Hearing the rapper MIKE quietly and poetically ululate for the first time proved an epiphanous experience for Thebe Kgositsile. Kgositsile, better known as the elusive Earl Sweatshirt, found and heard himself in MIKE — a version of himself he knew existed, but found difficult to excavate.
Earl, still just 24 years old, began assembling what ended up being Some Rap Songs, his third full-length album, in late 2016, not too long after the release of his impressive sophomore project, I Don’t Like Shit. It’s no strange coincidence that this was also the time that Earl seemingly first encountered—and became enthralled by—the then almost-anonymous hip-hop of MIKE, the underground teenage rap phenom from the Bronx.
He bought some of MIKE’s music on Bandcamp at the end of 2016 and, two months later, their two paths crossed in New York. A friendship formed. But something deeper beyond kinship developed, too. MIKE, speaking to Noisey, said that Earl related viscerally to his own soul-baring diaristic approach to lyricism. Spurred on by his new peers, an artistic metamorphosis slowly began to take shape. The MIKE-associated Standing on the Corner group’s brand of uncompromising, unstructured, freewheeling music creation is also felt throughout Some Rap Songs. Earl has, inadvertently or otherwise, now become an avatar for this scene, where spaced-out hip-hop drums meet glitchy vocals, and dissolving cassette hissing meets jarring, wobbly pitched instrument samples.
In the wake of the release of I Don’t Like Shit, with its dreary, shadowy fables of solitude and of decay, of the mind’s fragmentations and of its many contradictions, he had proved that he was progressing artistically after a somewhat underwhelming release in Doris, given his abilities. Coming from the bleakest, most tender reaches of his soul, Some Rap Songs feels like a revelatory moment. For rap, for Kgositsile, and, most especially, for his family’s erudite legacy.
A longing for comfort in repetition—of sounds, of living experiences, of emotions—is what now drives Earl’s music, which in turn augurs wildly conflicting feelings: fervent nihilism on one end, a subdued optimism at the other. “It’s infinitum. It’s the snake eating its tail. I keep locking in the loops,” Earl said of the intensity of loops in a recent interview with Vulture.
Nowhere is this approach more obvious than on “Red Water” in which Earl, referencing familial tensions (and pride), loops his own verse three times so effectively as to be ebullient and uplifting. Even the use of this impressionistic sound—borrowed, like it may seem, from his new comrades in the New York City orbit—is cyclical. MIKE is so patently influenced by Earl that, even with a brief listen, it’s clear to whom he owes much of his downbeat DNA.
It was premonitory that Earl welded himself to this sound. In any case, there’s mimicry, there’s adulation, and there’s destiny: Earl clearly finds himself cosying up to the version of himself he finds most fascinating. “I re-defined myself/First I had to find myself,” he raps on “Nowhere2go.”
Earl’s primary mode has always been a wizened poetic malcontent from a potent, forceful black gaze, but with Some Rap Songs he wanted to wield his pen with greater elucidation and profundity; even if that meant trimming excess words and phrases. Always the technician, he manages to get even more economical with words than before. A tendency to over-rap in his early career has now been usurped entirely by short, penetrative lines with gut-punching specificity. “Galaxy's the distance between us by Christmas,” he raps on “Loosie,” referring to a disintegrative relationship. While in “Veins,” he looks outward in disdain, lamenting America’s continued self-dismemberment. “Stuck in Trumpland watching subtlety decay,” he raps.
Lyrically, Earl repeatedly broaches at sensitive subjects—mental anguish, police brutality, the trauma of loss, the dissolution of a romantic relationship, his brushes with substance abuse—but he has, through his warm embrace of this new sound, found a way to innovate. His voice, muddied as it is in the intoxicatingly lo-fi production, gives the impression of stoicism on a surface level—yet it is deeply exploratory. Earl’s raps cut the figure of a lone weathervane standing unperturbed during a hurricane.
Most of the album was written before the death of his father, South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, earlier this year. Earl had intended to spring the album—in which he samples his estranged father reciting poetry—on him without warning. Even before his passing, Earl seems to have to come to better terms with understanding his own complex relationship with him. A lyrical motif scattered throughout, resembling reconciliation, is his father: “My momma used to say she see my father in me/I said I was not offended,” he offers on “Azucar,” hinting at the now known fact he was hoping to spend some time in his father’s company to ease tensions—marking a complete 180 on the bitterness that looms large in previous projects.
On “Peanut,” the gloomy cut which examines Earl’s state of mind after the passing of his father, is as intimate and self-interrogative as anything Earl has written yet. In an impossibly laconic tone, he speaks of an inescapable placelessness standing at his family’s side as the funeral unfolded. “Family saw you on a stage/Left it not amazed,” he raps blithely amid the fuss, articulating his sense of dread at what his father’s death now means. His tone abject, his muffled delivery inferring a kind of worthlessness.
