Basement Dwelling: “Some Rap Songs” by Earl Sweatshirt

On my first listen of Earl Sweatshirt’s third album, Some Rap Songs, I thought a lot about that title. Some Rap Songs. It struck me as sort of commentary on how so many people consume music in 2018. Here’s this rapper that has been buzzed about for years. Here’s his album. Listen to it, get it or don’t, and move on to the next thing. What was it? Some rap songs. It’s a notion portrayed in the cover art too; a blurry, borderline frightening image of Earl is front and center — an image that renders the creator of this album nearly faceless. In my mind, it all fits, being brilliantly calculated and serving a specific purpose; an analogy for this record as a whole.

This was not a record meant to be released in this time, but couldn’t have come out at a better one. If you think the intention was to just deliverer “some rap songs,” you’d be mistaken. No. instead what’s been presented here is a masterclass in album making, Earl Sweatshirt’s finest work to date. and one of the most forward-thinking and boundary-pushing rap records of this decade.

You probably know the story already: Earl, a near mythological figure in rap already at only 24 years of age, has been in the spotlight since his early teens. Born Thebe Kgositsile, Earl made his start in the Tyler, The Creator-founded hip-hop coalition, Odd Future. He was sent away to a boarding school in Samoa for at-risk teens right after the release of his first mixtape, only then to make a triumphant return with his first proper record, Doris, in 2013, and following that up with the brilliant, now cult classic I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside in 2015. I Don’t Like Shit marked the signs of a significant stylistic shift and the start of a new era for Earl.

While Doris is a great record, it was an album that stylistically relied heavily on the aesthetics and template that was laid down by the Odd Future collective — one that has since been abandoned by literally every member of the collective in astounding ways. Tyler became a fuse of art/pop-rap, in turn being unafraid to utilize string sections as much as he’s likely to make a punk-rap record. Frank Ocean has become the most forward thinking, inventive artist in R&B of this generation. Syd The Kid’s The Internet have been making incredibly sticky neo-soul. And then there’s the man of the hour, Earl.

With IDLS (I Don’t Like Shit), he cemented himself as a cerebral, gifted MC whose main subject matter was documenting the ugliness and darkest thoughts of the human psyche, largely from his own. IDLS was produced primarily by Earl. Cold and stark in nature, it’s minimalist beats and dark lyrics make it one of the best records in recent memory to portray living with mental illness and depression. It’s a hypnotic yet hard listen, and laid an impressive template for what Earl could explore further in his career. Now, with Some Rap Songs, he’s been allowed to fully expand upon his work on IDLS.

Marred in tragedy, Some Rap Songs is like listening to the stream of consciousness of someone who has experienced way too much in a short frame of time. It’s uneven, it’s hazy, and all at once, It feels like being in a drugged-out haze. It feels like going through the motions while depression saps all the joy from your life. It feels like waking up the day after someone close to you has died and you have to make sense of your life without them. In Earl’s case, it is his father, famed poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. Keorapetse passed away this past January right before Earl had meant to speak with him for the first time in years. Earl has been public about not having the best of relationship with his father, as well as the alleged conversation that was supposed to be between them. It would have been Earl’s chance at some kind of resolution to the problems he and his father had, but it will sadly never be addressed; never be resolved, Pretty overwhelming, right? Trust me it is.

There were times within the first day or so of this record being out that I found the idea of listening to it overwhelming — it instilled a queasy feeling within me initially. That soon went away upon replay of the record, simply because it’s such an amazing work of art. From the themes, to songs, to production, performances, etc., everything about this record is so bewilderingly beautiful and captivating that it infects your brain. I can’t stop thinking about; I can’t fight the urge to put it on again even though it makes me feel uneasy. The songwriting is just so damn good that I can’t deny it. It’s amazing to me to even express these feelings, because I have never felt this way about a record before, and the fact that it has that effect on me brings me so much joy, not only as a fan of this artist in particular but as a die hard music nerd as a whole.

Musically, SRS exists in a world all it’s own. So much so that it’s eerie how much it feels like an exact, honest reflection of the creator that made it. No one else could have conceived this record; you can’t confuse it with anyone else. It’s Earl Sweatshirt. The production is intentionally murky, and honestly sounds bad in extremely creative ways. The production on this album totally disregards sound quality, meaning no matter how you listen to it (whether it’s a low quality Spotify stream or a CD/vinyl copy), it’s going to sound equally as dreary and low fidelity, which is a genius move for such a human, honest album. You get the real iteration of it no matter how you consume it. The album itself is only 25 minutes in length, but uses its brief time to great affect. In a way it’s unintentionally an advancement on the formula that Kanye tried to achieve with his G.O.O.D. Music album series this past summer. SRS takes the short album concept and perfects it.

Taking homage from albums like Madvillany and J. Dilla’s Donuts, the album is structured where each track typically lasts under a minute before moving on to the next at breakneck speed. Much like those records before it, SRS executes this delivery with just as much effectiveness as those classics. Earl presents sticky hooks, mesmerizing beats, and production, and I believe that a little extra meat on the bones would actually be overkill, since each song does exactly what it needs to do in that short amount of time. This shorter track format also makes the process of listening to this record as a whole such a visceral and raw experience. It’s an album that is best played front to back, in a way it feeling like you can’t really pick just one track to throw on because it would feel awkward hearing it without the other accompanying tracks.

