Asking Earl Sweatshirt for new music almost became a rite of passage on Twitter. Click on any tweet on his static timeline and there will surely be 60 fans parroting some variation on “Drop the album, Thebe.” Not liking shit and not going outside wasn’t an excuse for the lack of music from the most infamous rap castaway of the decade. Life marches on, regardless of our wants and needs, as the rapper born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile knows better than most.
Earl was the wunderkind spitter at the center of Odd Future, the 16-year-old son of South African poet Keorapeste Kgositsile and law professor Cheryl Harris with a superhuman gift for words and a knack for horrific imagery at odds with his deadpan vocals. He was an outcast sent to rehab just as his career began to explode, a boy abruptly chucked through the goalpost of adulthood. He was a reluctant star trying to fit an old personality, one that had been aggressively meme’d to hell and back in his absence, and an old soul in young skin choosing to work through his emotional baggage on wax. And then, he was quiet.
Three and a half years between albums is an eternity in today’s music industry, and Earl Sweatshirt has lived a lot of life in the margins. He recently mended his relationship with his mother but missed that opportunity with his estranged father, who passed away earlier this year. Earl continued to absorb music and creep deeper and deeper into the muddy textures of lo-fi hip-hop. Sporadic features on songs by Danny Brown and producer Samiyam proved that his gift for deceptively simple rhymes was still intact, just as he began applying those gifts to crackling loops and soundbeds for indie stalwarts like Mach-Hommy and Denmark Vessey. Earl embraced this new path and crafted in silence, emerging with his third studio album, Some Rap Songs, in tow.
The hype train has finally pulled into the station, y’all. Earl Sweatshirt Album Done.
There are few artists this side of Frank Ocean who can disappear for three-plus years to this much fanfare and speculation, but if early singles “Nowhere2Go” and “The Mint” are any indication, Earl Sweatshirt has come to speak his truth on his own terms.
Me? I’m just ready to sit back and listen to Some Rap Songs for my first ever 1 Listen album review. Of course, in usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Let’s have some fun.
1. "Shattered Dreams"
A shower drain-dirty loop. The Knxwledge influence jumped out EARLY. I hope they work together more. "Why ain't nobody tell me I was sinkin'?" This feels like a Behind The Music episode come to life. "I take the tour chips and get some decent decor," Earl money talk is rare, geddit king! Earl is getting straight to the point and sounds fly as hell doing it. This is that midnight blunt puff and pass music. His voice is buried in this vocal mix and I couldn't possibly care less. Nice, mellow start. I can already tell people are gonna hate this album.
2. "Red Water"
Is he rapping from inside of a tin can? "Blood on my father, I forgot another dream." Earl might be outside now, but the grief is Paper Boi thick. I see what he meant when he said he's been focused on loops. Production is filthy in the best possible way. Repeated the same bars over and over. An interlude disguised as a song. I need more!
3. "Cold Summers"
So far, nothing but smooth ass beats sourced from your homie's closet. Earl knows he's been gone for a while and he came out swinging with this one. "Cold summers don't tussle with strangers." This beat sounds sun-baked but the bars are John Snow cold. "Muffle my pain and muzzle my brain up." He's in his Jansport. Prodigy would be proud, RIP. Wait...that was it? I was expecting short, but not this short!
The album's first single made it up! This beat still sounds like a banger stripped for parts. Bizarro Travis Scott would have fun over this one. This boy is DROWNING in the mix but he sounds so comfortable, even oddly triumphant. "I need a city to hold down." The flow is wild but the song kinda passes me by. It's background music that I wanna blast across my hallway.
5. "December 24"
Shout out Denmark Vessey on the beat! He and Earl have amazing chemistry. "Alan with the pick fro." WHAT AN IMAGE. Earl sounds fired up. He's the footprint on top of the muddy snow. Black Power through the fuzz and the haze. I can't wait to see people try to mosh to this. The live show is gonna be a sight, that's for sure.
6. "Ontheway!" ft. Standing On The Corner
"I don't label the bags, I stay in 'em." These songs have been brief but Earl is making the limited words he's rapping count. For anyone thinking about fucking with Earl's friends... Don't. Is he talking about a lean addiction? Man, he's been through it. A little sing song-y like Wiki.
7. "The Mint" ft. Navy Blue
A BLACK DYNAMITE SAMPLE! That shit gets me every time. Navy Blue with a nice short verse for your feelings. "Bumping shoulders with the devil in disguise." Man, these bars are NASTY! Earl is pouring his heart out on these songs and I'm feeling all of it. I really wish these joints were mixed better, though. Not everyone needs to be Grisleda dirty. So goes the independent minds of rap. This sounds like the spring night in between a California winter and a New York summer. A real keeper as it gets colder.
