There’s a kneejerk reaction to unpack every aspect of Some Rap Songs. We love to solve puzzles, and Earl Sweatshirt’s third studio album seemingly invites such challenges with its backstory and aesthetics. It’s a tumbleweed of a record that crumples hip-hop, and jazz together with the avant garde. It sounds like it’s spent too long in a tumbler, coming out warped and bruised rather than chopped and screwed. Such an approach entices investigation, but it feels inappropriate to pry too deeply into Earl’s mind because of how uncomfortable the album is.
Prior to Some Rap Songs, Earl was characterized as a rebellious rap prodigy and considered the golden feather in Odd Future’s cap. His early notoriety was embellished by the misguided Free Earl campaign that demonized Earl’s mother as it was believed she barred him from recording music due to Odd Future’s controversial subject matter. Halcyon memories of this period recall edgy verses that turned into albatrosses for former group members, the most egregious case being Tyler, the Creator’s ban from the United Kingdom in 2015. However, Earl’s mother was not a jailer; she was a concerned mother, and his “trapping” was, in reality a stay at a therapeutic Samoan boarding school where he could heal and examine his behavior. In the midst of the Free Earl movement, Earl said to Kelefa Sanneh in the New Yorker, “The only thing I need as of right now is space. I’ve still got work to do and don’t need the additional stress of fearing for my family’s physical well-being. Space means no more ‘Free Earl.’” After his return, Earl slowly drifted away from the L.A. rap collective and into his own artistic avenues. He showed his prickly and private side, with his 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside playing exactly like its title suggests. Given how the Free Earl movement metastasized, it wasn’t hard to blame him. Tracks like “Grief” were stand-offish, pairing murky beats with a cold demeanor. It wasn’t that Earl was acting tough; it was that he toughened up. Yet, that rugged exterior only persisted until 2018 when he released Some Rap Songs, a title that distinguishes its outlook from its predecessor. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is confrontational whereas Some Rap Songs is functional. Its only role is to describe its contents.
Those contents, including insights into grief, masculinity, maturity, and depression, are hidden within disheveled aesthetic that Earl designed with a surgical level of care. He found the thin line between calculated and reckless, wherein he carries the intentionality of the former plus the impulsive energy of the latter. After all, he opens the album with “Imprecise words,” on “Shattered Dreams,” a statement on the album’s sleep paralysis-like production and tight lyrical content. Less than three minutes later, Earl acknowledges both his confidence in his abilities (“I know I’m a king”) as well as his brief style (“Gotta keep it brief”). It’s an approach he shares with one of his collaborators MIKE, whose 2017 album MAY GOD BLESS YOUR HUSTLE undoubtedly played some influence Earl’s vision. Upon Some Rap Songs’ release, it was easy to compare the two. However, MIKE’s work is merely ground zero. There’s a solidarity to its form that Earl chews up and spits out before stringing cobwebs around his beats. He pushes himself into deeper avant garde waters and challenges himself to tackle looser beats. For instance, he raps without a parachute on “Eclipse” as there are no drums or bass to bounce off of, forcing him to create his own wave atop what sounds like a looping sample taken from a carousel. Another of the record’s key tracks is “Peanut,” a disorienting cut that encompasses Some Rap Songs’ most esoteric qualities. It houses two tell-tale lyrics, the first being the oft-repeated, “Fleshin’ through the pain, depression, this is not a phase.” However, it’s three lines later, Earl summarizes grief’s role on the album, “Bless my pops, we sent him off and not an hour late, Still in shock and now my heart out somewhere on the range.“
Some Rap Songs was primarily written before Earl’s father, South Africa’s National Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, passed away, and he intended to use a sample of his father’s poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow” in “Playing Possum,” but Kgositsile didn’t live to hear the finished product. Their relationship was complicated, in no uncertain terms, and Some Rap Songs tussles with it. Earl grieves his father, but there’s a conflict from unresolved emotions, as if there are words left unsaid or an emotional block that needs chipping away. There’s also the uncomfortable recognition that despite becoming your own person, your parents still exist in your actions. It’s a mix of pride and frustration that Earl captures on “Azucar,” “My momma used to say she see my father in me/I said I was not offended.” Much like the rest of Some Rap Songs, there’s plenty to unpack with this line; the shared knowledge of mother and child that the father is still present through actions and traits, the mother’s awareness of the gulf between father and family, the insistence that these traits aren’t bad in-and-of-themselves but it’s the progenitor whose the problem, the blows one shrugs off to keep the peace around loved ones. Earl conveys an entire family’s drama in two bars, and that’s not the only time he accomplishes such a mighty feat with so little.
The productions loops Earl fixates on throughout Some Rap Songs share this mentality. He trims the fat off all his cuts, leaving a single intro on the tracklist (“The Mints”). If a song doesn’t dissolve mere seconds after Earl finishes rapping, then it caps off abruptly, as if the next track is interrupting it. This structure turns Some Rap Songs into a series of cycles soldered together by a time-crunched welder. Miraculously, it’s expertly paced rather than haphazardly assembled. Earl’s guiding principle was brevity and he looked to extract as much as he could out of as little music as possible. This leaves the album feeling like a wrung-out towel, exhausted, dry and taut. There’s nothing more to add once “Riot!” wraps it up. Or, at least there wasn’t until Earl began the next chapter of his life.
Earl described Some Rap Songs as a closing of a circle, and his follow-up projects reflect that. The Feet of Clay EP played like an addendum and 2020’s SICK! was his desire to recreate what he sounds like when he’s passed the AUX cord. It was direct and conventional, with his rapping prowess shining through, as it always does. He also became a father between records and has spoken about keeping his son away from the spotlight. Given all this information, Some Rap Songs encompasses a time period rather than the person Earl was; its production and vocal style live on in its collaborators like Navy Blue and MIKE, and there’s an undeniable attraction to getting sucked back into its whirlpool, a tight spiral that begins with imprecise words and ends on hazy restorations. It’s too much to call it a document of Earl’s healing, but it’s a representation of the brain forming connections, slicing off old pathways, and rekindling new thought patterns through its intentionally obscured format.
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