Every once in a while, an artist breaks the mold. When he looks to his contemporaries, he notices a void. Yet he does not place his focus in it. For that void has an appetite no man can satisfy. While others cling to material distractions, the artist searches for deeper meaning. This purposeful intent, though miserable on occasion, supersedes time and trends. Despite what the crowds clamor for, the artist chooses friends over ends. Family over Grammys. Pristine raps over greenbacks. The artist uses music to move it. It being the culture of those who came before him in the game. He ensures that they will know his name. Or learn it. Although that is something he may not be concerned with, one listen assures he is not the same. His true colors shine bright. And when the time’s right, he shares knowledge on how the world’s best work.
That artist is Earl Sweatshirt. Following his teenage exile to the island of Samoa, former Odd Future affiliate Thebe Kgositsile returned to a multitude of underground fans. His debut mixtape Earl garnered critical acclaim, all while helping make Odd Future one of the most popular rap acts of the decade. When his mother sent him away in 2010, he was without the tools necessary to make music. Needless to say, she was not an Odd Future fan. Due to his trouble-making tendencies, Earl took an 18-month hiatus from rap to finish high school. History shows that this only aided in his success. Both of Sweatshirt’s post-Samoa albums received praise from fans and critics alike. Though at the time I didn’t see the hype. Earl’s music is dark and depressing with a grim outlook on society and hip-hop as a whole. Back then, I wasn’t ’bout that life.
Eventually, though, I came around to his sound. About three years ago, I took a chance on his second studio album. Earl produced 90% of the album himself. His delivery is assertive. His lyrics slice into listeners souls, pitting truth against the plethora of pretenders. All of that is wonderful. Yet his music didn’t truly resonate with me. Until right now, that is. Earl’s third album Some Rap Songs is unlike any mainstream hip-hop out there. Calling him mainstream isn’t exactly correct despite his faithful and growing fan base. However, whenever he drops his name pops up on almost every year-end list. Here history repeats itself — less polished than ever before but somehow incredibly refreshing. This album’s title is misleading. Some Rap Songs hardly features songs at all. These 15 tracks function more like motifs than structured pieces of music. Themes of loss, transparency, and mental health come and go.
Similar to Earl’s recent batch of thoughts, this instrumental palette is loud, solitary, and repetitive. Samples of soul music and spoken word permeate this tracklist. This album will not knock your socks off in terms of hard-hitting beats or catchy hooks. But it will surprise you. It is seldom that an artist takes a risk such as this. The glitchy, washed-out production makes for a baffling first listen. I didn’t know what to do once “Riot!” ended abruptly. “What did I just listen to?” I remember asking out loud, to no one. Fans are comparing Some Rap Songs to Madlib and MF Doom’s Madvillainy and J. Dilla’s Donuts. The latter is what came to mind for me. Chopped-up soul in wacky, sometimes satanic succession had me shook. Earl’s innermost emotions spill from his wrists to the microphone. He sends a loving testimony into the cosmos, hoping karma pays him back.
In spite of his confident lyrical display, Earl is a broken man — especially in 2018. He lost both his father and uncle earlier this year. May they rest in peace. Kgositsile comes from a talented heritage. His uncle is known as the “father of South African jazz.” Also, his version of “Grazing in the Grass” hit number-one on the US pop charts back in 1968. Meanwhile, his father was a catalyst for melding African and Black poetry in the United States. Earl was born to create. He reciprocates the support given to him as a young man by featuring the words of his loved ones. “Playing Possum” includes an excerpt from his mother’s UCLA Law Keynote speech as well as a poem from his father, “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow.” To say this album is sincere would be an understatement, though for the moment I cannot find a more fitting word.
Conversely, not everything about this album tickles my fancy. At 25 minutes in length, this album’s high is fleeting at best. Additionally, most of these one-minute offerings need several listens to reach full digestion. At times, the samples are so in-your-face that it’s hard to hear what Earl is saying. This mix is mostly grainy but beautifully cohesive at the same time. If you’re a fan of silky smooth production and karaoke-friendly writing, then this album is not for you. “Mind workin’ like the water when it rush” is a comprehensive line to take away from this record. His thoughts flow back and forth in an attempt to piece together this puzzle we call life. This is art rap. Poetry in commotion, if you will. Albums like Some Rap Songs justify the versatility of hip-hop. Earl teaches but never preaches, allowing his pain to paint prosperity.