The sonic pallet of this record is literally all over the place, which lends to the disorienting nature of it. Opener “Broken Dreams” rides a near dub reggae-like instrumental, lulling the listener in, and continuing on the next track, “Red Water.” This is before things take a turn on “Cold Summers,” which falls more in line with the type of instrumental a producer like Madlib would cook up, just under an immense cloud of haze. It features a rolling beat and a washed-out, fuzzy bass line in the back that sounds super hard and menacing, but utterly intoxicating. “Nowhere2go” is full-out experimental rap, featuring one of the weirdest and most unorthodox beats I’ve heard in a long time that just works on every level. It’s the type of instrumental that wouldn’t sound out of place on an experimental electronic record. “The Mint” kicks off with a sample from the film Black Dynamite (which puts a smile on my face every time i hear it because i adore that movie), before going into a sparse minimal beat that’s punctuated by these sad piano key hits that make the song sound as cold and lonely as the lyrics being spit over it. The album is at its most tender on the track “Azucar,” which despite it’s warm soul sampling still sounds uncomfortable, making for a captivating, beautiful stand-out track.

I can’t stress enough how Earl’s rapping here seems to be pulled straight from his stream of consciousness. You go in expecting to hear him address what he’s been going through in the last couple years, but it’s not necessarily done in order. “Broken Dreams” talks about finding some peace from struggles and not wanting that peace to end, which unfortunately for Earl is not a status quo for him as the album progresses. “Red Water” is a story about Earl trying to maintain normalcy in his life over the last year, but one in which he experiences a tense reunion with his father (“Papa called me chief, gotta keep it brief, I can see you lying through your teeth”). It’s a broken, fragmented style that almost comes off as poetry and is so cryptic, but really lays the whole story out at the same time. You know as a listener that this was Earl getting closer to potentially making peace with his father before the opportunity was lost. “Nowhere2go” comes off as a near-joyful self reflection and soul searching song. One of the most amazing things about Earl’s delivery on this is that he copies the type of lyrical flow used on most modern trap records, but makes it so much more deep and meaningful as he talks about finding himself and being at peace with the situation that life has presented him. This is one of the few moments of clarity that pops up on SRS.

On the other side of the coin are “Veins” and “Peanut.” Every time I hear “Veins,” in which Earl says, “Wishing on a star thinking how I’m not a star,” it rips my heart out of my chest. It’s a line and a sentiment that is so painfully honest, and sounds like it’s coming from a place so real that I feel it would be impossible for anyone to not be reminded of a time where they felt that low. “Playing Possum,” which transitions into “Peanut,” is two recordings being played at once over a stark instrumental. One of these recordings is a reading that Earl’s father presented at a poetry festival in 2009 of his poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow.” The other is a reading that Earl’s mother, Cheryl Harris, did for UCLA’s school of law in 2016. This track was recorded with the intent of being a surprise for both of his parents, but was never heard by Earl’s father due to his passing shortly after the track was finished. With the heaviness of this now lingering, we reach the track “Peanut,” which I can only describe as a young man literally being put to task at not only having to deal with the sudden shock of his father dying, but the process of helping with his burial. It’s incredibly hard to listen to, and it provides no silver lining. Listening to this, you feel just as distraught and confused as Earl does, and the only glimmer of hope is the upbeat and soulful instrumental called “Riot!,” which closes out the album. Sounding well-worn and warm, “Riot!” gives you a sense that maybe the road will be brighter for Earl. Still, being a song on this specific album, it remains sounding paranoid and uncertain, and leaves the listener feeling the same way.

I could literally talk for another five paragraphs about how much I love this record, but I’ll spare you the time — I think you get it. When thinking about what I was going to say about this record, my mind kept going back to albums like Benji by Sun Kil Moon, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. These are two very complex, emotionally rich records from the past decade that have left a resounding impact on me, and honestly with Some Rap Songs, I don’t think I’ve felt this strongly about an album since those two releases. For all of its difficulties and all of its sadness, to just how hard a listen Some Rap Songs can be, it’s clear that these are the album’s greatest attributes. It has the power to captivate me and completely draw me in every time I hear it.

This isn’t just a collection of 15 tracks, but an artful expression of the human psyche. It’s a record that is unapologetic in it’s humanity at a time when humanity is at its most cold, unforgiving, and least understanding. It serves as a reminder to hold the ones that you love close. If you haven’t told someone you love them, do it. If you want to rectify problems, don’t wait. If you want to change your ways and be a better person, then start right now before it’s too late. Stop moving so fast, and breathe in deep. It’s a message we need now more than ever, and this is a record we need now more than ever. Some Rap Songs overcomes its title to become something so much more, being not only the best album of Earl Sweatshirt’s discography, but one of the best records of the decade.

10 out of 10

— Dan Fiorio, Music Blogger

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