Earl Sweatshirt Relearned Freedom and Standing on the Corner Learned with Him

Freedom emancipated Thebe.
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The last bell before summer vacation was one of the most liberating moments of being a kid. Even if only for a season, it’s the singular point where structure flies out the window, homework ceases, and freedom abounds. It wasn’t like the bell would ring and Purge-level anarchy would break out, but in comparison to being in school, vacation felt like driving a car for the first time. It was freedom.

This version of freedom—the casting off of all structures and the ability to do whatever we want—isn’t what Earl Sweatshirt’s new album Some Raps Songs teaches us. The album reimagines it as a state of active reconciliation, where you take stock of what you have and what you don’t and allow yourself the space to express.

In all of Earl Sweatshirt’s discography, his given name has been somewhat obscured. His music utilized his incisive lyricism to paint poignant vignettes of his struggles and vices, while never having to pull back his hoodie to reveal the man born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile.  Past albums laid bare struggles with an absent father, addiction, and loss, but in them, Earl Sweatshirt never attained the freedom to shed his Odd Future alter ego.

Since 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Earl learned what freedom is, in its most natural sense. He learned natural freedom isn’t all of a sudden being able to take off all the shackles; it isn’t the liberation of the final bell of the school year. Some Rap Songs is steeped in the black tradition of experiencing freedom as reconciliation—labeling all of your baggage, picking it up at baggage claim, and walking out of the airport ready for what comes next.

But this spirit isn’t something he came to independently. Much like the brighter more rigid loops of Some Rap Songs, it was a product of the company he kept and the tradition he operated in.

Following his stint with Odd Future, Earl sought the refinement of a collective that continues the legacy of storied beatsmiths like Dilla and Madlib. He name-drops Sage Elsesser and MIKE, has worked with Mach-Hommy, Denmark Vessey, and Knxwledge, and features both the aforementioned Elsesser (aka Navy Blue) and Standing on the Corner on his new album. A loose collective creating music in a variety of lanes, but at every step celebrating raw expression and using heavily looped samples to do it.

Standing on the Corner is the most unlikely member of the collective. Earning a feature on “Ontheway!,” the group is best described as a band where instrumentation lies in mercurial harmony with samples. Led by Shamel Cee Mystery (aka Gio Escobar), a jack-of-all-trades pianist, rapper, vocalist, producer, and  more, the group features a roster that resembles a jazz outfit on paper, but in practice looks unlike anything you’ve seen before.

The group's 2017 album Red Burns captures the spirit of carefully orchestrated discord. The album features instrumentation at times warm and inviting and at others off-putting and discomforting. Jarring transitions are maneuvered by intentionally curated samples and vocal moments. The product is an effect akin to trying to hold a singular thought throughout the frenzied brilliance of Terrance Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness.

This eclectic group of friends released a Saint Heron-premiered performance the night of December 6. In it, the band performed for 16 minutes, moving with a kineticism which more than filled up the warehouse they were occupying and the headphones I listened through.

I don’t know what kind of music it was. I’m not even sure it was music. It felt like something else, something too intensely distinct, like an exhibition of clairvoyance expressed through the freedom of performance.

This performative freedom isn’t liberative independence. Standing on the Corner embody freedom as an ability to express, unrestrained, with no limitations to what can be produced. And their version is the highest concert of man.

A band of free-folk makes noise which seems heavy with discord, yet remarkably buoyant. In the space of their performance, the screwdriver-strummed guitar, the frenetic shrills from saxophone and trumpet, the steady lines carried by the bass, and the rest of the cavalcade of sound move without fear—from moments recalling the frenetic joy of toddlerdom’s kitchen-utensil instrumentation into sections of tightly organized jazz.

The cacophony of sound isn’t manic, much in the way Earl’s Some Rap Songs doesn’t jump between hard loops because it’s birthed from insanity or a lack of focus. In both the Standing on the Corner's performance and Earl’s Some Rap Songs, there’s a lesson about freedom as an achievement that doesn’t remove all your shackles. The lesson is one where freedom is the state you achieve after evaluating your place in this world and being willing to share every part of that experience.

The sounds of marginalization have always been lined with the palpable weight of pain. The spirituals filling churches on Sunday mornings in the South are stained with the toil and the blood of literal slaves on American soil. They sang passionately to immortalize their message, to make sure their struggles were expressed and heard. 

In his 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois had this to say about, as he called them, the sorrow songs: “...I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world...They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”

Evolution in a country unwilling to rectify its past mistakes meant black traditions updating sounds, contemporizing the experience. It gave us songs like “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “What’s Going On” but it also carried a tradition, one that bled into jazz, hip-hop, soul, and everywhere else the black imprint touches music. A tradition that exists out of necessity.

These sounds carry the weight of personal freedom. The only freedom the marginalized are allowed, the freedom that means taking stock of your position, gathering your bags, and walking outside anyway. The freedom expressed in your willingness and capability to give yourself to performance in spite of your position. Freedom is in Earl recognizing who he is on “Veins” when he raps “Since birth Mama raised and burped me, I ain’t changed / I’m a man, I’m just saying that I stayed imperfect,” and Standing on the Corner’s Gio Escobar begging the question “Will I ever be free?” before listing all the reasons why he isn’t.

Freedom is a state for which we constantly fight, one we have to pursue in spite of our contexts. It isn’t liberating in the American sense of independence, but it connects with the spirit of those that fought similar fights against the specters of defeat. A resolute acknowledgment of our freedom is how we get up in the morning and continue about our day in spite of everything that is stacked against us. It’s how we establish our own singular identities.

Freedom emancipated Thebe.

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