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Earl Sweatshirt is ‘Sick!’

| Thursday, January 27, 2022

Claire Kirner | The Observer
Image sources: Highsnobiety, earlsweatshirt.com

“Sick!” by Earl Sweatshirt marks a modest pivot from a decade of masterful releases. Though his patented lyrical savvy remains, Earl embarks from the clandestine symbolism — and often challenging listening experiences — found in 2013’s “Doris” and 2019’s “Feet of Clay” in favor of a more accessible sonic atmosphere. 

This shift shouldn’t be a surprise to longtime fans. Throughout the record, the 27-year-old rapper struggles to make sense of pandemic lockdowns and the passing of his grandfather, all while bouncing back and forth between glossy piano samples and abrasive synth cuts. The lack of direction, however, is not an auditory misstep, but a storytelling decision. At just 10 tracks and 24 minutes, Earl composes a compact web of memories, witty allusions and mysterious bars.

On “Old Friend,” the opening record, Earl writes, “Know I came from out the thicket smilin’,” an acknowledgement of both his thorny past and now-realized success. Though terse, the song benefits from record label The Alchemist’s grand production to introduce the nostalgic mood carried throughout the LP. Track two, “2010,” follows suit as Earl reminisces on his days as a member of the Odd Future collective, which included Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean among others, across a bouncy, electronic trap beat. Stylistically, the opening cuts could not be more different, but the tracks set a blueprint for what is to come in the remaining eight.

“Vision,” both sonically and lyrically, stands out as an early highlight. The track features a dreamy, scratchy piano melody with a welcomed guest verse from ZelooperZ. Here, Earl begins his COVID-19 poetry in the line, “How long you waiving the rent? / Moratorium extendo,” an obvious allusion to the eviction bans installed by the U.S. government during the pandemic. With newfound maturity, it is evident that Earl has something to say in his bars, contrasting the often disorganized thoughts of his youth. Indeed, the second half kicks off with “Lye,” a “Some Rap Songs”-esque relic that includes ingenious lines like, “Same one I forgot to praise, still above me” before continuing the religious undertone in the line “Callin’ out for Lord, lookin’ low and high.” For a self-proclaimed atheist, the spiritual language reads as a puzzling addition, certainly leaving Earl’s intent up for interpretation. 

Following the interlude entitled “Lobby,” in which Earl weaves his way through a drug-related anecdote from his youth, the record changes pace with the somber “God Laughs.” Weighty rhymes hint at the passing of his grandfather in the lines “Though his brain getting chipped away at daily / His body on a road, where his mind flailing, funeral weightless,” complemented by monotone inflections. Earl’s ability to keep pace with the beat, all while injecting his patented lyrical finesse from bar to bar, is on full display in the later half of the record. “Titanic,” the final single released in anticipation of the full LP, fits in as another ode to the shenanigans of his old clan (Odd Future) in Pasadena. “Sweatshirt, ’cause you know how revenge is best served / Cold dish” is just one of the characteristically-caustic punchlines on the track. Earl’s poise and lyrical mastery remain baffling as he pays tribute to the late MF Doom while — somehow — simultaneously intertwining the biblical tale of Daniel: “Mask on like a supervillain / Daniel, who you in the den with? Lion.” 

Earl rounds out “Sick!” with an inspired and energetic delivery as he glides on a watery guitar sample once again. Recognizing the beauty of the production in “Fire in the Hole,” he lets the melody ride out into a piano rendition. The conclusion bears witness to the rapper’s gained maturity, and the album ushers in a fresh, but admittedly wiser, era of Earl Sweatshirt music.  With an added contemplativeness and social commentary layered on top of the distinguished cast of producers, “Sick!” makes for an engaging, aware and remarkably complete little rap record. 


Artist: Earl Sweatshirt

Album: “Sick!”

Label: Tan Cressida, Warner

Favorite Tracks: “Old Friend,” “Vision,” “Fire in the Hole”

If you like: Tyler, the Creator, Vince Staples, Mach-Hommy

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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