[sLUms] and Earl Sweatshirt: Mentorship and Influence
by Liam Thomas
Almost three whole years after the botched release of his self-produced confessional I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Earl Sweatshirt has returned to the spotlight with the release of his third album, Some Rap Songs. However, while the album is a welcome return to the unassailable lyricism and deeply personal songwriting that has consistently informed Earl’s artistic choices, Some Rap Songs sees Earl entirely stepping out of the shadow of his influences and assuming his place at the forefront of a vanguard of new artists who themselves take heavy influence from the former OF-wunderkind. If Doris saw Earl stuck in the quicksand of his musical influences (both past and contemporary), and IDLSIDGO saw him lashing out to break free of these comparisons, Some Rap Songs functions as a clear example of Earl working within the realm of influence that he himself is partially responsible for. On Some Rap Songs, Earl borrows production and influence from the members and periphery of the progressive New York hip-hop collective [sLUms] to dizzyingly successful effect. The [sLUms] collective, consisting of MIKE, Sixpress, JODi, King Carter, and Ade Hakim amongst others, has a sound founded in the same depressive honesty, remarkable imagery, and explorations of blackness that make Earl Sweatshirt’s music so immediately and continuously compelling. The production, complete with off-kilter time signatures, lack of high-hats, and a vintage tape-whizz overlay draw from the same influences that were so definitive of Earl’s own early-career projects. However, the thing that separates this instance of cross-generational influence from a host of others is Earl’s willingness to collaborate with and guide those he has inspired, to the mutual benefit to the sounds of both artists.
The boys of the [sLUms] crew approach their music with the same ethos silhouetting Earl Sweatshirt’s early releases. The emotional honesty and vulnerability, the bearing of personal issues regarding family and class, the pressure to define oneself as a singular artist; all of these qualities paint a captivating picture of a group of young artists trying to reconcile with their pain and insecurities through music. [sLUms] rapper MIKE, who’s 6’5” frame and booming baritone are juxtaposed with his complex emotional lyricism, has been receiving widespread critical acclaim over the past few years for his sporadically released mixtapes and EP’s (such as the excellent By the Water and his breakout mixtape May God Bless Your Hustle). MIKE has endured the kind of personal struggles that made him gravitate toward Earl Sweatshirt’s music initially as a fan and later made Earl gravitate toward him as a collaborator. In an interview with Pitchfork, MIKE details the surreal nature of collaborating with someone who has had such defined influence on his sound and style: “He influenced me so much. I’m not really a person that’s good at expressing themselves in normal situations, and people like Thebe taught me how to do that better. He’s also very young and he understands how we express ourselves and he’s spent a lot of time telling me about life.” Earl is not only recognizing his undeniable influence in contemporary rap, he’s actively supporting the art and livelihood of young artists going through the same emotional and societal struggles that he once did.
This collaborative spirit through which Earl approaches those inspired by his art does not only make Some Rap Songs his best project to date, but also his most mature. Earl has accepted his place at the forefront of an auditory revolution in hip-hop. Instead of wielding this new position with arrogance and confrontationalism, he has chosen to mentor and learn from those who take influence from him. This has elevated the art of both Earl and the [sLUms] crew to astonishing new heights. Earl finally sounds complete, like he’s making the music he wants to make with other intelligent, like-minded creatives. The contributions that members of the [sLUms] crew provide on Some Rap Songs put their best creative qualities on display, which is to be expected when a group of artists gets the opportunity to collaborate with somebody they collectively idolize.
For me, the best result of this healthy collaborative relationship between Earl and the [sLUms] crew is the emphasis it places on the importance and necessity of mentorship. As MIKE was quoted saying, “Nobody out here’s putting money in our pockets other than people really supporting us, and he’s one of them. He was once in a similar predicament as a young black boy in America, and I understand that I will one day have to be a mentor to somebody else. He’s teaching me how to mentor that person. It just keeps on going.” Earl has a complicated history with those who have served in positions of mentorship to him, and this has made him recognize the importance of it all the more. MIKE and the [sLUms] boys know this feeling all too well, and it has resulted in a seamless collaboration between them and Earl. Mentorship is a two-way street, and it's a street that Earl and [sLUms] are familiar with, to varying degrees of emotional traffic. By working together, these two parties at hand have effectively carved out their own lane, and now they’re helping each other navigate it.