The alternative artist, the spirit of the avant-garde, thrives on necessity, on a deprivation that drives him to hunt new sources of sustenance.
When Earl Sweatshirt retreats from public view—as he’s done following every major release, every major fan outcry, and any overture from the music industry—he’s not a moody rapper gone into hiding. He’s a bear burrowing deeper into hibernation, awakening with an even more voracious appetite. He’s Predator dipping back into the muck to grow out tentacles (or Derrick Rose resurrection dreads).
Earl’s latest album, Some Rap Songs, shows yet again that if you give him time to grow hungry he’ll find something to pounce on and devour. Even at 16, when he had little experience to draw from, he delivered kicks from his outrageously crass and juvenile imaginings. With a prodigious ear for the eeriest flows, he’d slyly crawl through the most distorted punk production with an aplomb well beyond his years.
Belying (yet oddly blending with) his sober maturity was a sneering vulgarity. The rapper’s entry on the popular music stage, 2010’s Earl, introduced a teenager riding the wave of new hormones to the darkest parts of the beach (including the homophobic dunes—he said the “f” word a lot, and not the one we like to use around here).
We wouldn’t hear from Earl again till 2013. Round two, Doris, was a gem, the heinously poetic youth transforming from double-dare king to passionate, suspicious rap mind, the leader of the new alt vanguard.
Doris had more introspective moments, like the weepy, wartime letter-to-my-love maudlin notes rounding out the gallant “Sunday.” And creative gross-out bars gave way to imaginative yet textured scenes, packed in a passing comment through the confident maneuvering of language, delivered in Earl’s inside-voice, a poetry reading style that elicited sorrow and rage burbling beneath banality.
"I'm at the deli/Scheming on a Fanta and a Camel Crush screaming 'Saddle up!'/Like, "Fuck is beef?"/ Get your cattle cut," raps Sweatshirt on “Molasses,” building a Richard Linklater world of corner store mundanity in a few words, and endowing the main character--you, me, the person seemingly chilling as they pass you and swing the bell-ringing gas station door open—with a complex interior life.
Label issues hamstrung Sweatshirt’s next work, I Don't LIke Shit, I Dont Go Outside; while still good, it didn’t reach us completely uninhibited. And he was pissed about it. But despite the biz b.s., I Don't Like Shit was a significant further step inward, stripping away sawing synths and hinting at the jazzy direction he’s now taken on.
Some Rap Songs is another example of the New Jazz Rap, though Sweatshirt’s sample-heavy entry is a little different, adding the DJ scratches that contemporary artists who rely on live musicians tend to skip. Instead, Earl takes us back to earliest notions of rap as an evolution of jazz, to the dingy two-foot club stages where rappers stood alone, their vision of a big band or soul symphony chopped and repurposed, readdressed with a staccato, defiant, prideful, lively purr.
At this precipice of rap creation, Sweatshirt engages in lo-fi gusts of passion, often to profound effect, as when he intersperses his parents’ voices within a looping, grainy sample on “Playing Possum.”
“The Mint,” a contender for song of the year, is rap layering at its finest, each progression of the swaying, slyly saturated beat prodding bars that somehow casually pack humor, keen observation, one-line visceral scene making, and hushed sadness. “Brodie on the corner with a piece on his hip,” Earl begins, and it sounds like thug indifference, unsubtle bragging about how gun-toting is nothing to him. But then, with the next line, Sweatshirt swamps us in his sullen sophistication, upending every “Brodie” bias, shifting any judgment onto himself with a wink: “Give a warning 'fore you blow it in the sky.”
“Feet up on the dash/I hit the spliff but don't promote it.” Earl’s matter-of-fact honesty can be thought-provoking, tear-tugging, rage-inducing, and just plain comic, and his jazz influences allow him to move further inward, along a trajectory he’s been on for a while.
But Earl never settles for one sound. “Peanuts” returns a bit of the guttural synth backgrounding he nails like James Harden from way downtown, a difficult punk shot that he can jack up for a swish at any time. Earl is like a five-tool player testing each tool. His radicalness is sturdy, as his is minimal jazzy/soulful artsy stuff, his themes rich and durable, his spitting delivery and production tastes nearly unparalleled.
Some Rap Songs is even briefer than its predecessors—it tops out under 25 minutes, where I Don't Like Shit was under 30. It’s like he knows we can only take so much. Eventually, an incarnation of Sweatshirt’s Predator will be too deadly a renaissance rapper for the game, and he’ll kill it with a musical la petite mort.