As an album, it’s an enticing exercise in somnambulism. “Please, nobody pinch me out this dream,” he drones in two repeated stanzas on the aptly-titled album opener “Shattered Dreams.” “Bless my pops/She sent him off and not an hour late/Still in shock and now my heart out somewhere on the range,” he raps directly about his father’s death. Languishing in disbelief, the pain seems so far-flung as to be unreal.
This dream-like state can also be viewed through the prism of the short song lengths, as they coalesce into one; they never change gear too suddenly, never awakening. Short songs, while in vogue, are used to different ends on Some Rap Songs. Instead of placating the shorter attention spans of listeners in a playlist economy and using the short running time as an empty canvas to aimlessly splatter on, Earl condenses his writing so deftly, individual tracks become equally pertinent, tessellated pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Mini-stanzas seem adrift in the instrumentals’ vast oceans. Concision, used to expert effect, endures his rhymes steer clear of stasis as flows switch up, cascade and even abruptly fall off the edge of cliffs like the at the end of “Peanut” when Earl finishes rapping mid-sentence.
Combined with some lethally incisive rapping, the production—at times mesmerically gauzy, beautifully grainy in other moments—is like an avant-garde monochromatic movie flickering on an old television set. Incorruptible loops of distorted and pitched-down vocals, emblematic of Standing on the Corner’s output, glitches and pulses and grabs you: a throwback refashioned completely for modern ears.
Eyes closed, the songs’ origins spin from classic hip-hop to experimental jazz, from field recordings to internet-age underground rap. There are echoes of RZA on “The Bends;” “Loosie” is like a mangled, neo-psychedelic Thundercat number, while Madvillainy revivalism is strewn throughout—the Standing on the Corner collaboration “Ontheway!” is the most shining example of a Madlib-like excursion into the absurd.
Some Rap Songs is produced mostly by Earl himself and some of his newfangled peers: Detroit rapper Denmark Vesey supplied the beat for the utterly brilliant “December 24th,” Sixpress from sLUms oversaw “Nowhere2Go,” while Standing on the Corner’s Gio Escobar helped mix and master the entire project. The album shares much of its iconoclastic character with that of his teenage idol MF Doom. Earl doesn’t don a mask, though: he prefers to give you everything he can, autobiographically, without diluting the artistic component of interpretation.
The album, as titularly insinuated, is loyal to hip-hop tradition. One noticeably improved, traditionally purist attribute of Earl’s is his remarkable flow: he has mastered the art of vocal rhythm. Rapping off beat has, due to the intractable presence of rappers like Drakeo the Ruler and Blueface, become somewhat fashionable. Now, instead of unloading verse after verse, line after line, Earl, with envious poise, hangs back in the pocket like a predator in wait—allowing the space between bars to speak for themselves, giving off-time lines greater gravity. The way he traverses the beat on “Mint” with lines jutting in, circling around, the silence acting as syllables, demonstrates someone with utmost control. His voice, like most, works best when used as an instrumental layer.
In 2018, devastation crushed Kgositsile. His response has been a work of catharsis. “Playing Possum,” which samples and thoughtfully interweaves a recording of his mother giving a speech in which she speaks of him and audio of his father reading his poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow,” plays out, in incredible poignancy, like a duet emblazoned across the sky.
As the plaintive tendrils of his parents’ vocals fade out, a tide of applause rises then falls. Peanut’s emotional nakedness is then replaced by the unvanquishable, redemption-sounding, ‘Uncle’ Hugh Masekela-sampling instrumental track “Riot!” Masekela, the South African jazz artist, a friend of his father, who died just weeks after Earl’s father, is what we last hear on Some Rap Songs. His uplifting horn blasts out—imperiously, full of life—before the 25-minute album comes to a halt.
Sampling his adopted uncle so explicitly, so proudly, partly explains how far Earl has come in terms of grappling with his identity outside of Odd Future. A scion, a pre-eminent lyricist, an avid learner, he has discovered life-affirming art in the fractures of his mind. Although this has proved difficult, through a smog of gloom, and a year of painful turbulence, Earl has created some of the most arresting hip-hop in recent memory.
Earl has taken a venturesome dive inwards, a pean on his world as he sees it without proselytizing. The outlines of such an album have been seen sketched in the archived dungeons of Bandcamp for years but nobody with Earl’s skill — or his heart — has managed yet to fashion such a powerful personal document. As rap tilts evermore towards the ephemeral, the preternaturally talented Earl has found meaning in brevity.
This modestly-named third full-length foray sees Kgositsile comes into his own by fully embracing genre-bending abstraction. It can be challenging, even voyeuristic, but it is heart-wrenching and compelling nonetheless. These rap songs come bearing no comfort or definitive reasoning—only unflinching contemplations. They are, in their pure existence, Kgositsile’s idea of self.