Tuesday, March 24, 2015

album review: 'i don't like shit, i don't go outside' by earl sweatshirt

So time for a serious question: does Odd Future have any buzz anymore?

I don't mean that to be a slight against the rap collective, I really don't, a group that leapt out of the underground with a fully formed style and sound that won them a fair bit of critical acclaim and a strong cult following. And for a couple of years at the beginning of the decade, it seemed like the group was going to ride that wave of hype to album after album of success - not especially in the mainstream, given their subject matter and style, but there would be success.

But across 2014, Odd Future seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Yeah, there were a few scattered mixtapes but none of their big names dropped full-length records, and outside of some touring controversy that got some of their members banned from a New Zealand tour, Odd Future was pretty quiet. Now if you were to go back twenty years, there'd be no issue with this - albums and mixtapes take time to make if you're doing them right, and if Odd Future were secretly cooking things up, it'd be good to see a quality product. But we're also talking about the rapidly shifting landscape of hip-hop, where rap collectives live and die by their buzz, and with the internet that timeline has only gotten faster. And this means the unfortunate question isn't so much when the new Odd Future project would drop, but who outside their diehard fanbase would care if it did?

But out of nowhere, it looks as though we do have a new record dropping, and from the last person I'd expect: Earl Sweatshirt, the slightly off-kilter oddball of the group that initially built his reputation off of his darkly hyperbolic subject matter before destroying it with his surprisingly personal and introspective debut Doris. Now when I reviewed that debut way back in 2013, back before I even had a decent camera, and while I definitely liked it, it wasn't a record I saw myself going back to often - it was slow, dark, dreary, with Earl Sweatshirt's cadence and somber beats making it a heavy listen. Having gone back through it recently, though, I can definitely say I appreciate how meticulous and well-structured it is, balancing social commentary with a personal story well-told. In other words, of the rappers in Odd Future, I got the impression there was the most depth and layers behind Earl Sweatshirt. I was just surprised he would be first to the punch for a resurgence and not Tyler The Creator, and with a surprise album with few features and nothing from Odd Future outside of production, it looked to be an interesting listen. So what did we get?

Well, it's odd - on the one hand I barely feel like I got anything, or maybe a glorified mixtape at best, because Earl Sweatshirt's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside has less than a half hour of music on it for ten songs - the average is around three minutes. In other words, it seemed like Earl took the criticisms that Doris felt long annd cut his material down to the absolute limit. And yet on the other hand, I can't deny that what he did provide was pretty damn excellent and shows real improvement from his debut. If AWOLNATION got stripping things down to a raw center wrong, Earl Sweatshirt gets it right, and as such we get the sort of short album that will definitely leave a listener hungry for more.

So let's talk about Earl Sweatshirt himself first - and I'll admit, initially I had a fair amount of difficulty getting a handle on him, but this record probably gives me the clearest picture of him as an MC to date. And it's not an easy picture to take in: an incredibly strong and insightful and yet still young MC who has seen and done too much in too little time, and who can only find fragments of solace despite the immense responsibility crushing down on him. And what's a little startling is the loneliness that wracks this album - the loss of his grandmother, his strained relationship with his mother, his absentee father, a failed relationship with a vindictive ex-girlfriend, distance between him and the rest of Odd Future, and the feeling that the darkness he used to spit in his lyrics has become his reality. There isn't so much depression or sadness but dispassionate bitterness and disgust, trying to blunt real pain however he can, which leads to a flow that has energy but not emotive passion, with enough buried intensity and charisma to draw attention with every bar. He himself admits that he doesn't care about rap in the same way anymore, and he wonders why that passion seems to be gone - but it's not as if he can stop now, can he?

