Earl Sweatshirt – ‘Some Rap Songs’ review

Don't be fooled by the title – the rapper's third album is dense, experimental and deeply fascinating

Where is Earl Sweatshirt? It’s a question that fans and admirers of the supremely-gifted rapper have found themselves asking ever since he introduced himself at the age of 16 with ‘EARL’, his incendiary, shocking yet precocious mixtape. In a tale that now seems like a lifetime ago (2010, to be exact), Earl – AKA Thebe Kgositsile – was subsequently packed off to a reform school in Samoa after his mother became concerned by his behaviour, the rise of Odd Future and, most tellingly, his razor-tongued lyricism.

Earl returned from Samoa to find Odd Future at their zenith and a baying mass of fans – who’d devoured his every rap and screamed “Free Earl!” until their lungs were sore – clamouring for his talents, having bought into the myth of Earl Sweatshirt that had been propagated by his Polynesian ‘incarceration’. The gross-out, offensive side of Earl had largely disappeared, however, by the time his major label debut ‘Doris’ (named in tribute to his late grandmother) surfaced in 2013, as a wiser and more introspective narrator took hold on a record filled with guest spots from the likes of RZA, Frank Ocean and the late Mac Miller. The draining recovery process from a skateboarding accident plunged him to darker depths on 2015’s ‘I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside’, with Earl taking the reins on production to create a work which delved deeper than ever before into the complex psyche of its creator.

Bar a few fleeting guest verses in 2016, Earl then largely disappeared from view. In a rare interview ahead of ‘Some Rap Songs’, he revealed he’d been working on his new record for over two years (“I feel guilty holding the album,” he told Vulture. “I need people to listen to the whole thing. I feel like that’s the shit”), but plans to release it earlier this year were shelved following the death of his father, the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile in January. Earl had intended to reconcile with his dad through ‘Some Rap Songs’, but he never got the chance to play the album to him before he passed away. “Talking to him is symbolic and non-symbolic, but it’s literally closure for my childhood,” Earl explained in a statement upon announcing ‘Some Rap Songs’. “Not getting to have that moment left me to figure out a lot with my damn self.”

Keorapetse is understandably a recurrent presence on ‘Some Rap Songs’, from calling his son “chief” on ‘Red Water’ to the use of his voice on the beautiful ‘Playing Possum’, which samples both Keorapetse reciting the poem ‘Anguish Longer Than Sorrow’ and a speech given by his mother Cheryl Harris in 2016 where she hails Earl as a “cultural worker and student of life.” Family has so often been a source of inspiration for Earl (“My momma used to say she see my father in me,” he recalls on the soothing Azucar. “I said I was not offended”) and is further exemplified by this album’s final instrumental which samples his late uncle, the African jazz artist Hugh Masekela.

The chopped-up style of that closing track ‘Riot!’ is indicative of the patchwork sound Earl crafts throughout ‘Some Rap Songs’. Relinquishing some control of the production to the likes of Black Noi$e, Adé Hakim and Sage Elsesser, this added exterior presence in the studio helps orchestrate a woozy, sample-heavy palette which deliberately – and rather proudly – comes off sounding twitchy and unpolished. The ‘Madvillainy’-reminiscent loop of ‘Eclipse’, for instance, sounds like it’s being kept alive by a crank-operated generator, while the smoother ‘The Mint’ comes across like a vintage, crate-dug piece of J Dilla-produced hip-hop, cracked vinyl and all.

Brevity may be Earl’s preferred M.O. at this stage in his career – ‘Some Rap Songs’’ 15 tracks disappointingly come in just under the 25-minute mark – but his lyrics feel denser than ever. Largely sub-two minute blasts, each cut on the album comes and goes without too much fanfare as Earl challenges us to listen up or risk missing out on his latest batch of philosophical one-liners. “Stuck in Trumpland, watching subtlety decay,” he sighs about the fucked-up state of things on ‘Veins’ – which can be somewhat dealt with, as he explains on ‘Cold Summers’, by smoking weed to “muffle my pain and muzzle my brain up”.

Earl’s state of mind is explored, of course, from ‘Nowhere2go’’s sincere take on his struggles with depression (“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”) to ‘Eclipse’’s vivid hook: “Say goodbye to my openness, total eclipse / Of my shine that I’ve grown to miss when holding shit in”. The devastating ‘Peanut’, meanwhile, sees Earl reflecting on the grief he felt following the loss of his father: “Bless my pops, we sent him off and not an hour late / Still in shock and now my heart out somewhere on the range”.

This worldly and deeply affecting Earl Sweatshirt of 2018 seems so far removed from that mischievous 16-year-old kid who was seen excruciatingly picking out his fingernails in the ‘EARL’ video. ‘Some Rap Songs’ may be a brief exercise, but its ambition and the – largely successful – execution of its ideas demonstrate that the enigmatic Earl is as fascinating as ever. “I only get better with time,” he says on ‘Azucar’ – it’s hard to disagree.