8. "The Bends"
Seven tracks in and I'm amazed that Earl had the nerve to ask a major label to release a Bandcamp album. "Bend, we don't break." SPEAK IT! I'm eagerly awaiting to meet the 17-year-old who wants to talk to me about the new Earl Sweat jams. This vocal sample is kinda grating but the loop is undeniable. It's begging for a Mach-Hommy guest verse on the backend. He'd probably ask for the entire album budget.
An album cut called "Loosie?" Hilarious. This track sounds warped by sewer water. I feel like I should be buying this album from a record shop with roaches in between the gatefolds. "We hard to get involved with." You got that right, bro. Another brief flash. We're already nine tracks in? How, Sway?
"There's not a Black woman I can't thank" is a fucking BAR! If Earl could sing, this sounds like it would be his ballad. He's talking about his mother. "Azucar" is Spanish for sugar, figures with a beat that sounds this sweet. Short and sweet, more like.
Earl's bars are as sharp as ever but they're clashing with these beats. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it sounds like a high school kid's demo. This is teetering the line for me. Earl sounds caught between four different TV channels. "Say goodbye to my openness." Depression lingers in ways that coming outside can't always fix.
How does Earl keep finding the pockets on these beats? They're so unpredictable. He's got a MIKE flow on this one. It sounds like a leftover from May God Bless Your Hustle, word to sLUms. Talks of Trumpland and spending money faster than he earns it. My empty pockets hear you, Lord. "It's been a minute since I've heard applause." I love this approach but I'm blown that something so muddy was released on a major label. It sounds like an independent movie theater on the outskirts of the hood. Even as a fan of lo-fi rap music, these beats are cooking my brain.
13. "Playing Possum" ft. Cheryl Harris & Keorapeste Kgositsile
A woman's voice; is that his mother? Yep, she called him Thebe! "To my partner Mysteria, who I love and depend on more than I can say." Did she just come out? "A thousand kisses." I love this connection. And her speech is layered over audio of his father reading a poem. Earl allegedly saved this as a surprise for his father but he didn't live long enough to hear it. This is gutting. If you love someone, I promise you should tell 'em; word to Tierra Whack. This is a family portrait put to a beat. An arresting moment. I'm calling my mom.
Wow, I don't know how the hell you top that. Let's see what this Peanut is hitting for. More distortion, Earl is wading through a cloud of it. "This is not a phase." He's mourning his father—this was clearly recorded after his passing. He sounds adrift here, but he's not afraid to embrace any of it. Abrupt cut, whoa.
A nice guitar loop and some crackles open "Riot!" Interesting. Sounds like this project is ending with no vocals at all. Earl floated off, but is he okay? Is this what he wanted? Does it matter? The loop here sounds sunny and comforting, so I guess he's cool wherever he is. Tyler also ended his last album with a wordless instrumental outro. Is there a connection there? And just like that, the album evaporated.
Final (first listen) thoughts on Some Rap Songs:
Calling Some Rap Songs a challenging album would be an understatement. The songs are short, the beats are gorgeously crafted loops that stop and start with no warning, and the mixing is deliberately muddy. Unlike, say, El-P, who managed to blend his underground and pop sensibilities when he transcended to alt-rap titan as one half of Run The Jewels, Earl Sweatshirt has smuggled the lo-fi sound—warts and all—onto a major label release in wholesale fashion. It reminds me of fellow Californa rapper Blu, who found success alongside Exile on Below The Heavens and then descended into the glitched-out Los Angeles beat scene.
On the bright side, Earl's sway over a younger audience has all but guaranteed that their eyes and ears will be glued to a scene that hasn't received shine much brighter than the independent blogosphere. The beats he's chosen here simmer and crumble unlike anything else he's rapped on in the past, revealing layers equally sun-caked and frostbitten. Earl is mournful yet funny, adrift and ruffling through thoughts of his father and his lingering depression like an old photo album with singed ends. The bars and the beats clash in a way befitting of an album cover featuring a blurry and butchered selfie, teeth stacked together in a terrifying smile below glaring eyes.
That image actually perfectly encapsulates Some Rap Songs: confrontational and self-aware enough to know where to slot the jokes and the misery. Earl is finally back out in the sun, ready to face a public who may not be fully ready for him—or this album. Twitter fingers tend to go quiet when people actually get what they ask for. For Earl's sake—for the sake of hip-hop and Black music—I hope people are willing to sit down with these rap songs.