Now from that description, you'd think that Earl would pick guest stars that deal in similar dark, introspective themes - even though I'm not a Sadistik fan, he'd probably fit well on this album - or he'd simply keep this entirely as a solo affair. But the few guests he does bring on mostly work - Dash's inclusion on 'Grown Ups' adds a lot of uncomfortable poignancy to the track, and while Wiki from Ratking is a bit of an odd fit against that production, the songwriting of unfulfilled expectations from the past and getting by now does fit well. But Vince Staples' verse on 'Wool' could have afforded a little more structure to match its content, and Na'kel's versee on 'DNA', while being good, didn't really fit well with Earl's verse. And really, Vince's verse didn't fit great with Earl's either - putting aside the extremely abrupt ending on that track, for as much as both songs focus on harsh street life reality and violence, the framing is slightly different, where Vince describes it as a necessary reality and Earl is more outright aggressive... because, once again, it's all Earl's story.

So let's talk about that story, shall we, which takes us to lyrics and themes. Now I've already said I'm a fan of Earl's bars and well-structured rhymes, and described driving impulses behind the dispassionate solitude and isolation Earl is trudging into. But what gets interesting is delving into Earl's own rationale and excuses, that I get the feeling even he thinks ring hollow, especially on the album standout track 'Grief'. He spits graphic violence only to see it reflected in his imitators the eyes of his fans, and he's more than aware that without them, he wouldn't have made it, even though he's not sure he likes what he sees. And throughout this album you see Earl both castigating his challengers and those who did him wrong and yet always reaching for Xanax and weed and alcohol to blunt his own pain - he's building walls around himself of distrust and hatred half out of necessity, but half because it's the only thing he feels he can do to stay sane, and I get the feeling he hates doing it. It's why the song 'Grown-Ups' hits so hard for me, where he tries to throw up the greatest wall of all - maturity - and yet he sees the reflection of his absentee father when he does it, and realizes he might be more lost now than ever. But here's the thing: songs like 'Inside' show there is indeed that buried spark for Earl Sweatshirt, trying to be stifled by the industry around him - and because he's eternally self-reliant, he's going to figure out a way to subvert that industry and give them what they want, but also get out the truth. And if nobody will stand with him, he'll do it on his own.

So that's a lot about the content, what about the production? Well, here's the funny thing: I actually really like what Earl Sweatshirt did with the instrumentation on this album, most of which he handled himself, but it's also where I have my biggest nitpick about this record. And it comes back to the spirit of minimalism that Earl uses: he stripped things down to their most basic form, often a slightly off-kilter melodic sample and a thicker, grimier beat. And it's not afraid to get dark fast - even the brighter organ on 'Huey' has a melancholy tone. Most of the production is much grimmer, like the cavernous stuttering and echoing rattle of 'Mantra' that almost reminded of The Cure with its melodic tone, the dirty double-kick beat of 'Faucet', the bass-heavy density of 'Grief', the layered cracks and booms of 'Grown Ups' against the solitary piano note, or the deep-set snap of 'Inside' against faded synthesizers. And so much of it has an earthy, organic touch to it, a trudge down a broken, overgrown road where the plants that split the concrete are long-dead - nothing gleams or sparks on this album, and whenever it does it feels out of place or just slightly wrong. That leads to my one nitpick on this album - the instrumental interludes. Now don't get me wrong, they do fit the record in spacing out the ruthless and methodical bars, and the placement of the chintzy, TV-theme-esque at the end of 'Grief' does work as an instrumental motif, showing Earl trying to attain some facet of normality amid the darkness. But on a record as short as this, every bit of space has value, and when the number of bars per song is as limited as it is, I'm left wishing we could have traded many of these spaces for more verses. As it is, it feels a little indulgent, odd bits of excess on a record that's too lean to afford it.

So in summary... look, this album will not be for everyone. Between the layered bars, the dispassionate flow, and the dark production, Earl Sweatshirt does not care about making this album accessible. Hell, there'll be some who'll argue he doesn't care at all, coasting by on talent instead of actual effort, crafting a easy great album instead of a classic simply because he can. But pierce through the mask and you'll see too many moments of meticulous craftsmanship and humanity - in whittling down to the bones, Earl Sweatshirt did find a real core, and it hit me a lot harder than I expected. So for me, this album is a strong 8/10 and definitely a recommendation - but keep in mind it will not be an easy listen. Earl might feel he's one of the few in his crew that's trying to grow up - and on this album, he might be the first to tap into the real darkness that comes with it.

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