Every week we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is Earl Sweatshirt's third album, Some Rap Songs.
Some Rap Songs, the third album by Thebe Kgositsile, aka Earl Sweatshirt, begins with the phrase “imprecise words”: a mission statement giving way to the first splice of soul loop and our weary narrator, pensive as ever, groggily victorious as if he’s waded through himself and finally made it ashore. In this life, one can anticipate a moment on the horizon when they’ll be drowning again; the Earl we meet now, almost four years since his previous album-length transmission, knows this with certainty. Our grappling with grief and relief comes with the price of the ticket. But as he accepts these words as imprecise attempts, he finds freedom and builds a home. These 24 minutes were originally intended as an olive branch to extend to his late father, the renowned poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who passed in January of this year before hearing the album. It’s a painful, damning cliché: a frayed relationship between father and son, the latter’s intentions to turn a new leaf interrupted by the inevitability of death, reconciliation never found in our living state.
Considering the landscape he’s returned to, Earl Sweatshirt’s granted the luxury of time: increasingly rarefied air granted only to an ever-shrinking handful of musicians — especially hip-hop artists — in the algorithm age. He speaks his peace, retreats from fame, and returns when he has something to say; the times appear to dictate the opposite, to be omnipresent no matter what you’re saying or doing. Some Rap Songs dabbles in the times with its brevity, packing Earl’s emotional weight into compact spaces. The songs arrive, speak loudly and evaporate. There’s virtually no choruses, almost no 808s — just bars in a land of chops, loops and warped frequencies. Where Earl’s been praised for the tenacious stylings of his youth, often marred with unsavory and downright violent content, he’s traded fantasy for the densely autobiographical without coding his story behind his verbosity. The little things are noticeable: He says “bitch” one time on this album. He thanks Black women, addressing the Black women in his life in many moments. He recalls his mother’s memories with a new perspective no longer rooted in spite. If one’s heard his collection of stray drops from previous years — notably “Balance” with Knxwledge, and the self-produced “solace” and “Wind in My Sails” — Earl’s littered his path with clues for the fully-realized MC he’s become on SRS. He’s a direct, potent spitter, weathered by life and infatuated with death, granting the listener access to the grounded truths he’s found and grotesque nature of pain we may not deserve access to.
Sonically, Earl handles the majority of production while calling on the budding mainstays of the New York underground to complement this vision: Black Noi$e, Ade Hakim (of sLUms), the skater Sage Elsesser (rapping under Navy Blue) and Detroit-bred frequent collaborator Denmark Vessey. There’s also a treasure trove of influences that go uncredited, but named, mostly the rappers MIKE and Mach-Hommy: the former citing Earl as a huge influence down to his delivery, the latter pulling Earl to produce his 2017 release Fete Des Morts AKA Dia De Los Muertos. The East Coast connect makes SRS an exercise in a young OG dialoguing with his influences in real-time, channeling a wave from a place of mutual respect rather than vulturous intent. The imprints all speak of Dilla, Madlib, DOOM and the greats who paved the way for Earl’s weird world. It’s a reinvestment in the archivist intent of sampling, the preservation of Black music and Blacker memories, channeling the old to communicate across the divide. The samples weave in and out of time, bleeding across Earl’s verses and crying out into the void. Look no further than Earl weaving his mother Cheryl Harris’ speech with his father’s poem on “Playing Possum,” then ending SRS by sampling his late uncle Hugh Masekela on the final “Riot!” as a proper goodbye.
While firmly rooted in the lineage of underground oddities, it’s unfair, albeit convenient, to call the production style “challenging” as Earl carries it closer to a mainstream stage. In fact, SRS’s reach presents an opportunity for the new New York, and the radical Black kids cratedigging on Bandcamp everywhere, to make headway in the grander conversation as the underground faces more suffocation despite the new frontier of access we were promised with the internet. Staging aside, SRS isn’t a release concerned with when the revolution comes, or the expectation of classic work as the world nagged Earl to return from his grief. As his friend Vince Staples once said on the now-infamous “Burgundy”: “Don’t nobody care how you feel, we want raps, nigga. Raps.” And in a year where he’s lost his father, his uncle and a best friend in the late Malcolm “Mac Miller” McCormick, Earl gave us precisely that: raps. In a time when ain’t nobody tryna hear that shit, until they swear they tryna hear that shit. Nothing tailored for the radio, the playlists, or the FREE EARL runoff. This is documented process through imprecise words: attempts at healing, paranoia, catharsis, survival. As he’s reckoned with himself, we’re left to reckon with the artifacts of a peer showcasing his wounds even if it means he’ll never get the chance to close them after. Honest as ever, vulnerable as always and a testament to finishing the job when it’s time.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.