In recent years, Earl Sweatshirt has become something of an enigma. Bursting on to the scene with Odd Future in the early 2010s, he dropped the cult classic mixtape Earl before delivering his critically acclaimed debut album Doris in 2013. Then, 2015 saw the arrival of the dark and ethereal sophomore effort I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, again a standout hip hop record of that year. Yet, in the past 3 years, Earl has become known as one of rap’s most elusive figures, taking cues from his former bandmate Frank Ocean by making his musical offerings few and far between. With the long awaited Some Rap Songs, however, he has cemented his legacy and taken yet another step forward into iconic territory.
One could hardly blame Earl for his sporadic appearances as of late. January 2018 saw the death of two of his closest relatives, his father – South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile – and his uncle Hugh Masekela – also a musician. Worse still, Earl was a close friend and collaborator of rapper Mac Miller, who also passed away this summer. No one would have blamed Earl for taking this heavy load of personal tragedies as an opportunity to dip out of the music scene and recuperate. Instead, he pressed forward with the record his fans have been salivating for all year.
Some Rap Songs, however, is not a cookie cutter “tragedy album”. There is no sense that Earl simply hopped in the booth to spill his emotions in a raw state, as some might have expected. Rather, the album feels like an exploration into anxiety and emotional struggle that warps and shifts in unexpected directions. The overwhelming theme of the album is one of minimalism and controlled chaos. The album title itself reflects a mood that this is perhaps intended to be a simplistic or off-hand project, merely a collection of tracks and sounds that Earl has worked on for the past couple of years. The album cover, too, looks as if it was snapped by Earl in about two seconds on an iPhone’s front-facing camera. There are 15 tracks, but most don’t reach two minutes in length, and the longest doesn’t even reach three. This feels in part as if it could be a reaction to the trend of overlong and bloated albums in hip hop. While chart toppers like Drake and the Migos have become known for dropping projects with the length of feature films, Earl’s Some Rap Songs at 24 minutes can easily be listened to casually in one sitting. One could go as far as to describe Earl Sweatshirt as “the thinking fan’s rapper”, throwing streaming numbers and sales success to the wind in favour of whipping up short but incisive records.
Indeed, there is almost nothing else that sounds like Some Rap Songs on the scene today. Lead single Nowhere2go is an avant-garde earworm, built upon a truly mind-boggling beat that sounds more like a sound collage of random moans, keys and puncturing percussion than it does a hip hop instrumental. Earl’s rapping on the track is even more slurred and monotone than his standard fare. By all metrics, it should be an alienating song, and yet it somehow finds itself stuck in your head as if it were a pop ballad. The Mint, featuring the almost unknown Navy Blue, is probably the closest thing that the album has to a traditional rap song, with Earl sporting a more energetic flow and a swagger that makes it sound like the track could feature on the soundtrack for an old school gangster movie.
Most of the album, though, is comprised of short, experimental pieces, with many tracks being built upon soul samples that are twisted and reshaped by Earl to suit the nervous mood of the project. On the opening track Shattered Dreams, his flow is almost off beat, and the sample drones on abrasively. Red Water, meanwhile, is surprisingly soothing in a melancholy manner. The centrepiece of the record, one could argue, comes towards the end with the track Playing Possum, featuring no lyrics from Earl but instead a speech from his mother and distant readings from his father, both of whom are fully credited as artists. Keorapetse Kgositsile, who in his life was the Poet Laureate of South Africa, has undoubtedly been a profound influence on Earl and in particular on this album, and his words seeping through the cracks here sound like words of wisdom from beyond the grave, comforting his son. The final track Riot also nods towards Earl’s family, being written entirely by his late uncle Hugh Masekela and included essentially as a tribute. Listening to these two tracks, the turmoil that must have surrounded the creation of this album becomes clear, and this only makes its brilliance all the more impressive to witness.
What Some Rap Songs does prove is that Earl Sweatshirt is most certainly not in the music business for clout or fame. Nor is he, like his old mentor Tyler the Creator, interested in pursuing melody and pop songwriting in any traditional sense. Some may be disappointed to have waited over 3 years for an album that is less than half an hour long, but this record is so dense and forward-thinking that it does more than many rap albums do in double or triple the running time. Some Rap Songs is a statement of intent. It is perhaps not a future classic, but one gets the sense that this forms part of a framework or blueprint for Earl Sweatshirt’s future career, as he graduates fully from being known as “one of the guys from Odd Future” to being known as a radical and exciting artist in his own right.