Earl Sweatshirt is a unique rapper. His music, which oftentimes feels more like spoken-word poetry than traditional rap bangers, enriches hip-hop as a genre. The story of Earl’s career is also paramount to understanding the trajectory of his career thus far, and how he ended up in his current artistic era. Exploding onto the scene as part of the rap collective “Odd Future” — once home to Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean, among others — Earl released his self-titled mixtape to fan acclaim. After this, his mother abruptly sent him to a correctional camp for troubled youths in Samoa, citing his increasingly rebellious behavior and violent lyrics. Upon his return, he resumed creating music, but his lyrics took a darker turn.
I’ve been following Earl’s discography for a long time. Each of his albums has stuck with me for its dark lyrical themes and solemn beats. His sophomore album, “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside” deeply resonated with me in its depressing lyrical content of grief and isolation, clearly rapping from a troubled perspective. Its lo-fi instrumentals also preceded many of the musical trends that would come to dominate the underground rap scene, suggesting the piece may have set a precedent for future songs. Earl subsequently released his darkest album yet, “Some Rap Songs,” which marked a complete musical shift from his previous efforts. The instrumentals of the record are avant-garde and jazzy, and his off-beat vocal delivery perfectly complements the dreary nature of the dark depths that he’s reached. Rather than describing his depression through lyrics, he illustrates his empty feelings through the music and cadences upon which he raps. It’s a beautiful rap record that does not at all match its modest title.
Given his reputation, I was beyond curious to see what new sounds Earl would play with, especially after leaving Columbia Records in order to create “riskier” music. I came into “SICK!” with high expectations, and Earl was able to match them with a wonderful album filled with thoughtful music — both lyrically and compositionally. There are certain traits he carried over from “Some Rap Songs.” The abstract sounds are still present, challenging the ear with unconventional beats and interesting samples not often found in mainstream music. The lyrics on every track, in general, are enormously dense, packed to the brim with meaning in its imagery that will leave fans who love dissecting lyrics more than satisfied.
Most of the songs on “SICK!” are short. From the intro track “Old Friend” to the interlude “Lobby” (which is actually the same length as most of the other tracks), many of the songs don’t exceed two minutes. Earl’s brevity, however, doesn’t minimize his impact. The short length for these tracks actually serves a purpose in making the longer songs more important. “Vision,” “Tabula Rasa” and “Fire in the Hole” are the three longest songs on the album, with “Vision” and “Tabula Rasa” containing the only two features on the album — Zeloopers and Armand Hammer, respectively. Both features bring a strong performance to the table, even outshining Earl himself on both songs. Zeloopers and Armand Hammer’s delivery glide perfectly on the choppy sampled instrumentals.
The rest of the album, however, contains no credited features. “Old Friend” is a wonderful intro to the album, produced by The Alchemist, ushering in a wave of expertly produced tracks upon which Earl flows effortlessly. His first lines call attention to the album’s title when he says, “Strong spirit where the body couldn't get asylum/ The cost of living high, don't cross the picket line and get the virus.” “SICK!” is very much an album of our current times, but Earl seems to be “sick” of many things outside of Coronavirus. The lyrical content of the ten tracks widely ranges in content from his emotional lows during the pandemic and his crippling addiction to weed, to his emotional highs from experiences with his significant other to him adjusting into fatherhood. Certain tracks, such as “Sick!” and “Vision” feature beautiful spoken word samples at the end of both respective tracks, both supporting Black empowerment.
The production on this album is absolutely outstanding. Multiple producers are credited with various tracks, but the bulk of the album’s beats was crafted by Black Noi$e, who produced my favorite track from the record, “Fire in the Hole.” The melodic sample of the track has not escaped my head since the first listen, complimented by the lyrics pertaining to Earl’s significant other. The outro to the track sees the instrumental transition into a soothing piano, slowly fading out as you reflect upon the album you just experienced. This track is truly one of my favorite songs Earl has ever released, with a feeling of finality which makes it the perfect album outro.
I’ll admit it — many of the lyrics went over my head. I’m still trying to make lyrical interpretations of what Earl was speaking about on certain lines. That’s part of the fun, though. I think many fans will have a great time analyzing Earl’s poetry, and the significance of certain bars and pieces of imagery. As of right now, however, I think that this album is exactly what I wanted it to be. Earl Sweatshirt is in a new prime with “SICK!” and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.