When rap-group Odd Future came to fruition in the 2010s, its ensemble dominated an underground collective entranced by the group’s influential beats and ability to speak to its usual misfit crowd. Notable members Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean survived and cultivated their own individual success where the other members straggled between solo projects and aged out of their youth culture roots.
Another founding member, Earl Sweatshirt — also known as Thebe Neruda Kgositsile — hinted at a starry solo career with his first independent album Doris, but the rapper ghosted in and out of fame while grappling with family matters. Yet, even in attempts to dodge the spotlight, Earl Sweatshirt continues to find beams of light nearly a decade later, checking in with his fan base through releasing sporadic projects that leave listeners hanging to every word.
Sick!, Kgositsile’s fifth studio album, is another imaginative addition to the artist’s discography. Released two years after the dissonant yet similar LP Feet of Clay, the rapper discovers a more astute attitude on Sick!. Throughout the 10 tracks, the album navigates 25 minutes with sneaky cohesion between the slightly longer than a minute songs. Past records continuously drown into heaviness and dark themes within abstract sounds and busy flows. Sick! floats to the surface — the rapper reconciles with the pandemic, new fatherhood and delivers his most confident and hopeful record yet.
Fatherhood and maturity are strong motifs on the record. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Kgositsile relays that the newest record emerged from the life that went into it: “This one hurt.” The first track, “Old Friend,” feels like a cathartic release for the rapper over an ascending and deadpan beat. Opening lyrics (“Strong spirit where the body can’t get asylum/ The cost of living high, don’t cross the picket line and get the virus”) indicate the shared feeling of unprecedented stagnancy within the pandemic. The song’s last line expresses apologetic gratitude, opening up the album to a fresh start: “Played the shade, quite a deal, glad we stayed friends.” Kgositsile’s lyricism has always shone brightly through the expansive storytelling of an album, and on Sick!, there’s clearness and strength that are exceptionally vivid.
Earl Sweatshirt’s music is not for everybody, especially in relation to the current rap landscape dominated by Kanye West and Drake. Yet, his music is undoubtedly unique and personal, piecing together often clashing momentums, samples and lyrics. “Lye,” the sixth track, takes on an upbeat percussion sound entangled with the vintage crackling of a record. Here Kgositsile cuts through the circular beat with lyrics describing his challenging relationship with religion, himself and his mother. Within the track, his monotonous voice gets lost within the repetitive nature of the record. Where longtime fans can understand Kgositsile’s coded lyricism and references, new listeners must tune in closely to find similar intimacy.
There are two features on the album: Zelooperz, a Detroit-based rapper on “Vision” and New York duo Armand Hammer on “Tabula Rasa.” The intro to “Vision” parallels another vintage sample into Zelooperz’s steady, calming cadence, which complements Kgositsile’s abrasiveness. The track’s outro conveys a woman’s trancelike monologue about parenthood and making children feel “proud of who they are.”
These small bits and pieces found on the album of Kgositsile’s dedication to a new life are perhaps glazed over by the common listener. In understanding the totality of what the album stands for creatively and personally, however, it is clever, meaningful work by the artist. “Tabula Rasa” follows suit, with lyrics such as “I know it’s real even when I’m feeling bad/ Resilient as they built the black,” illuminating a cohesive strength found in the album’s entirety.
Sick! proves itself to be an intimate piece of work for Earl Sweatshirt. Through its coming-to-terms agenda, the record insightfully manages delicate themes with an outlook of maturity, forgiveness and confidence. And within the album’s distinctive presence of antique samples and mish-mashed flows, the rapper finds himself continuing and celebrating a decadelong successful career that flourished in its idiosyncrasies.