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Earl Sweatshirt’s humble offering: ‘Some Rap Songs’

| Thursday, January 17, 2019

Lina Domenella | The Observer

Just the name Earl Sweatshirt conjures up a certain image: taking the surname literally, a lanky teenager, hunched over with a sweatshirt hood covering most of his face, sullen, brooding, “stand-offish and anemic” and possibly depressed. It’s an image that can nearly be found on the cover of the California artist’s 2015 single “Grief.” It’s an image that is rather fitting for an artist who has seen the light of celebrity and consistently turned away from it, disappearing from the public eye and social media microscope between musical releases.

Earl’s 2015 release “I Don’t Like Sh—, I Don’t Go Outside” was followed by a drought. In 2016, Earl appeared twice, on Danny Brown’s “Really Doe” and on Samiyam’s “mirror.” In 2017, there was nothing. Much like his former Odd Future collaborator Frank Ocean, Earl quickly became known for his absence rather than his presence. As 2018 drew to a close, it seemed as though another year might pass with no word from the California kid. And then, in late November, as the commercial music cycle wound down, Earl emerged to release his third studio album “Some Rap Songs.”

There is a lot that jumps off the page before even pressing play on “Some Rap Songs.” First, there’s the title: a no-frills, literal statement of exactly what the album is. Then there’s the album cover: a blurry picture of what appears to be a smiling Earl, toeing the line between cover art and meme. Lastly, there’s the album length. With a run time of 24 minutes, “Some Rap Songs” is one of a few rap albums from 2018 that uses a short run time to its advantage. Fifteen songs combine to make up those 24 minutes, each running no longer than three minutes and many clocking in at less than two.

Press play, and yet another feature of Earl’s artistic imprint marks his independence from mainstream forces and clearly indicates his commitment to his own alternative style.

On “Some Rap Songs,” Earl commands a production style of lo-fi beats, scattered with scratches and pops and covered in a haze that makes them sound as though they’re being played on vinyl. The production incorporates choppy loops, heavy jazz sampling and jolting audio clips. The free-form, artistic style is the trademark of Earl’s newest collaborators, a collection of promising, young New York rappers that includes MIKE, Medhane and Navy Blue.

While the production can be off-putting at first, it quickly settles in as a comforting norm as the album progresses. After absorbing the entire album, listening to any other production style might sound a bit off.

Along with an avant-garde production style, Earl takes on a free-flowing lyrical style. His delivery is deadpan, often barely reaching more than a mumble. The words he utters speak for themself. They capture his dark days —  “I think … I spent my whole life depressed / Only thing on my mind was death / Didn’t know if my time was next” — lengthy absences — “The boy been gone a few summers too long from road runnin’” — and familial relationships — “Bad apple, daily clashin’ with my kinfolk.” With each listen, a new verse, phrase or clever play on words emerges.

The final three tracks on “Some Rap Songs” capture it all. “Playing Possum” interweaves a recording of his mother, Cheryl Harris, thanking Earl and his father in a keynote speech with a recording of his late father reciting an excerpt of his poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow.” It’s a beautiful tribute to his parents that is followed by “Peanuts,” a slow-burner that features all of Earl’s lyrical motifs. Lastly comes “Riot!,” an instrumental, Masekela-sampling conclusion that cries out with joy after the depression, death and hardships have settled.

Artist: Earl Sweatshirt

Album: Some Rap Songs

Label: Tan Cressida/Columbia Records

Favorite Tracks: “Red Waters,” “Nowhere2go,” “Riot!”

If You Like: Madvillain, MIKE, Frank Ocean

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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About Ryan Israel

Ryan is the Former Scene Editor (2020-2021). He is currently washed up. Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryizzy.

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