl’s thoughts. The album begins with Earl talking about his problems he’s faced but he is also talking about his coping mechanisms and what he can focus on to prevent things from getting worse for him. There are ups and downs seen on the album. The ups seen on “Shattered Dreams,” “Cold Summers,” and “Azucar,” notably. As we move deeper into the 15 song tracklist, the positives become fewer and fewer but Earl still seems to want to be better and feel like he can be happy with himself and this is likely intentional. In his recording of the album he probably wanted his dad to hear it and get a good understanding of what his son’s mind and life have been like in his absence.
Some of the darkest moments on the album, when Earl was really down on himself, come with “December 24th,” “Loosie,” and “Peanut.” December 24th is a callback to his mourning of his grandmother he detailed on the previous album. “Remembering when they had my grand mammy on the drip drank.” This is him pushing himself back into the depths of his mind and so the song works well as one long stream of thought, ending with him pondering his teenage years with his mom, “Bad apple daily clashing with my kinfolk, bad acid did damage to my mental.” Then, on “Loosie”, track 9, Earl talks of a falling out with an unknown person and his regrets with how the situation was handled. He also details his anxiety towards how quickly news about his life spreads around the world. This is compared to use of intravenous drugs and how quickly they spread through the body.
It comes as no surprise that “Peanut” is one of two songs that Earl recorded after his dad died. The beat of this song is practically just static from a radio with a very faint, but very ominous sounding piano line playing in the background that is reminiscent of the piano sample from Travis Scott’s “Maria, I’m Drunk.” This is probably the darkest song Earl has made to date with lines like, “Family saw you up on stage, left it not amazed, thought you were up in AA, now you done and brazed.” and “Flushing through the pain, depression, this is not a phase.” Being the second to last song on the album the listener is worried that Earl is going to leave this album off on a bad note, depression ridden, with no end in sight, but then “Riot!” happens, and no words from Earl are even needed.
We’ve arrived to track 15, the final one, titled “Riot!” If you have listened to the 14 tracks preceding this one, either before or after reading this review, then you will understand why this is an important song. Something I find very interesting about this album, which I briefly touched on at the beginning, is that the mix and master on it sounds like it was done by a 14 year old in his garage just throwing some things together and not balancing them well at all. What needs to be understood, especially if you just dismissed this album after half of a listen as a “meme” or as though Earl didn’t try at all at creating a body of work, is that there is a difference between sloppiness and a specific artistic vision that Earl wanted to work with. He felt like he was in a haze, like his thoughts were all over the place. Almost as though he was hearing life through noise cancelling headphones and seeing it through drawn blinds. The production reflects his mental state. This muddy and sometimes incoherent production reaches its peak at “Peanut,” along with Earl’s mental difficulties. When the listener reaches the final song, “Riot!” It feels like a breath of fresh air and that is exactly what it was for Earl. A crisp guitar riff opens the song, the clearest notes we’ve heard throughout the entire albums 25 minute run time. “Riot!” is like you’ve been traveling through a cave for years and then you finally find an exit and that exit just so happens to be in the middle of a secluded beach in the Caribbean where you can finally relax. Blissful trumpets enter the song about halfway through and it feels celebratory. Earl does not rap on the song yet he says all that needs to be said.
Initial reactions to this project were very mixed. Some well known reviewers like Anthony Fantano and Pitchfork praised it for the creative vision and for the genuine emotion throughout. Others turned the album off halfway through so that they could tweet that Earl fell off, throw on their Odd Future hoodies and listen to Doris. The way that I see this is that there are tons of layers to this album despite it only being 25 minutes long. So many layers that I’m sure that I haven’t deciphered them all and could probably write you an even more detailed overview of this project one year from now. Another thing to understand is that Earl didn’t just pull this style out of thin air or went into the studio and didn’t feel like trying in his music. The beats sometimes resemble those of the underground hip hop classic Madvillainy and his vocal style was inspired by some other artists he’s been spending time with especially MIKE out of New York (referenced multiple times on the album) and Standing On the Corner (featured on “OnTheWay!”) Every line and beat that was chosen for this album was picked and planned thoroughly by Earl himself. Another thought that occurred to me during my listens of the album was that Earl’s lyrics are very poetic, more so than ever before. This could be a coincidence but my bet would be that he was purposefully doing this with the intention of playing it for his father, who was also a poet.
Some Rap Songs is likely my album of the year. I still have some more things to listen to and some projects I want to give another try but the likely number one album for me would be this new record from Earl Sweatshirt. The intense flows disguised as carefree jaunts over trippy instrumentals, the beats, which, when Earl lets them ride make you feel as though you are floating and falling at the same time, and the deep messages implanted in the songs make for an absolutely priceless listen. We could argue back and forth for years about if this album is objectively good or not, but at the end of the day, this album is much more than just some rap songs.
I give Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs a 9.3/10
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