Earl Sweatshirt's Reign of Contradiction: "Some Rap Songs"
by James Ammirato
Earl Sweatshirt has always been a man of contradiction. Even his moniker combines the royal with the shabby to create a persona that is unique and ever-changing. Very recently, I was joking with one of my friends that Earl is almost like the grandmaster of the rap game right now; incredibly talented and ahead of his time, but still only 24 years old. His last couple full-lengths, 2013’s Doris and 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, explored the rapper’s strengths as an MC and a lyricist, and showed that he had an affinity for dark and moody rap early on in his career. From his first mixtape, 2010’s Earl, released when he was only 16, Sweatshirt showed us that he was bold enough to go places lyrically that even fully developed rappers wouldn’t dare to go. On top of that, the tape proved Earl to be a one-liner machine, something that the rapper still is able to pull off with ease and efficiency. From then on out, his music has been nothing but hot bars and phenomenal production, which are even more prevalent on his latest LP, Some Rap Songs.
On this new album, Earl effectively displays to us that he’s not only advanced in the field of lyricism, displaying confidence on every track but also in production, as he exhibits a wide range of styles from avant-garde, to lo-fi, to sound collage. I’ll admit, when I first heard the title and saw the cover of Some Rap Songs, I thought I was in for a disappointment. In the past, Earl’s album announcements have been cryptic and as a result exciting. When he announced I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, I was ecstatic. Here was an album with nothing but a black cover and a title that suggested utter misanthropy, and I couldn’t have been more ready for it. With Some Rap Songs, I naively got the impression that Earl simply didn’t care anymore, which I’m now sure was his intention.
Right off the bat with “Shattered Dreams” we find that Earl has dramatically changed his sound, something he’s never been afraid to do. Featuring off-kilter production that throws the listener into the project head-on, the track consists of a surprisingly simple 8/8 beat, but with a triplet guitar chord cluster on the 6, 7, and 8. This rocks the song completely off balance in the most interesting fashion possible. In a way, it informs the listener what they’re in for. In the background, we hear “dreeeeeeeeams” on loop, providing an airy back wall that the listener can lean up against. It’s an ambitious first cut, but one that sets the mood for the rest of the record.
Earl’s knack for lo-fi production shines through on “Cold Summers” with what sounds like a sort of synthesized flute taking the lead. The track ends with the sample “It is all too familiar,” a veteran way to transition us into the first single released from the album, “Nowhere2go,” which is the track that we are the most familiar with on the record as first-time listeners. Another sprawling display of lo-fi, featuring short sample loops that play for the entirety of the sub-2 minute track, the song sounds simple at first, but with each listen through you’ll find something new buried deep in its many layers. We are also familiar with Earl spitting depressing bars, and this track is no exception. “Yeah, I think I spent most of my life depressed / Only thing on my mind was death / Didn't know if my time was next” he spits rather nonchalantly. Regardless, these lines are not to be taken lightly, despite the overall upbeat nature of the song. Due to the fact that this was the first single released from the new album, I feel like Earl wanted to ease the listener in to this new production style, but make the audience feel right at home with lines like the ones above.
Other notable production choices on this project include “December 24,” which features perhaps the most basic midi piano lead in existence. Anyone who’s opened Garageband has heard it, but the way Earl stacks it up against the washed out drums in the mix makes it truly beautiful and unique. In a way, this choice sums up the production on the entire album. Though this is perhaps the most egregious example, the production on this album is so rudimentary and basic, showing Earl’s true talents as someone who can turn audio lead into gold. “Ontheway!” features underground legends Standing on the Corner, and another sample of the signature surf style guitar we hear throughout the entire album. A mere 1:44 in length, we get a hard beat switch to end the song with the line “Clouds gray move on the way, yuh” which resolves to a beautiful outro and instantly transports us to some sort of tropical island setting.
The second single released from the record, “The Mint” features Navy Blue, one of Earl’s childhood best friends, on the first verse. Despite clocking in at a brief 30 seconds, it makes a notable impact on the listener. You can tell these men are brothers through the glaring similarities in their respective flows. Even their vocal cadences sound like they’ve spent their whole lives around each other.
“The Bends” features one of the most unorthodox uses of a sample on the album. A very short loop of a woman singing is chopped up to sound something like a goat, her voice cutting through the mix, impossible not to hear. Earl, of course, does this on purpose, he wants the sample and his smooth flow to have a stark contrast, to the point where the listener is distracted by the harsh nature of the sample. He wants the listening experience to be something of a challenge; he knows that it’s the only way to get some people to listen.
