Here’s what I remember: They were moshing to piped-in music. When Odd Future came to SXSW in 2011, their breakout year, they brought a whirlwind of chaos with them everywhere they went: their own stages, other artists’ stages, the corner of 6th and Red River whenever they all stampeded through. It was an exhilarating spectacle. And yet their whole presence was defined by an absence. That year, Odd Future performances would climax with “EARL,” the signature song from the kid who wasn’t around to hear it. Earl Sweatshirt was gone, and his comrades wouldn’t say where he was. But they would play his song. And when they did, people damn near rioted.
Here’s the other thing I remember: Earl Sweatshirt, fumbly and tentative, stepping onto those same stages two years later, trying to figure out his new place in the world. Earl was back, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t what we’d pictured. When Odd Future had played the FADER Fort in 2011, they were a pack of hyenas swarming out of a cage. In that same room, Earl Sweatshirt was… not that. He seemed perplexed at the attention surrounding him, and he seemed equally perplexed by the free-drinks crowd at the venue politely enduring the songs from the not-yet-released Doris. Earl Sweatshirt did not look happy to be onstage. Vince Staples did not look happy to be onstage. Domo Genesis, who was there for that big wave two years earlier, did not look happy to be onstage. The only person onstage who seemed even remotely confident in the moment was Flying Lotus, and he was the DJ. When FlyLo stepped out from behind his laptop to rap a couple of verses, it felt like a blessed reprieve, a leading-by-example moment from someone who understood how this whole routine was supposed to go.
Doris, the album that Earl Sweatshirt was at SXSW to promote, was quite possibly the most depressed and downbeat and ambivalent major-label rap debut in recent memory. It was fully of tangled verbiage and starkly soul-dead music and elaborately worded fuck-yous to the fans who had harassed his mother after she’d sent him to that overseas troubled-kids school. And yet Doris sounded like the Cardi B album compared to Some Rap Songs, the album that Earl Sweatshirt just released. Five years after his grand return, Earl Sweatshirt is, if anything, even less comfortable with the idea of large audiences paying attention to the shit that he says. And yet he’s still recording music so compelling that it practically demands that attention.
Some Rap Songs is a confrontationally understated title for this album, and it’s only technically accurate. Earl Sweatshirt is rapping over beats, beats that could be described as “rap music,” for the length of a (very short) album. But the music on Some Rap Songs doesn’t move the way rap music is supposed to move. And the rapping that Earl Sweatshirt does feels almost like the opposite of how rapping is supposed to feel. Earl takes every preconceived notion about rap and flips it around. Instead of music of triumph and strength and ascent, he turns it into the sound of doubt and depression and descent.
The last two words that Earl speaks on Some Rap Songs are “Uncle Hugh.” Earl is talking about Hugh Masekela, the South African jazz trumpeter who found shocking levels of pop success in America, after apartheid forced him to leave his homeland. Earl’s father, the late poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, befriended Masekela when they were both young South African artists studying at New York universities in the ’60s. This past January, Masekela and Kgositsile both died, about two weeks apart. Masekela’s horn, sampled on Earl Sweatshirt’s album-closing instrumental “Riot!,” might be the happiest sound on all of Some Rap Songs.
The absence of Earl’s father loomed huge even over the music he made as a 16-year-old budding-exile wunderkind. When Earl returned from Samoa, he kept rapping about his father, but the context changed. For those of us who regard our fathers with some uncomfortable combination of awe and resentment, the way that Earl spoke about his father was familiar in some impossible-to-define way. This man had disappeared from his life, and yet he’d also left behind a difficult legacy to live up to. One of the songs on Some Rap Songs that doesn’t feature any rapping is “Playing Possum,” and it features the sampled voice of Earl’s own mother and father, collaged together. Earl says that he made it as a sort of peace offering to his father but that his father died before he had a chance to hear it.
Some Rap Songs is a shell-shocked, cast-adrift album. The music stumbles and twists and wriggles. Producers like Denmark Vessey, Standing On The Corner, and Earl himself draw on jazz — not in chopped-up horn stabs or snare-crack breakbeats but in a certain cosmic abstract disorientation. Beats lope and hang and drift away. Melodies stubbornly refuse to resolve. Sounds drift in and out of the mix. Sometimes, Earl, who engineered the whole album, buries his whole voice in those sounds, reluctant to become anything other than one more element in the murky mix.
It’s a deliberately elusive sound — dank and enveloping and purposely frustrating. And over tracks like those, Earl lets his mind wander free. The songs on Some Rap Songs tend to be unstructured. They’re short and loose and sloppy, with only a little of the breathtaking rhythmic command that Earl brought to his older music. These beats don’t have pockets, so Earl never bothers to find the pocket. Instead, he raps obliviously over the top of everything, his voice haggard and disconsolate. Sometimes, he raps the names of people who are presumably in the room — the young New York rapper Mike, who doesn’t appear on the album, comes up a lot — which makes me wonder how much of the album he just straight-up freestyled, taking inspiration from whatever was in his field of vision.
And yet Earl remains a staggering writer, so his lyrics, unplanned as they may be, remain expressive and evocative. There’s no filter here; he’s happy to show total disdain for any fans who might be mad that he waited three-plus years to release a new album: “We roam tundras / The boy been gone a few summers too long from road running / Trunk full of old hundreds,” “Closed lips make the mouth breathers frown.” He reflects on his own arrival into the public eye, on how he never asked for all that adulation and how he didn’t especially like it: “You went and gave me a cape, but that never gave me no hope.”
Earl raps about his father in a broken, scrambled way, like he’s only beginning to sort through how he feels about things: “Fingers on my soul, this is 23 / Blood in the water, I was walking in my sleep / Blood on my father, I forgot another dream.” He’s also dealing with the same bullshit as the rest of us: “Stuck in Trumpland, watching subtlety decaying.” And he’s medicating in the same ways that most of us would: “Muffle my pain and muzzle my brain up.”
As eloquent as Earl can be, though, the line on the album that grabs me the hardest is the one where he can’t even quite place his own hurt: “I think I spent most of my life depressed.” It’s the “I think” that really gets to me. He doesn’t even know. Why should he? And why should we even get to hear this?
Some Rap Songs is out now via Tan Cressida/Columbia. Stream it below.