Earl Sweatshirt’s 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is one of the best rap albums of the decade, but it was a grower, claustrophobic and dissonant. Some Rap Songs aims higher and makes you work harder. That blurry cover and demurring title are no feint; he’s buried in the mix, his voice fighting against crashing waves of old jazz samples and the cut-up shades of long-gone voices. “It’s infinitum,” he told Vulture in a rare interview. “It’s the snake eating its tail. I keep locking in the loops. To write something complete to a loop, I feel like it takes a lot.” He creates a daunting obstacle course for himself on the largely self-produced record, splitting the difference between Madlib’s dust-choked crate-digging and William Basinski at his most hauntingly analog.
It’s a testament to the human ability to find patterns that we can even trace a melody or rhythm out of the shaggy guitar tones and somnambulant drums of “Red Water”; the very next track turns some half-second ancient funk grooves into their own heaving being, like Frankenstein constructing a monster out of elbows and knees, then teaching it to dance. The video-game melancholia and digital ephemera of I Don’t Like Shit showed how purposeful the blown-out sonics of the SoundCloud era can be when paired with a generational talent, but Some Rap Songs places Earl’s aesthetic within a longer timeline, reaching back to the atmospheric, bomb-shelter style of turn-of-the-millennium backpack rap, as well as the early-’90s golden age to which that nodded.
“Tryin-a refine this shit, I redefined myself,” he raps on “Nowhere2go,” synopsizing the Earl Sweatshirt saga thus far, in which a prodigiously talented 16-year-old with Eminem’s gift of wordplay and Method Man’s flow was thrust unwittingly into stardom and meme-dom, then retreated from the public eye to etch his own artistic vision. I Don’t Like Shit (which he has referred to as his first album, although it’s technically his third) and Some Rap Songs document a hard-fought intellectual awakening amidst a haze of drugs, self-doubt, and lingering grief, first over the death of his grandmother, and more recently his father, the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who died early this year. Does Earl find this subject matter or does it find him? He has spoken about his struggles with depression and anxiety throughout his career—he canceled a tour earlier this year due to it—but on Some Rap Songs he puts us more vividly in that space, where death is everywhere, seeing signs of the end on “Eclipse,” calmly noticing “shoulder-level water on the rise” on “The Mint,” and watching his own blood mix with water in the album’s opening moments. The past is a scab Earl can’t stop picking on “Ontheway!,” a constant sense of loss that he medicates with booze and bandages by pulling the blinds shut.
If that sounds dour, well, it can be. But it’s also ecstatic. Make no mistake: This is an album by one of the best rappers alive, elbowing slant rhymes and assonance into his disses (“Please do abort, I could feel when you’re forcin’ it / Still in a bore riddim”) and exhaling those singularly oblong sentences of his (“Galaxy’s the distance between us by Christmas,” he describes one foundering relationship). “All praises due, the juice unattainable / Like Tang in the booth,” he puns at one point, later detailing the rise and fall of Odd Future on “The Bends” with the mad-dash verve of an old Raekwon verse. Eight years into his career he’s shadowboxing the greats, as vivid as early Nas and as playful as mid-period Doom. The darkness Some Rap Songs explores is absolute—when he finally mentions Trump, it’s more as a symptom than a disease—but Earl finds light and life in the company of like-minded contemporaries (Mike, Medhane, Sixpress). They’re searchers like him—artists, to use the “imprecise word” James Baldwin begrudgingly accepts in an album-opening sample.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the album’s final trio of songs. On “Playing Possum,” he cuts a speech from his mother and a poem read by his father into yet another dense sound collage, a sonic reconciliation sufficing for a real-world one now rendered impossible. It’s followed by “Peanut,” which contains Earl’s final verse on the album, a portrait of crushing, enduring emptiness, where he picks out his father’s grave, sees depression sprawling to the horizon, tastes death and declares it sour. The album could end here, drowning in sound—but it does not. On “Riot!” Earl breaks the loop at last, letting a long clip of his father’s friend, the jazz musician Hugh Masekela, who also died earlier this year, play at length. It’s pure joy, a riot of brass and rhythm, and a reminder that if there’s one thing that transcends depression, and even death itself, it’s music. That title is saying more than it lets on; Some Rap Songs celebrates the mere fact of their existence, and so our own.