Another contradictory track, “Loosie” features a warped guitar loop and lag time drums. The song could last for several minutes, but clocks in at just one, giving us merely a taste of the artist’s prowess, always leaving us wanting more. For me this is exemplified in one specific line, “Galaxy’s the distance between us by Christmas.” This line references Earl’s father’s death which occurred almost a year ago, but Earl is telling us that the amount of time since then has seemed massive, the size of a galaxy. The line shows us Earl’s unquestionable ability to convey messages to the listener in a concise but still highly effective and even beautiful way.
One of my favorite tracks on the record, “Playing Possum” is a brilliant sound collage of Earl’s parents, both heard giving speeches. His mother, Cheryl Harris, gives thanks to people in her life, including Earl himself, her partner, her family, and many more. His father, famed South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who passed away earlier this year, talks about refugees and those who have been exiled from their homeland in an amazing, melodic way (he practically sings “refugeeeees”). This is an incredibly powerful song. The beat is sludgy, lo-fi, and warped to the nth degree, making the track sound like an old J Dilla cut, the sound of vinyl crackling over the mix, closing out with a sample of applause.
“Peanut” is practically an extension of “Playing Possum.” The beat quite similar, but this time Earl gets to speak, and he contributes to the record in the same capacity as his parents do. The song title makes me think that “Peanut” was Earl’s childhood nickname, a call back to when he was closer with his parents and “Uncle Hugh,” who he name drops on the last lyric. The beat is overrun by glitchy intermittent static, a brilliant ambient hip-hop beat. Earl’s vocals sound like they are being held back, almost restrained, like he wants to speak but is unable to. The beat overpowers him, and the wall of sound is more resemblant of a blanket, wrapping up the listener in sound.
One of the better album outros I’ve ever heard, “Riot!” is a brilliant minute-long piece that essentially combines every aspect of the production on the album and compiles them into one beautiful, melancholic finale. Mostly carried by the clean tone guitar that we’ve come to know very well over the course of the record, and the vintage sounding trumpet section, the track fades out on a decaying sample of the guitar. This leaves us wishing there was more, but knowing that it’s for the best that the record ends where it does, a perfect length for the project that it is. I think this was perfect because the record has a lot to do with the death of Earl’s father, and it reflects the kind of scattered state of mind that someone goes through after the death of a parent.
The guitar on the record is almost in and of itself an entity, making up such a huge part of the record’s production, and over the 25-minute course from “Shattered Dreams,” to “Riot!” it goes from short, staccato, and measured, to free-flowing, improvisational, and ultimately autonomous. I believe this is purposeful, and shows a similar pattern to the course of Earl’s career, how he went from young adult in line with the rest of Odd Future, to breaking out, having a much more successful solo career, and ultimately making better music.
Over the course of Earl’s career, he has mostly shown growth as a writer, but on Some Rap Songs, he shows an equal amount of evolution in the area of production, bringing to the table what could easily be my favorite album of the year. This is due in part to the music itself, but also to Earl’s sheer genius surrounding the album.
For one thing, as a music lover, I am always astounded and utterly impressed when an artist makes the executive decision to make as big of a change in sound as Earl did between his last record and this new one. The higher up one goes in terms of fame, the bigger the risk becomes when putting out experimental new material. This is typically due to pressure from labels so they can still profit from the artist, and many artists’ desire to remain relevant and in the spotlight rather than interesting and innovative. When “Nowehere2go” was released as the first single, it received a lot of negative feedback. Not because it’s an inherently bad song, but simply because fans were stacking it up against their favorite Earl material and finding it different, which translates to many as inadequate. This unfortunately happens all the time until a single is contextualized within the release it appears on
The other reason I believe this project to be one of my favorites is the rollout and the overall message. What I mean is Some Rap Songs has been purposely undersold by Earl himself. By calling his latest tape Some Rap Songs and using a horribly blurry photo of his face for the cover art, Earl is essentially debasing himself to the SoundCloud level of rap that has come to take over the mainstream. He obviously knows how incredible he is, that he’s in a higher echelon than the Soundcloud level, so he’s actively rolling out an album that on the surface level looks extraordinarily run of the mill. Rap has become such an easy genre to produce and quite frankly exploit that artists have to find new ways to stand out amongst the glut of trap singles and the extravagant looking people behind them. Earl sticks out in the exact opposite way, packaging an album in what seems on the surface to be the most thrown together, boring way possible, and still blowing the minds of his listeners. He’s literally telling us, I don’t need to tell the world that I’m the best, they’ll get there on their own.