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Earl Sweatshirt - Some Rap Songs (Album Review)

Tuesday, 11 December 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Photo: Steven Traylor

The theory that depression makes for good art is long-standing, and its proponents can certainly point to numerous examples, but it should also be a source of unease from an observer's perspective. If unchecked, the invisible link between artist and listener (or creator and beneficiary) can feel exploitative or voyeuristic. The behaviour of a small minority of entitled social media users, who complained when Earl Sweatshirt cancelled a European tour earlier this year following the death of his father, was just one illustration of this dynamic.

But let's be clear: 'Some Rap Songs' isn't Earl Sweatshirt's best album due to a deteriorating mental state, but because of the whole kaleidoscope of emotions he masterfully articulates over the course of just 24 minutes. Structurally, it's messy, with most tracks clocking in barely over a minute and a half and designed to signify Earl's frame of mind, but the weight of the messages he manages to convey in these rapid-fire vignettes is extraordinary.

He sums up his intimate approach best on the minute-long interlude Loosie: “Long trip, sifting through memories over dumb spliffs / Young man, flung soliloquy off the tongue-tip.”

Earl has a worldly wisdom and literary flair far beyond his years, which can partially be attributed to his unusual upbringing and the influence of his late father, the former South African Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile.

Indeed, the last two cuts here, the only ones recorded after his death, reflect in contrasting ways: Peanut is a depiction of a drug-addled Earl relapsing in grief, and Riot! is a triumphant instrumental that seems to evoke more positive memories.

This contrast is prevalent throughout–Earl’s natural mode is downbeat, and his monotone, deadpan delivery has dramatically aged him since his last project, recalling Gang Starr's Guru in his prime. But there's also a beauty and nostalgia to the production here, handled mostly himself, that offer glimmers of light.

Tracks like opener Shattered Dreams and The Bends hark back to the classics with chopped up soul and blues samples implanted on moody lo-fi templates. The Boards of Canada-esque progressions of Red Water and Cold Summers would sound pleasant if they weren't looped to the point where they resemble snapshots of a drunken night out.

Despite its abstract orientation, nothing here feels overly inaccessible or pretentious. Earl's low-key vocals, varied rhyming patterns and experimental but repetitive beats make for a unified aesthetic that oddly works. His images and double entendres are thrown out so rapidly that it's only on repeat you realise their bluntness and simplicity. On Nowhere2go, Earl matter-of-factly states that he's “spent most of [his] life depressed”, before saying that fans “gave me a cape” and “I found a new way to cope”.

It's moments like this that feel almost purposefully designed to reassure listeners he doesn't hold them complicit in his mental health issues but appreciates their support. 'Some Rap Songs' is honest and meditative, but it's not an exercise in wallowing introspection and, as put on the track Veins, Earl tries to “keep faith”. This record is a moody and introspective listen, but it would be a mistake to compare it to a project as mechanical or futuristic as, say, Kanye West’s 'Yeezus'. There's far too much humanity here for that.

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