The Metamorphosis of Earl Sweatshirt, the Ron Harper of Rap

Earl Sweatshirt metamorphosed into an artist blurring the lines between absurdist jazz and hip-hop.
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Earl Sweatshirt, 2015

From an early age, I learned, through my father’s wisdom, that, to be a great NBA player, you have to be a great scorer. You had to be Ron Harper in his prime. 

My father and I would spend Saturday nights watching reruns of NBA games on ESPN Classic, letting ourselves become mesmerized by Larry Bird’s near-quadruple double in only three quarters against the Utah Jazz in 1985, or Cedric Ceballos’ 40 points on 15 shots in 1993. To be a great scorer meant you could be abysmal on defense and still find yourself beloved by fans, like die-hard music fans hyping up Drake’s new play-mix-albums because of the singles, completely disregarding the filler tracks. It is not about the consistency; it is about the glamour. When I was a kid, my father taught me about the pure scorers, the Reggie Millers of the world, the tough-as-nails giants unafraid to drive in the paint.

Okay, Ron Harper.

Ron Harper was a God in Cleveland, Ohio. For three seasons. The Cavaliers selected him eighth overall in the 1986 NBA Draft. The team had already spent the first overall pick on Brad Daugherty, a two-time All-ACC selection at North Carolina. Before Harper’s professional career, he was a two-time Mid-American Conference Player of the Year at Miami (Ohio) University. In 2020, he is still the all-time leading scorer in RedHawks history with 2,377 career points.

Harper never averaged less than 15 points a game in a Cleveland uniform—and that was on a team with Mark Price, Larry Nance, and Brad Daugherty. He also put up an unnoticed 22 points against the Chicago Bulls in Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals—the game known for Michael Jordan’s “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo.

In 1989, the Cavaliers traded Harper to the Los Angeles Clippers for pennies.

“We got so fucked over,” my father has long lamented about the trade.

In five seasons with the Clippers, Harper put up the following points-per-game numbers: 23, 19.6, 18.2, 18, and 20.1. Torn knee ligaments and cartilage injuries plagued Harper off-and-on, but he was still an offensive force in Los Angeles—a perfect rival to the Lakers’ James Worthy, who put up similar yearly numbers.

Yet, when Ron Harper dragged himself out of free agency to the Chicago Bulls in 1994, a team rebuilding after Michael Jordan’s first retirement, he was never the same player. In his first season in Chicago, he put up a career-low 6.9 points-per-game. However, for the first time in his career, the team he played for made it past the first round of the NBA Playoffs—defeating Larry Johnson and the Charlotte Hornets in four games.

In Cleveland and Los Angeles, Ron Harper was a force in the lane. A naturally-gifted dunker, Harper could thrash through defenders and shake an entire arena with one slam. When Jordan returned to Chicago in 1995, Harper reinvented his game—becoming an incredible defender on the perimeter, a top-tier ball handler, and lethal from mid-range, a perfect complement to Jordan’s nightly offensive tirades.

When the Bulls went 72-10 in the 1995-96 season, Harper started 80 games and put up 7.4 points a night. In the 1997-98 campaign, he put up 9.3 a game. 11.2 the following year.

Harper won five NBA Championships: three with Chicago and two with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I think we could have won one ring,” Ron Harper said, in an interview with The Plain Dealer, about how his career in Cleveland would have played out if the team had kept him.

My relationship with hip-hop became distant in 2014 after I was suspended from school, and my mother took away my cell phone and CD player. I started paying attention to the John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy songs playing through my school bus’ AM stereo. In the blink of an eye, my personal life became the inside of an Olive Garden—jazz spilling out of any speaker in listening distance, a world slowly becoming more detached from the digital landscape attempting to swallow me whole.

The problem with being grounded from your cell phone in a world where making and maintaining relationships relies on technology: What I considered to be a catastrophic loss, my parents considered an omen. I have never been much of an “outside kid.” I secluded myself to my bedroom to read the entire Hunger Games series in a week and took extreme advantage of the 30 minutes of daily internet time my mother allotted me. She blocked every website possible, except YouTube—a gigantic oversight on her part.

