In ‘Some Rap Songs,’ Earl Sweatshirt proves there is more than meets the eye

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Grade: 5.0/5.0

After an excruciating three-year wait since the release of his last album, Earl Sweatshirt’s minimal yet lyrically and emotionally dense Some Rap Songs delivers on its immeasurable hype — it is the album of the year.

Some Rap Songs feels like a snapshot of Sweatshirt’s psyche taken through a fisheye lens — even its jarring cover art resembles a hurriedly taken selfie. Brevity is a central theme of the album. With a runtime of just 25 minutes, Some Rap Songs is a wild departure from its needlessly bloated contemporaries — such as Drake’s 89-minute Scorpion and Migos’ 106-minute Culture II. With its 15 tracks, none of which surpasses three minutes in length, Some Rap Songs pieces together a vividly grim self-portrait of Sweatshirt — who was born Thebe Kgositsile.

Sweatshirt’s newest album is the culmination of a storied and tumultuous decade for the relatively young 23-year-old rapper. In 2010, just as his career was beginning to take off, the budding artist was sent by his mother to a retreat for at-risk boys in Samoa. Upon his return to Los Angeles two years later, Sweatshirt released his 2013 debut Doris and 2015 follow-up I Don’t Like S–t, I Don’t Go Outside. These projects contained intoxicatingly personal lyrics that dealt with his dwindling mental health in the face of his grandmother’s passing in 2013.

The three years preceding Some Rap Songs were further damaged by tragedy for Sweatshirt; in 2018 alone, he lost his father and his close friend and collaborator Mac Miller. From the first few seconds of intro “Shattered Dreams” to the last notes of outro “Riot!” the notoriously cloistered rapper tears off the scabs of his complex emotions and experiences after these losses. Sweatshirt writes and produces songs that forgo conventional structure and mass market appeal in favor of uncompromising sonic idiosyncrasies and bars that read like firsthand accounts directly transplanted from the author’s mind.

In Some Rap Songs, Sweatshirt’s golden ear for beats creates an airtight body of work whose instrumentals all construct the same particular lo-fi, unpolished sound while maintaining variety. Most beats deliriously rewind every few seconds, making the album feel endless. Whereas his obvious influences, Madlib of Madvillain and J Dilla, create warmer, more light-hearted music, Sweatshirt uses loops to show how much each of his problems weighs on his conscience. In “Red Water,” for instance, the harrowing lines, “Blood in the water, I was walkin’ in my sleep / Blood on my father, I forgot another dream” make up part of an eight-bar verse that repeats four times to emphasize Sweatshirt’s perpetual mental turmoil.

Throughout the album, Sweatshirt’s voice reclusively sits behind his instrumentals as if the rapper were reluctant to spit the open-wounded bars that compose each ephemeral track. In under 30 minutes, Sweatshirt laments the loss of his loved ones, recounts his years out of the public eye, speaks on his substance abuse issues, reflects on his fame and position in the music industry, elaborates on his suicidal depression and even hints at his path to redemption.

Making music seems to serve as Sweatshirt’s primary coping mechanism — his outlet, therapy and escape. His supernatural, otherworldly talent has been apparent ever since he nimbly rapped over the timeless beat of Madvillainy single “All Caps” at the age of 14. Marred by tragedy, trauma and subsequent depression in the decade after, Sweatshirt has persevered by creating artistry that manifests his own adversity while rewarding those brave enough to listen. Some Rap Songs is a purposefully inaccessible masterpiece.

Some Rap Songs ends with “Riot!,” an instrumental tribute to late South African jazz musician and Sweatshirt’s family friend Hugh Masekela. After a musical gut-punch in the form of “Playing Possum” and “Peanut,” the uplifting tone of “Riot!” offers hope for Sweatshirt, who throughout the album voices feeling trapped in despair. The overwhelming success of Some Rap Songs is a triumphant absolution from its creator’s anguish — as he proclaims on “Azucar,” he only gets better with time.

Justin Sidhu covers music. Contact him at [email protected].