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Earl Sweatshirt doesn’t want to be famous. At least, he doesn’t seem to be making the effort. His new album (not sure you can call a record like this a “comeback effort”) doesn’t even have a memorable title. Some Rap Songs sounds like an afterthought; a tossed-off marketing necessity that’s only slightly more descriptive than “Album.” In 2018, some might consider not caring about the hype machine a sin. Hip-hop’s egos get bigger and bigger every day and the expectations for gaudy, omnipresent media blitzes become more entrenched in our minds. That he appears fully disinterested in being a part of that is what has created the cult of Earl.
In spite of his reluctance to be a star, we pay attention because Earl represents a commitment not to aesthetics, but to artistry. Some Rap Songs is a bleak affair, heavy with the weight of Earl’s father’s recent passing. Earl’s parents have played a major role in his public narrative, dating back to his infamous eight months in a reform school in Samoa, just as Odd Future was assuming control of the zeitgeist. Earl’s father dying before he could get closure on all of that isn’t likely to produce an upbeat party record, and it certainly doesn’t here. The songs are short, swampy, and decidedly lacking in anything resembling a catchy beat that isn’t a fleeting, mangled sample. If “Nowhere2go,” the big single from the album, popped up as you’re listening through RapCaviar on Spotify, you might be tempted to skip past it to find another banger, but why? It’s only a minute and 35 seconds.
“I couldn’t find a friend. Had to rely on my wits,” Earl says on “Nowhere2go,” a curious thing to say when his first moment in the spotlight was with a group of like-minded artists who ostensibly were his friends. If you can twist your mind enough, you might be able to make a case that Earl missing the early heights of Odd Future mania was the best thing for him; a sensitive, introverted artist avoiding the most crushing aspects of instant fame. “Sometimes, I feel like I wanna call it off. I can’t call it dog,” he says on “Veins.” Once you’ve chosen a career, or it’s chosen you, it’s not so simple to just quit. Earl sums up the dilemma: “I’ve been eating good. You can see it in my tummy. But I’m buggin. I’ve been spending more money than I’m making.”
What would a man who was thrust into the spotlight at 16 do if he simply dropped out completely? Thebe Kgositsile didn’t get a chance to prepare for a world without Earl Sweatshirt. When he says “Earl is not my name, the world is my domain, kid” on “Veins,” he’s both acknowledging the existence of the persona, but also the power it gives him to transcend. That he’s uneasy with the arrangement makes him more human. Earl could never be what Tyler is naturally — a Pied Piper of hip-hop, creating the kind of deftly realized alternate universe that kids can get lost in. Tyler’s a brand, a fit god, a proto-Jimmy Buffett for the culture (and I mean that as a compliment). That’s not Earl and it never will be.
He doesn’t fit with the face-tattooed SoundCloud generation and he’s not the multimedia mogul that Tyler has become. Some Rap Songs is the rare hip-hop record that doesn’t demand you play it in the car, with the windows down. In fact, it actively discourages it. The songs never have time to linger before they’re over. They’re miniature vignettes of a deep depression. While mental health issues and sadness are what propelled XXXTentacion into god-like status to a generation of young people willing to overlook his serious transgressions, Earl’s work doesn’t come with XXX’s gaudy appearance or romanticized violence. Nothing about Some Rap Songs makes depression seem appealing. It’s a bare, dusty floor of an empty room. It’s the replaying of old memories, as illustrated by the heavy use of sampling on the album — to be repeated and reassembled and manipulated over and over again.
If this is the last Earl Sweatshirt record, I don’t think anyone would be surprised. At the same time, if this ends up being a cleansing process for him and he comes back with an accessible, towering masterpiece, I’d see that coming, too. The world really is his domain, and he’s possessed of a talent that we desperately need.
Some Rap Songs is out now via Tan Cressida/Columbia Records. Get it here.