Earl Sweatshirt is no stranger to documenting moments of darkness and grief with beautiful brevity. On his fourth studio album, SICK!, the 27-year-old Los Angeles rapper is reeling from the familiar traumas of his past while reckoning with the new challenges of a pandemic and his foray into fatherhood.
The aptly-named project runs for a mere 24 minutes in an effort Sweatshirt refers to as a “humble offering of 10 songs recorded in the wake of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns.” Despite its name, SICK! is filled with affirmations on healing and life’s inherent entropy that resonate well beyond the context of a global health crisis. With the help of production powerhouses like The Alchemist, Black Noi$e and Navy Blue, Sweatshirt doesn’t entirely adhere to the mold of his past work but is no less introspective and intentional.
On opener “Old Friends,” silky violin swells layer over a spare bassline as Sweatshirt muses, “The cost of living high, don’t cross the picket line and get the virus / Wild cat has got ’em in a bind, stay inside.” He sets the tone for the album’s reflections on isolation, both COVID-19-induced and stoked by pent-up personal strife, later adding, “I fill a void with the pen, feel the fear, shrill.” The track fades into the sounds of a thunderstorm, then suddenly whirs with the flickering electronic instrumentals of “2010.”
As the project’s energetic leading single, “2010” is a tale of survival and Sweatshirt’s “triumph over plight and immense loss.” He sounds almost relieved in acknowledging the scars of a past marked with addiction, a provocative rise to fame in hip-hop collective Odd Future and a rocky relationship with his mother and late father. Sweatshirt is rediscovering the beauty of the world around him, recollecting that he “walked outside, it was still gorgeous,” in a clear moment of character development since the homebound ruminations of his sophomore album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
Sweatshirt’s growth remains a consistent focal point of SICK!. On “Vision,” he samples a clip from the 1975 children’s theater production of “Black Fairy,” a play centered around teaching Black children about the beauty of their heritage when classical notions of magic fail to relieve them of their hardships. The speaker reminds the listener to, “tell them that they’re beautiful. Tell them that they’re Black,” a sentiment that holds added weight given the birth of the musician’s first child this past year. It’s evident that with all the adversity of the last few years, Sweatshirt has found hope and newfound purpose in fatherhood.
“Vision” is a kaleidoscope of swirling keys and thumping bass, accompanied by a verse from rising Detroit rapper ZelooperZ. “Tabula Rasa,” follows as another instance of SICK!’s strong features, this time from New York hip-hop duo Armand Hammer. The song’s title alludes to the idea that humans are born with “empty” minds before outside impressions disrupt their theoretically blank mental slate. Its heavy jingle of piano pairs with slowed and smoky percussion as Sweatshirt raps about finding solace and understanding through his writing, perhaps the only way he can reach this tabula rasa-level of clarity.
SICK!’s instrumentals remain as creative and carefully-crafted as any of Sweatshirt’s other projects, running the gamut between brassy ’70s funk on “Lye” to a steely, bouncing beat on “Titanic.” While not quite at the extreme end of Sweatshirt’s unorthodox spectrum of beats, each song clearly stands apart from the next despite the album’s cohesive somberness.
Sweatshirt has had time to refocus on SICK!, a determination that’s apparent even as he raps about the many lingering sources of pain in his life. Pain is pervasive within Sweatshirt’s discography, yet the artist seems particularly prepared to wrangle these seemingly uncontrollable circumstances and emerge a better man on his most recent project. Beneath the murkiness, Sweatshirt has found resolve, reminding both himself and the listener on closing track “Fire in the Hole” that, “It’s no rewinding, for the umpteenth time, it’s only forward.”
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.