During his 1969 lecture “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” writer James Baldwin admits he doesn’t like the word “artist.” He recognizes the moniker as an “imprecise word,” which attempts to get at the heart of how human beings experience reality. The word may not suffice the way he’d like it to, but he relishes the duties of the so-called “artist.” Near the end of his lecture, he explains an artist’s responsibility to the world:
“Only an artist can tell what it is like for anyone who gets this planet to survive it. What it’s like to die, or to have somebody die. What it’s like to fear death. What it’s like to fear. What it’s like to love. What it’s like to be glad.” –James Baldwin
A vocal sample of Baldwin saying “imprecise words” is the first sound bite we hear as Earl Sweatshirt begins his album Some Rap Songs. One of the virtues of any artist is honesty, and Earl’s honest display puts himself and the listener off-balance within the album’s opening seconds. From the sound of the self-produced opening track “Shattered Dreams,” Earl can tell you a lot about navigating grief through the haze of regret. The woozy vocal sample acts as a sliding floor through Earl’s psyche, foreshadowing uncertain times: “It was holes in the boat, we didn’t make a fuss,” he mutters with 20/20 hindsight.
Some Rap Songs is an album as preoccupied with forward momentum as it is with backward glances. Finished in the wake of the death of Earl’s father and South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, the project paints grief in every color and depicts trauma at every temperature. As dark as its subject matter can be, Some Rap Songs is an album about embracing love and friendship in the face of fear. One year later, its power is still entrancing.
Take “December 24th.” Present are traumatic thoughts of Earl’s grandmother’s alcoholism and bad tabs of acid, but he doesn’t steep himself in them. Instead, they exist simultaneously alongside affirmations from friends and himself for merely surviving another day. Earl’s depression may be real, but so is the fight.
“I made the beat right in Alchemist’s beat room,” Detroit polymath Denmark Vessey, the song’s producer, tells me over the phone. “I was more a fan than anything, but it was cool to be there on some humble shit.”
Earl liked the beat so much; he took it off of Vessey’s hands on the spot.
Denmark and Earl first made contact in late 2015 after Earl shouted out the Martin Lucid Dream EP on Twitter. Years later, Earl provided Denmark with a handful of beats, several of which soundtracked a portion of Denmark’s 2018 album SunGoNova. During a trip to California, Vessey was offered a unique opportunity to return the favor—a favor Vessey wouldn’t hear about again for several years.
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“I was on the internet one day and stumbled across some random Earl shit and clicked on the song and realized ‘Damn, that’s my beat,’” Vessey says with a laugh, referring to “Bad Acid,” a song Earl premiered on his Red Bull Music show Stay Inside.
Across Some Rap Songs, Earl draws heavy inspiration from the youth of the New York underground rap scene. Earl shouts out rappers MIKE and Medhane multiple times; various members of genre-bending band Standing On The Corner assist with the album’s production and mixing; professional skateboarder and rapper/producer Navy Blue is the album’s only rap feature.
According to sLUms member and “Nowhere2Go” co-producer Darryl Johnson, this creative decision was no coincidence. Earl met most of the crew at the XL Recordings studio in New York in 2017 and began showing his face more often in 2018, around the time Johnson and Adé Hakim started work on the skittering beat that would eventually become “Nowhere2Go.”
“I know a lot of people were confused when it first dropped because that was the first single,” Johnson tells me in his apartment kitchen. “People were like ‘What is this? Who made this?’ Seeing people not get it at first but having it grow on them eventually has been crazy to see. I’m glad he chose that.”
The off-kilter energy of “Nowhere2Go” proved to be the rule rather than the exception across Some Rap Songs. Fans of Earl’s work live and die by the rapper’s beat selections. The production is as densely layered as the lyrics are direct and concise. “Say goodbye to my openness, total eclipse / Of my shine that I’ve grown to miss when holding shit in,” Earl says through a cacophony of samples on the aptly titled “Eclipse.” The honesty is in the form—the deliberately lo-fi production, the short runtime—as well as the content.
Earl’s honesty on Some Rap Songs has since served as a blueprint for many within the new New York underground, but their relationship to the artist is one built uniquely on equivalent exchange. Every sound piggybacks off of another, creating musical webs connecting the laconic flows of MIKE’s Tears of Joy, the stoic poeticism of AKAI SOLO’s Alone Throughout Heaven and Earth, and the bruised bluntness of Medhane’s Own Pace and back again. Earl took on as much inspiration as he’s doling out.
Baldwin was right; the word “artist” is often imprecise. “I’m not interested in talking to you as an artist,” Baldwin elaborated in his lecture. “It seems to me that the ‘artist’ struggle for his integrity is a kind of metaphor.”
A year removed from the release of Some Rap Songs, I’m unsure Earl Sweatshirt would be comfortable calling himself an artist. He finds solace in being heard and understood, rather than seen. His rawness, like all self-expression, is made artful through our reactions to it. Without an audience, there is no art. With Some Rap Songs, Earl figured out how to gather an audience. But he did it on his terms.