Earl no longer "puts the 'ass' in assassin," instead turning inward to create an avant-garde rap masterpiece.
In the 8.5 years since Earl Sweatshirt released his breakout Earl tape, he's been a tough guy to get to know. His early music was built almost entirely on shock value and internal rhyme schemes, and while he gained notoriety for rapping things like, "Mrs. Claus trippin' balls," his language was too pulpy and cartoonish to reveal anything about the reality of his 16-year-old existence. Earl then "disappeared," much to the chagrin of fans who popularized the slogan "Fuck Earl's Mom" once Complex revealed that the teenage rapper had been sent to a retreat for at-risk boys in Samoa.
By this point, Earl had hordes of hungry fans who knew almost nothing about his background or personality. Doris and I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside (released in 2013 and 2015, respectively) saw him return a much more mature, measured presence on the mic. Especially on tracks like "Chum" and "Grief," Earl began addressing his internal wellbeing, rather than Patrick Bateman fantasies or word-drunk MF DOOMisms. But even still, the dude seemed hesitant to step out into the public eye, give interviews, or tour much. One more lengthy hiatus later, Earl has shrouded himself even more mystery, but given us his most personal, singular work to date.
"Two years I was missin', livin' life/You was wildin', every day was trash," he raps on "The Mint," the second song he released off of the cheekily-titled Some Rap Songs. It's true— the last time we heard Earl rap was Danny Brown's 2016 posse cut "Really Doe." The release-frequency standards we hold rappers to are ridiculous and are likely the reason we're going to end up with something like 12 hours of cumulative Migos music to wade through in 2018. But it's not just that Earl's been taking his time with this one. He's been almost completely off the grid, his only link to the public a sporadically-updated Twitter feed mostly consisting of jokes about Tory Lanez's bald spot and Jaden Smith's facial hair, but also the occasional political statement, such as, "u nighas need 2 stfu n just listen when women r speaking abt issues they deal wit." Especially viewed with Some Rap Songs lead single "Nowhere2go" in mind, Earl's daily operations seem hellbent on not doing things by the rap industry book. "I can't do favors no more/If you lame and you broke, and you waitin' for cosign," he raps on that track, but not before explaining where he's coming from:
Yeah, I think I spent most of my life depressed
Only thing on my mind was death
Didn't know if my time was next
Tryna refine this shit, I redefined myself
First I had to find it
The first thing that's apparent about Earl's writing on SRS is its honesty and clarity— he's turned inward for most of the album, but in a wholly unselfish way that's still concerned about things like the Flint water crisis and uplifting black women. The second is that his entire mentality around rhyming has shifted. Earl came up idolizing Eminem and MF DOOM, two guys who redefined how poetic devices like assonance and consonance were used in rap. In much of Earl's early music, the "point" wasn't so much a narrative, a flow, or a vibe— it was simply stringing together as many phonetically-linked words as possible. The result was pure ear porn, and like actual porn, the music's afterglow was short and sweet, but not very fulfilling. Earl fans who admired the album in the same way they admire Slaughterhouse probably don't see as many dazzling lyrical stunts on SRS to be wowed by, but those more invested in Earl the person, rather than Earl the violent man-child cartoon character, have a ton to sink their teeth into.
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Just as history's most respected poets are those who did away with rhyme schemes, so is Earl's transition from syllable-crammer to methodical moodsmith impressive from a purely non-technical standpoint. Look at a line like, "Main line, underneath the skin of the grapevines/Save time, serpent, no need to hiss," from "Loosie." There's some serious close reading needed to parse that. Double meanings, allusions, and cultural references liven up Earl's words, which are often delivered in a seemingly lackadaisical sequence. There's beautiful imagery everywhere you look— one of my favorites is, "Momma say don't play with them scabs/It's safe to say I see the reason I'm bleeding out"— and while I tend to bristle at Post Malone-style "there's no real feelings in rap" arguments, the type of writing Earl taps into here does seem to be rare in not just hip-hop, but popular music as a whole. The closest analog I can think of is Milo minus the pretension, but even that's more brainy and psychedelic than Earl's subtle, down-to-earth depth.
SRS feels something like hip-hop impressionism, failing to depict a crisp full picture, but coming out stronger and possessing more mystique because of it. Something about the album feels off in the way the best Dilla beats or Coehn Brothers movies do, not unfamiliar or unsettling, but it's as if the creator has a different memory of the world than the rest of us. Case in point, look how Earl distorts common sayings and exciting rap lyrics: "Some of those keep one in the chamber/Three spliffs had my wing tips clipped."
Similarly to Earl's language and delivery, his beats lag, barely presenting themselves to you, existing as wisps. The whole thing sounds like outsider art versions of Alchemist, Madlib, or Dilla instrumentals. They alternate between feeling warm and lived-in, like "Cold Summers" or the charming instrumental closer, "Riot!," and staggeringly drunk, like "Ontheway!" and "Eclipse." As silly and overused as the "you've gotta listen to it a few times to get it" excuse often is, that's totally the case on SRS. The songs' patterns only reveal themselves after you gain a bit of familiarity, but are more rewarding because of it. You finally fall into that head nod and it feels like unlocking a cheat code. Similarly to how Earl's writing has gone from low stakes instant gratification to deeply-considered brush strokes, his production game never opts for the cheap thrill when a knottier, more perplexing groove lies in the woodwork.
SRS may be deemed a "difficult" album by some, but in all honesty, I've had a harder time getting through most straightforward rap albums that extend beyond an hour in length this year. Earl may demand more attention-per-minute than the average rapper, especially seeing as many of his new songs are under 120 seconds long, but SRS is a rewarding-ass 25 minutes that feels much longer than it actually is. IDLSIDGO was similarly brief, but felt more incomplete and transitional for Earl. This time, he feels fully in control and has crafted something that's no longer reliant on his mythology, his idols, or his immaturity.