If the title of Earl Sweatshirt’s long-awaited third studio album feels like he’s underselling it, it’s because he is. He’s intentionally reducing the magnitude of an offering from one of the most lauded artists of the decade from a grand gesture to a gift with no wrapping. The rapper born Thebe Kgositsile’s worst enemy is—and has always been—our collective expectations and the entitlement that comes along with them.
It’s always been Earl versus the world. Fame found him at the age of 16, making him an internet sensation, then a meme, then an enigma, and finally, an icon. For an introverted kid who knew he could rap but was reluctant to accept the exposure and invasions of privacy that came with being a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, it’s been an uncomfortable evolution. Voracious fans threatened to consume not just his music but his personal life too. That same entitlement caused the “FREE EARL” campaign to mutate from eager appreciation to scary obsession and stoked fans’ demand for music during the three years since his last album—even as he was mourning his father’s death earlier this year. Rather than bask in the attention, he recoiled from it, setting himself apart from peers who maintain relevance through carefully strategized ubiquity. As he receded from the spotlight, his mystique grew—as did fans’ desire to hear him to do what he does best.
His followers tend to come in two flavors: those who gravitate to Earl, the spitter—the guy who dazzles with multisyllabic couplets and clever similes; and those come for Earl, the relatable mope—an avatar for their own emotional pain. But on Some Rap Songs listeners are challenged to take him not in parts but as a whole, in the form he is in now: a poet philosopher who is also the face of an emerging sound and scene.
Earl has always been a reflection of the collaborators around him. His first tape, Earl, and his official debut, Doris, rest squarely in the Odd Future canon. His second album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, established Earl’s identity as a man apart from the then dissolving crew and saw him working with East Coast rappers also dealing with dark emotions and budding rap careers in New Jersey’s Da$h and New York City’s Wiki. Now, on Some Rap Songs, the 24-year-old has become the OG to a vanguard of younger artists who are blurring the lines between avant-garde jazz and hip-hop.
The world created by Earl and his new cohorts—including up-and-coming NYC rappers Medhane and MIKE, producer-rapper Sixpress, aka Ade Hakim, of the Bronx collective sLUms, and Gio Escobar, frontman for genre-bending ensemble Standing on the Corner—is based on abstraction, where form is secondary to mood. It’s where the concept of Blackness is radical and the practices of soul-searching are channelled through a lo-fi sound replete with off-kilter loops, samples that get chopped beyond recognition, and audio clips that feel both random and apropos.
The project is distinctly rough around the edges, to great effect; there’s the sound of dust popping off vinyl and cassette hiss throughout. With these imperfections, Earl and company tap into the same sort of illegible, yet undeniable, feeling jazz musicians capture in slurred notes. The cross-influence between Earl and his cohorts is evident in his vocals too. On the Navy Blue-produced “The Bends,” Earl flexes what feels like a MIKE-like monotone to get off his stream-of-consciousness raps. That is, until you realize that MIKE’s own delivery is influenced by Earl. This is symbiosis, not thievery.