Alongside video games, popular music is at the top of the list of America’s most reliable sources of moral panic. Half a century after Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips stoked mass hysteria, Odd Future, a blustering group of young California rappers and skaters, stirred concern and excitement in equal measure. On their early singles, which became hits about a decade ago, the members rapped nimbly and ferociously about subjects meant to shock and offend: gross-out body horror, casual homophobia and misogyny, and violent sexual acts, to name a few. Their rallying cry was all mischief, and probably not sincere: “Kill people! Burn shit! Fuck school!” By 2010, the leader of Odd Future was a nineteen-year-old named Tyler, the Creator, but the most captivating member was a sixteen-year-old who called himself Earl Sweatshirt. He was impossible to look away from, because he was so baby-faced, and impossible to stop listening to, because of the mastery with which he rapped about unsettling subjects.
Today, Earl Sweatshirt is a symbol of how quickly rap moves, and also an example of how a young rap star can evolve. At twenty-four, an age when most people are just starting a career and beginning to dabble in self-discovery, Earl is an elder statesman of hip-hop. In his raps and on social media, he comes across as a weathered and jaded old man rather than as an excitable youth. After Odd Future rose to fame, Earl Sweatshirt abruptly disappeared. He was enrolled in a strict all-boys program in Samoa by his mother, who wished to shelter him from the risks inherent to teen-age stardom. In absentia, he grew into a legend. When he returned, he focussed on his solo work, recording two albums (“Doris,” from 2013, and “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside,” from 2015) that were difficult to absorb, not because they were gruesome but because they were stylistically abstruse and emotionally raw. He’d morphed from a firecracker into a weary person grappling with depression and isolation, stubbornly resisting the temptations of mainstream rap. Teen-age revolt yielded to precarious mental health; daredevil experimentation with drugs in staged videos yielded to lyrics about self-medication.
Earl Sweatshirt’s new album, “Some Rap Songs,” offers listeners no easy inroads. Ambling and drowsy, the record finds Earl drained of—or perhaps relieved of—the urgency and belligerence that characterized his early music and drew comparisons to Eminem and the Wu-Tang Clan. On “I Don’t Like Shit,” Earl wrestled with the death of his grandmother and the dissolution of a romance. On this record, he has a more complex loss to sort through: the death of his father, the South African poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, from whom he was estranged. Kgositsile died in January, shortly before Earl was meant to reunite with him in South Africa. The gravity of this unfinished business left Earl in a state of pronounced introspection. “Not getting to have that moment left me to figure out a lot with my damn self,” he wrote in a press release when announcing the new record.
But “Some Rap Songs” does not document any sort of resolution. Instead, it languishes in the hazy confusion of Earl’s circumstances. In this, the album recalls the gauzy and meandering work of the cult rap hero MF Doom more than anything by the bellicose stars he was once compared to. The songs are brief, ornamented with subtle bits of spoken word and patchwork soul samples that add moments of levity and warmth. As always, Earl’s words tumble out of him, and the lines progress like dominoes, falling over in sluggish but steady succession.
For such a dexterous rapper, Earl is doggedly resistant to confronting matters head on. His voice is often buried in the production’s swirling, fragmentary fog, and his words frequently trail off. The microphone catches ambient noise, as though Earl were rapping from far away. There is a feeling of gentle voyeurism when listening to this album—it often seems as if a third party had switched on the tape midway through a verse, hoping to capture a spurt of profundity or confession, without the rapper’s permission. Yet many of the songs were self-produced, or made with the help of musician friends, like Standing on the Corner, a New York collective that makes genre-defying beats. The liner notes, where professional recording studios are typically listed, simply read, “Recorded and Mixed at home.”
Anyone hoping for a window into the reality of Earl’s quest will be disappointed. “Peanut,” the song that deals with his father’s death most explicitly, is also one of the album’s least legible tracks. It sounds as if Earl is on a surgical table, slowly succumbing to a thick blanket of anesthesia. “Bless my pops / She sent him off and not an hour late / Still in shock and now my heart out somewhere on the range / Out of range,” he says. His voice grows slurry and halting: “Like we making food / Father’s face but I’m not afraid / My uncle Hugh”—the song ends abruptly.
Maybe those early Odd Future recordings represented a kind of test, weeding out listeners who were too easily perturbed, too narrow-minded, or too impatient to listen closely. These new songs are meant to be experienced privately—enjoyed, at best; endured, at worst—with plenty of time to read lyrics from which clarity might never emerge.
More Info: newyorker.com