Some brief thoughts on ‘Some Rap Songs’

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 1:31pm

Earl Sweatshirt

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Columbia Records

In a recent interview with Vulture, rapper Earl Sweatshirt reflected on the sound of his most recent third studio album Some Rap Songs, stating that, “(the album) is infinitum. It’s the snake eating its tail.”

As the quote suggests, Some Rap Songs brings to mind an image of the ouroboros. Each song is built solely off of loops — segments of endlessly repeating warped beats, stripped-down instrumentals and muffled audio clips. Each track’s end eats the beginning of the next, creating a sort of timeless vacuum both within the songs themselves and within the album as a whole. In this nebula, Earl Sweatshirt floats, allowing his verses to unravel, free-form and purposefully off-beat. The resulting sound is markedly different from the sharp technical perfection of any of Earl’s past projects, yet to produce something polished doesn’t seem to be the point. Within the hypnotism of intense loops, Some Rap Songs constantly redefines itself, creating a layered meditation on where Earl Sweatshirt has been, on how he is now and on where he could go in the future.

In the ouroboros, it is impossible to arrive at the end without simultaneously stumbling upon the beginning. In the same sense, it is impossible to appraise this album without first looking back.

Earl Sweatshirt made his official debut in 2010 with the release of the “EARL” music video. “I got nuts to bust, and butts to fuck, and ups to shut / And sluts to fucking uppercut / It’s O-F, buttercup, go head, fuck with us,” he raps over scenes of him and other members of Odd Future (see: OFWGKTA) loitering around various locations in Los Angeles. Under a fisheye lens, they drink a suspiciously brown concoction that is equal parts prescription drugs, cough syrup, malt liquor and marijuana. They end up convulsing on the ground, foaming at the mouth and spitting up various bodily fluids. This offensively grotesque parody of body horror matches the insolence of the self-titled mixtape “EARL” emerged from. Here, verses barbed with hostility and cartoonish rowdiness land like punches to the gut.

Earl is aimlessly angry, pushing the boundary of social acceptability without any substance behind the drive. Yet, there was no denying Earl Sweatshirt’s skill — heavy-handed wordplay unpacking neatly, precise yet still unpredictable — and he soon caught attention, especially after disappearing shortly (spending a hiatus at a boarding school in Samoa) after Earl’s release, as the rest of Odd Future adopted “Free Earl!” into a rallying cry. In this absence, Earl Sweatshirt became a symbol that Odd Future used in part to catapult themselves further into the public sphere, an anarchic representation that was discordant to the Earl who ended up returning two years later to L.A. Within his time apart from Odd Future’s chaotic world, he found space to turn his attention inward, changing perspectives as he changed physical locations. 

Perhaps a result of this isolated period of discovery, or perhaps not, in between every single project Earl Sweatshirt has released — from Earl to 2013’s Doris to 2015’s I Don’t Like S**t, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt to this year’s Some Rap Songs — there has been a progression: of technical skill, of self, of forms of expression. This growth is evident within Earl’s music. Doris dismantles Earl’s juvenile foundations and builds them anew, grounding songs in more personal subject matter and showcasing a greater variation in sound while still maintaining the dense, twisting, MF DOOM-esque lyricism he became infamous for in 2010.

I Don’t Like Shit takes Doris’s eclecticism and flattens it, focusing inward. Sweeping samples and bright jazz-infused chords are made murky, transformed into fragmented instrumentation and muddled melodies — a dark backdrop that Earl cuts right through. Oftentimes rapping at a slower pace than he did on Doris or Earl, his words seem to be the biggest focus of I Don’t Like Shit, diving into his own psyche with a heaviness that was never quite as apparent before. If this was rock bottom, then Some Rap Songs arrives like the first breath of air after emerging from the waves. It cuts all the previous deadweight to effortlessly hang suspended: a masterwork of efficiency.

In the grand scheme of Earl Sweatshirt’s entire discography (save for 2015’s loosie “solace”), Some Rap Songs stands out as a kind of anomaly. Rather than the clean organization of bars delivered one on top of the next in staccato bursts, this album is more organic. It glitches; it hisses; it loops relentlessly over bars that aimlessly drift off into a multitude of directions. Take opener “Shattered Dreams” — the loop begins with a sample from author James Baldwin. “Imprecise words,” Baldwin states and the beat haltingly picks up, stumbling under the drawn-out fuzzy repetition of “dreams.” Beneath it all, Earl ambles into nonsequiturs, “Mask off, mask on, we trick-or-treatin’ / Back off, stand-offish and anemic / Yeah, my n***a Ish, told him it’s a feelin’ / Blast off, buckshot into my ceilin’.” The result is a track that sinks into an introspective haze, and within its garbled notes, Earl taps into a nearly uncharacterizable sentiment: a yearning, a searching and a wistfulness for something just beyond reach.

This strange abstraction of mood and sound is due in part to Some Rap Songs’s collaborators. The crew of young artists who worked on the album with Earl — NYC rappers MIKE and Medhane, alongside rapper/producer Sixpress and innovative collective Standing on the Corner, among others — are all known for pushing experimental boundaries within their own music, splintering apart traditional aspects of jazz and hip hop in order to create a more unorthodox form of soul-searching. “I be with Mike and Med / Nowadays I be with Sage and with Sixpress, ya dig?” Earl says on “Nowhere2Go,” and it’s easy to see the effect of these new relationships through the album’s preference for feeling over structure.

Most of the tracks on Some Rap Songs hold some kind of technical malfunction — Earl Sweatshirt’s raps don’t sit quite right on the looped sample of Soul Superiors’s 1970 song “Trust In Me Baby” on “Ontheway!” and his verses in “Peanut” are chopped and layered so roughly it becomes difficult to discern the words — yet it is these very cracks in the album’s musical landscape that allows the underlying emotion to be so easily perceived. Much like J Dilla brought a human aspect to the mechanics of his programming, incorporating aspects of swing and groove into his hip-hop beats, the flaws on Some Rap Songs make the album feel more personable as the unfocused looping samples give Earl Sweatshirt an opportunity to wander into self-reflection.   

Some Rap Songs is an attempt to reconceive not only what kind of music Earl Sweatshirt creates but who exactly Earl Sweatshirt is. On “Playing Possums,” Earl stitches together recordings of an old speech his mother, Cheryl Harris, gave at UCLA and his recently deceased father, Keorapestse Kgositsile, reciting an excerpt from his poem, “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow.” “To my son Thebe,” we hear Harris say. “Cultural worker and student of life, whose growth and insights inspire me,” and in the background, Kgositsile slowly echoes, “For some children / Words like home / Could not carry any possible meaning / But / Displaced / Border / Refugee.” It is an effort to reconcile two very strained familial relationships, and although Kgositsile passed away before he could hear it, the intent behind “Playing Possums” still remains strongly rooted within the framework of Some Rap Songs: a cathartic letter addressed in the form of music, bringing with it the belief that there is always a chance to rebuild anew again.