One night, when my mother was walking down the hallway and about to pass by the computer desk in our living room, I was on YouTube watching something—the specific video has long abandoned me, but I know it was stupid. I hurried to click off the video and pull up something remotely educational. I typed in the first word that came to mind. “Jazz.” 

I clicked on the first video, which was the official music video for Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue cut “So What.” I had heard of Miles Davis from the pants-pissing joke in Billy Madison, but I had never actually listened to his work. For the first couple of motherly walk bys, I frantically clicked on assorted clips ranging from the Thelonious Monk Quartet playing “‘Round Midnight” to a four-hour video of non-stop smooth jazz songs. Born from a quick move to avoid my mother’s scolding was an infatuation with bloated bass lines and gorgeous trumpet runs that slowly swelled. Around the same time, I started listening to Earl Sweatshirt’s solo stuff. I was 15 years old, had my learner’s permit, and Doris was a month old.

Doris carries a lot of jazz influence but sounds a lot like every other early Odd Future album: traditional and punch-packing, unparalleled in verse quality, clever and gorgeous. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is Earl’s evolution towards darker content after working with East Coast rappers.

Earl Sweatshirt could have easily kept doing the same old shit, regurgitating the same formula that ignited his meteoric rise in hip-hop around 2015. But Earl Sweatshirt loves jazz, just like me. What I love most about jazz is its lack of lyrics. Some jazz tunes have vocals, like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, but I have always been most interested in the voiceless cuts.

It is incredibly challenging to rap over an intensive jazz number, but Earl Sweatshirt doesn’t care. Some Rap Songs, his 2018 masterpiece, is 25 minutes of fragments, of jazz snippets overlaid with more jazz snippets. It is a replayable archive of gently worn, but distorted, pianos and vocals. Throughout the album, Earl inserts vinyl and tape hiss drags out imperfect, and sometimes slurred, instrumental runs like a drunk Coltrane—and it’s absolutely breathtaking each time. 

I think back to Ron Harper, who did the unthinkable by reshaping his once-dominant offensive game into a genius defensive output. Earl Sweatshirt, on top of his game with the I Don’t Like Shit opening cut “Huey” alone, metamorphosed into an artist blurring the lines between absurdist jazz and hip-hop. Some Rap Songs is one large emergence of sound and color—a completely original addition to the genre, doused in subtle influences from J Dilla and Madlib, a kaleidoscope of perfection, a collage of samples collected from the dollar-record crate at a Brooklyn record store.

On November 1, 2019, Earl Sweatshirt released the FEET OF CLAY EP. I dedicated an entire afternoon to it, despite the record’s 15-minute runtime. It is a project that demands countless playbacks to pick up on the sonic loveliness buried underneath some of Earl’s most-poignant verses. It also namechecks former NBA All-Stars Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Amare Stoudemire, and even four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace.

As the commercial successes of the hip-hop genre continue evolving into top-40-friendly singles, Earl Sweatshirt is becoming more of an artist just doing whatever the fuck he wants. Like Ron Harper winning five titles after going against the player-progression grain and averaging less than 10 points a game, Earl Sweatshirt’s most critically acclaimed albums are his most auditorily divisive—especially in how they continue to distance themselves farther and farther away from the canon.

Consider this: Earl is rapping against a crying violin on loop in “EAST”—creating his canon, inserting himself into as many genres as he can with a single album. I continue returning to the FEET OF CLAY opener “74” for the five seconds of heavenly electric keyboards sounding like trumpets that fade the track out.

The definition of “feet of clay” is this: a fundamental flaw or weakness in a person otherwise revered. Clay, for what it is worth, can be molded over and over until it is swallowed by insurmountable heat.

Someone I follow on Twitter slams Earl Sweatshirt for not making “music pleasing to the ear anymore.” My father sees Ron Harper on ESPN and claims he was never a good player after leaving the Los Angeles Clippers.

I imagine Earl Sweatshirt on top of a mountain, rejecting the wind’s song, laying down a verse so jagged and beautiful that the sky lets him paint it whatever color he chooses.

I imagine Ron Harper playing basketball in the driveway with his son, making simple post-defense look like the first unveiling of the Mona Lisa.

Both men, their bodies made of clay, somehow soaring towards the sun; spectacular, glittering, and cautious, smart enough to not get too close. 

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