Thursday, December 6, 2018

album review: 'some rap songs' by earl sweatshirt

So I've always struggled a bit with how to properly evaluate Earl Sweatshirt - or indeed, how much I can call myself a fan. Don't get me wrong, I've scored both of his albums thus far highly, I think he's a great rapper with a powerful knack of distilling complex ideas down to aggressively concise ideas and he has a knack for honest introspection that rarely gets the credit it deserves, especially given his origin within Odd Future... but I'd struggle to say that I've revisited much of his work outside of a few songs, and his very limited presence in the hip-hop world at large always gives me the odd feeling I could be hearing much more from him... and yet I don't. 

And thus it was with a little trepidation I was approaching Some Rap Songs - his first album in over three years and his shortest to date, clocking under a half hour, it nevertheless has already gotten a reputation for being a pretty dense and experimental listen at that length. And... honestly, I wasn't sure how to take that, as wild experimentation in tone and production hasn't really been a thing for Earl - he's favoured dusty, stripped back, usually very dark beats so I didn't really have a gauge for where he'd take this. I did know he had lost his father and a close family friend who he considered his uncle earlier this year and Earl has always had a complicated relationship with his family, so I expected that subtext to loom pretty heavily, so what did we get with Some Rap Songs?

So it's difficult to really talk about this project, as once again we're dealing with the sort of project that's more designed to craft a mood and complicated emotion with its sound and structure, and more than ever it resists straightforward analysis. Oh, there are themes and ideas and fragments of wordplay here, but Earl Sweatshirt is aiming more to capture a sense of diffuse, muddled emotion, a blend of depression and angst that doesn't flow forth in a way that can be easily structured or contextualized. And yet while the flurry of lo-fi fragments might imply abstraction, we're still dealing with Earl Sweatshirt, a rapper who'll strip out unnecessary language for bluntness to make his point... except when he can't. And yet I find myself wishing that I could connect with this more strongly than I do, a project of muddy intimacy that doesn't want to be touched and deflects the audience whenever they attempt to try.

And it's hard to pinpoint where the wires aren't connecting for me, because outside of the production - which we'll discuss at length - Earl is delivering what you would expect from him. His flow is a little more halting and scattered, the rhymes don't connect as consistently - which I'll admit gets distracting, even if I'll be a bit more forgiving with it here - but for someone in the throes of anxiety, extreme introversion, depression, and grappling with the pileup of emotions that comes from losing multiple father figures, it's not surprising. And thus it makes sense there's an attempted projection of strength, even as he struggles and fails to assemble the words and wonders why nobody told him his grief and pain was so evident. And all of this is amidst the larger strains he's touched on before: fame that came way too early and expectations under which you can tell Earl would be straining even if things were going well - 'NOWHERE2GO' and 'December 24' makes this very apparent, because for as much as he was elevated for his introspection and darker content, it didn't lessen the weight or help repair bridges to a distant father with whom he had never properly reconciled or was even understood, even by his family. But then you get a larger consideration of time itself, both wasted and lost altogether - Earl knows that his silence has power, and while he's been trying to use the previous few years to process his life, he's keenly aware that amidst the drudgery and loneliness time and potential bars have ticked away... and yet he perseveres. It's very telling that 'The Bends' is a moment of reflection on success in the face of the tragedy strewn across the album but also a reference to one of Radiohead's most pronounced albums for wallowing in melancholy. And yet he doesn't hold back words for those who have now tried to approach him in the mean time - their words have died in their throats as seasons have changed, and while time has made him grow stronger it's also made him grow colder - the wallow has ended, he has found a few scattered friends, and while his mother may have seen his father in him before, now that lonely ghost is in the past. 

But all the while he's aware of the twisted contradiction that snaps into place on songs like 'Eclipse', where the parallel to albums like Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or A Crow Looked At Me by Mount Eerie naturally comes into view: the paradox of making art out of layers of such grief and pain. For the sake of his mental state and protection he wants to close those doors and that vulnerability... but that is what has made his success and he misses the luster that came with its popular acclaim. But time adds another dimension, muddies the emotions and memories, further denies clarity... and yet it's not like he's changed here either, even the time away and his radio silence in the face of real trauma might have given that impression. And he's still as self-aware as ever: as he says on 'Veins', he's sitting on a star and have found some success, but he's not a 'star' - so is there a point to saying any of this, or is it at least therapeutic? Honestly, the more listens I give Some Rap Songs, the more I get the impression this project fills that role most of all, not for us but more for him, trying his damnedest to dismiss our voyeurism but wanting enough applause to give us a glimpse all the same.

And if that wasn't significant evidence that Earl Sweatshirt is paradoxically shoving us both in and out the door with Some Rap Songs, the production absolutely does get there. Initially I was thrown by the lo-fi sample-heavy tones being a bit brighter than the trudging melancholy of I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, but there were traces of this direction on this album, only this time Earl's choice of sampling and song fidelity is intentionally much more muddy and scattered, with fifteen songs barely clearing twenty four minutes and most not even reaching the two minute mark. And with that comes the question that if you don't like the soul or jazz sample fragment cushioned by a thickened bass, it really determines if you'll like the fragments you get. So while I might like the bubbly soul chop of 'Shattered Dreams' or the blurry keys of 'Cold Summers' and 'December 24', the moaning grainy oscillation of 'Red Water' - where Earl actually sampled his own work - or the messy pileup of watery funk on 'Loosie' just does not click for me whatsoever. And what's strange is that the level of distortion or fidelity doesn't even really impact how much it might work, especially with the understanding that getting a hook is a total crapshoot - the stuttered, Radiohead-esque sampling against the faint guitars of 'NOWHERE2GO' managed to work as did the warm scratchy soul of 'OnTheWay!', the glittery flutter of 'Azucar', and the rickety pianos of 'The Mint'. But there's two very notable moments of sampling that should be highlighted, the first coming on 'Playing Possum', the entire song comprised of interweaving samples of a benediction from his mother and a fragment of poetry from his late father - poetry that earlier on the album Earl crowed would get him a cease and desist... that would never come, as his father died before he could hear it, and when intermingled with his mother's voice and how she had once seen his father in him, shows the emotions ever more tangled. But then comes the final two songs, a tribute to that family friend and 'uncle' with the thickest, lo-fi shudder on 'Peanut'... alleviated with a final instrumental sampled from him for 'Riot', quaking and cut off before it reaches a point of triumph, but a glimmer of hope nonetheless.

So as a whole... look, I want to love this album, I really do. It's weird, it's tangled and experimental but the sort of record that kind of nails the mess of emotions that come with losing loved ones and thus winds up feeling all the more human, and while I can't imagine Earl will continue in this lane, I respect his courage to make something so challenging. And yet it's a project I can respect so much more than I like it - the emotional resonance feels muted by its layers of execution and tangled approach to abstraction and theme, and like with A Crow Looked At Me it has a brand of rawness in its content that might feel too intimate... and when it's deflected it leaves me in an odd place. As such, I'm giving this a strong 7/10 and a recommendation, but a qualified one. It's absolutely not for everyone - not even all Earl fans will embrace this, it's lo-fi and tangled and fractured in the way these sorts of emotions often are - but I can see if you can get invested in the sound and content, this'll really resonate. So yeah, definitely take the time to check this out - powerful stuff all the same.

2 comments:

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