Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Earl Sweatshirt SICK!

Tan Cressida/Warner
Tan Cressida/Warner

In a way, it’s a shame that Earl Sweatshirt already made an album called Some Rap Songs. The title of Earl’s last album was a feint and a provocation, since the songs on Some Rap Songs didn’t really sound like anyone’s functional definition of “rap songs.” Instead, they sounded like a young man going through it, trying to process a whole array of traumas while drowning his own voice in sonic murk. But on SICK!, his new album, Earl Sweatshirt really is making rap songs. SICK! is the first Earl Sweatshirt album that doesn’t sound more freaked-out and withdrawn than the one that came before. It’s a dense, rich, contemplative piece of work, but it’s also got the snarling self-confidence that one might expect a collection of rap songs to have. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Earl says, “I had a goal, which was to meet people halfway.” But with Earl Sweatshirt, ain’t no such thing as halfway. He hits us where we live.

There will never be another career like the one that Earl Sweatshirt has had. It’s simply not possible. Earl came to internet cult-fame as a teenager, and for his first year or two, he was defined entirely by absence. The rest of the young Odd Future crew helped turn Earl into a mysterious cause celebre, and fans invented their own narratives about where Earl was, what had happened to him. When the world learned that 16-year-old Earl was in a residential reform school, his mother became a kind of public villain. Earl’s reemergence wasn’t the triumphant moment that some of us had envisioned. It was strange and awkward and sad. Earl tried to counterbalance the narrative that had already taken hold, but narratives have lives of their own. Earl signed a big major-label deal, but he didn’t follow his old friend Tyler, The Creator to festival-headliner status. Instead, his music became weirder and weirder. Earl turned inward.

When he made Some Rap Songs more than three years ago, Earl was still processing the anger and sadness of his own rise to fame, and he was also going through public grief, mourning the giant-of-poetry father who hadn’t been around when he was a kid. His music was layered and complicated because his life was layered and complicated. But in the past few years, Earl has found a new sense of creative community, linking up with people whose conception of rap music is as loose and off-center as his own. When he’s working with his peers — the Alchemist, Armand Hammer, Black Noi$e, Navy Blue, Zeelooperz — Earl finally sounds like he’s achieved some semblance of home.

Earl Sweatshirt has always been a rapper in love with language, and calling an album SICK!, he’s stacked meanings on top of meanings. The word “sick” has a positive connotation, and it’s got plenty of negative ones, too. Earl recorded SICK! amidst pandemic lockdowns, keeping his circle small. The LP comes into the world in a moment when so many of us are stressed and disoriented and depressed, when a whole society feels like it’s breaking down in a million tiny ways. Maybe that’s how Earl Sweatshirt has felt for the past decade-plus. Maybe it’s us meeting him halfway.

SICK!, like the past few Earl Sweatshirt albums, is short and concentrated — 10 songs, 24 minutes. Even when rapping alongside his peers, Earl sounds like he’s deep in his own world, perhaps because Armand Hammer and ZeelooperZ are rappers who have always built their own worlds, too. And yet SICK! is still sharper and more tangible than the foggy, atmospheric doubt-trips of Earl’s last few records. Earl’s voice is higher in the mix. There’s less blurry noise around the edges of the tracks. The drums kick more. The melodic loops resolve. But that doesn’t mean Earl Sweatshirt is out here making Roddy Ricch records. Instead, he’s pulling us in, wrinkling time.

The beats on SICK! are beautiful. Working with a set of producers who understand his voice, Earl has made something loose and hypnotic. A beat like the Black Noi$e-produced “Titanic” sounds like trap music run through a J Dilla filter — all the gurgling keyboard sounds and hi-hat hisses arriving at odd and unexpected intervals. On one track, Earl namechecks his “uncle Fela.” A few tracks later, he’s rapping over a burbling loop of triumphal horns that might’ve been looped from a Fela Kuti records. (As I’m writing this, the album credits aren’t yet available, but my gut tells me that’s a Fela sample.) Album closer “Fire In The Hole” has bluesy guitar filigrees and soft, plangent piano; it’s the rare moment on this very short album where Earl allows himself to fade into the background and let the song ride without him.

The SICK! album cover looks like the raw materials for a ritual, and its image of Earl Sweatshirt is a frozen-statue face that’s wearing one of those masks that we’re all so sick of having to keep on every time we go out to buy milk. The album isn’t about the pandemic, but its attempts to grapple realistically with bad feelings resonate in this moment. Earl is still clearly processing his own past; on first single “2010,” he flashes back on driving his mother up the wall. But Earl is 27 now, a father himself, and he’s able to dissect his own story without sentimentality. On leaving Los Angeles: “Hometown hold me down like a rock, so you know how I gotta skip it.” On all the bad fates that he avoided: “Left the crib, smacked, no sheath on the sword/ Made it by the skin of my teeth, thank God.” At one point, Earl muses that his grandfather spoke 13 languages but still had nothing to say to him. That’s heavy shit.

But SICK! isn’t a woe-is-me album, and Earl Sweatshirt isn’t above turning is own life into its own kind of mythology. In one moment, Earl will remind us that the job he does is difficult: “Send a postcard from the depth/ Bleed the vein ’til nothing left/ You look drained, you should get some rest.” In another, he will let us know that he needs to bleed that vein: “Trust the passage rites to life’s chapters/ I have to write to find balance/ This game of telephone massive, I do what I have to with the fragments.”

The fragments are what he has given us. Ever since he returned from that reform school, Earl Sweatshirt has shown very little inclination to chase the same kind of stardom that some of his old friends have found. In that Rolling Stone interview, Earl says that he scrapped an entire 19-song album because it didn’t feel true: “The album I was working on before had a really optimistic energy towards it, but it felt gross. It felt political, like a mayoral campaign.” Earl Sweatshirt is not willing to campaign for us. But he is willing, for now, to rap, and that’s what he does on this new album. SICK! is a strange and insular rap record, but it’s a rap record nonetheless, and it’s a great one.

SICK! is out 1/14 on Tan Cressida/Warner Records.

Other albums of note out this week:
• FKA Twigs’ Caprisongs
• Cat Power’s Covers
• Elvis Costello & The Imposters’ The Boy Named If
• Chastity’s Suffer Summer
• Cordae’s From A Bird’s Eye View
• NLE Choppa’s Me Vs. Me
• Fuss’ We’re Not Alone
• Bonobo’s Fragments
• Daniel Blumberg’s The World To Come score
• Garcia Peoples’ Dodging Dues
• Underoath’s Voyeurist
• Blood Red Shoes’ Ghosts On Tape
• Fickle Friends’ Are We Gonna Be Alright?
• Sea Girls’ Homesick
• Grace Cummings’ Storm Queen
• Punch Brothers’ Hell On Church Street
• The Lumineers’ Brightside
• Anna Von Hausswolff’s Live At Montreal Jazz Festival
• Broken Social Scene’s Old Dead Young: B-Sides & Rarities
• Sis’ Gnani EP

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