Earl Sweatshirt Some Rap Songs

[Tan Cressida/Columbia; 2018]

Styles: bloodletting, sludge rap
Others: “Press, King, Navy, Med, MIKE on the bench”

“It ain’t really bout the lyrics or the wordplay / Boy this something from my spirit and my worst days”
– MIKE, “GREEDY”

Somewhere in our photo libraries is a snap unready for the moment of its internment. The image may be blurred, out of focus, or overexposed. Whatever the imprecision is, its presence, born of a rush, calls for memory’s counsel. We fill in what the camera couldn’t possibly know, and we toggle our understanding until at ease with the frame of things. “That’s what happened,” and we cling. “Imprecise words”

For an artist like Earl Sweatshirt, imprecise snapshots of who he was — or wasn’t — have long been taken against his own terms. His absence from the spotlight and his precocious rhymes, anarchically cutthroat but promising of a directed fury to come, brewed intrusive speculation. Even as Earl revealed more of himself with songs like “Chum” and “Solace” or the bare-bones soliloquy I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, his openness only quickened hypotheses about his mental health and requests for more of the “real” Earl. Some of these demands were more insensitive than others, but their plea was mutual: kick us some sad bars so we know you’re feeling it too. Say goodbye to my openness, total eclipse…

Mercifully, Some Rap Songs arrived. Almost every head had a take, usually on either side of the lazy consensus that the album sounds like Madvillainy or of the hip antithesis that it’s inspired by, MIKE’s MAY GOD BLESS YOUR HUSTLE. The hype was real. Earl was praised for finding a way to further the introspection of his previous record and to tap into the wellspring of “abstract” takes on hip-hop and jazz rising out of NYC from the likes of King Carter, Medhane, MIKE, navy blue, Sixpress, and Standing on the Corner. He discovered a new family and a new way of encoding the real, of sealing a “classic.” We givin’ praise and glory to your name, kid…

There’s no telling how long Some Rap Songs will be hyped, but its provisional induction as a classic is striking for how off-color it seems in context. The understatement in the album’s title is only one of many clues that suggest an aversion to swift prophesying. Earl’s verses, largely shorn of the crowded internal rhyme schemes that won him comparisons to DOOM, sound fragmentary and off-the-cuff. They’re still artfully written, but they drift and sink, shuttling between the windfall of community and the free-fall of slipping into habits that have always threatened those ties. I’m a man, I’m just saying that I stayed imperfect…

Earl’s scuffles with depression and substance abuse were never secrets, but they’re now at least more acceptable to discuss openly given the sweeping hunger for artists to reflect the anguish of the present. As ever, the burden disproportionately falls on black artists, whose pain seems more justified to the armchair slouch. Earl’s recourse is not unlike that of such pop auteurs as Blood Orange and his day one Frank Ocean: art that’s personal to the point of mistiness, where diaristic references and idiomatic flips make sense only to those nearest or at least attentive enough. The effect from a distance is alienating and intimate, as if overhearing a private conversation in which the tenor is clear but the details are smudged. Kept the truth in my palm and my chest…

The immediacy of the album’s moods owes much to the raw production, handled mostly by Earl but also with assists from new NYC familia Shamel (Gio) of Standing on the Corner and Sixpress, Detroit plugs Black Noi$e and Denmark Vessey, and Odd Future old-timer Sage Elsesser. Like much of the instrumentation on sLUms projects, the beats sound like soul and jazz vinyl dragged in sludge and chopped to center whatever few bars poke longingly through the mire. They pass quickly, but their strange familiarity conveys what’s needed to both disquiet and soothe. The loop hold up the belt, G’s felt…

Concise and deft as the music is, one would be remiss to pretend the sound is an unexplored blueprint for hip-hop. Not only does it echo the work of his fellow NYC-based artists, but it also shares traits with the humbly reflective music of underground hip-hop artists like Maxo, Pink Siifu, and Vik. Debates about ownership are needless, especially since many of these artists are known collaborators or friends of collaborators, but ignoring the record’s debt to community risks erasure. Earl has always toasted to independent talent, from Lil Ugly Mane in 2012 to more recent artists like BbyMutha and Mach Hommy, and his latest is another tea light for a vibrant grassroots scene. Get some more ribbons for the born winners from the jump…

More than with any musical influence, Earl’s gratitude for others is clearest in his writing. The basement solipsism of I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside has given way to a liberal use of the plural “we,” a belonging that may seem unlikely for the kid who once said on “Chum” that he was “too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks.” That sort of psychological reading is tenuous at best, but it’s hard to leave unremarked how tender Earl is toward women in his lyrics. We don’t need to moralize about the rapper’s past to acknowledge that it’s a sign of maturity when he no longer punches down to muffle his pain. Instead, failed relationships are processed as opportunities for growth, and women are given overdue appreciation. My cushion was a bosom on bad days / There’s not a black woman I can’t thank…

For all its signs of progression, the record is never heavy-handed with its ambition. Its unforced attempt at making sense of the fraught present, at finding shelter without resorting to convenient escape, is a rare and, dare I say, sincere feat. Some Rap Songs refuses a neat, generalizable diagnosis of the state of Earl or of the world, and for that it deserves time in a stirless room of the mind where speculation is kept at bay. In the fullness of remembrance, these fragments and stains might fuse into something like insight, but only if we release them from ambiguity by fitting them into our own experience. There, in the deep-set rearview, solace is tending. We roam tundras…

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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