Wednesday, November 6, 2019

album review: 'FEET OF CLAY' by earl sweatshirt

At this point, I've given up having expectations for Earl Sweatshirt. 

Granted, I think we all did with Some Rap Songs, a discordant jumble of jazzy, lo-fi hip-hop that had him sifting through messy questions of numb anger and grief, that felt more like a set of cast-off thoughts than a structured album. And it was certainly a project that I respected... but it wasn't really one I loved, and I got the impression it'd be considered divisive in Earl's larger discography. And while the critics bent over backwards to shower it with praise - which again, I understand, but the particular set of lo-fi tones he used just didn't connect as deeply as I'd like - you can tell that some hip-hop fans were a little hesitant with this direction for Earl, especially long-term. 

And thus when he announced he was dropping a surprise EP from out of nowhere, while a lot of people seemed surprised at the incredibly quick turnaround, I'll admit I wasn't, especially if Earl was continuing to self-produce in lo-fi. Flip and chop up the right sample, blend the percussion in, add bars and muddy mastering and you could have a follow-up, especially if the songs were only a few minutes in length and there was no expectation of hooks or structure; that's the hidden truth about some brands of lo-fi music, the audience that buys into this sound without deeper scrutiny will tolerate a lot more than even mainstream fans who just want bangers with hooks. Now granted, I didn't expect Earl to phone this in, but you can only say so much in about fifteen minutes of music, with the majority of songs under two minutes. So okay, what did we get on FEET OF CLAY?

Honestly, not a lot at all. And I know it's not popular to say given how much acclaim was thrown at Earl's last album, but the messy emotional throughline of Some Rap Songs was at least a throughline, whereas FEET OF CLAY tries to disguise the fact it's a less cohesive patchwork of ideas that winds up less than the sum of its parts - not precisely bad, but after a solid dozen listens, which isn't hard given how this is about fifteen minutes, I'm left questioning how much there really is to praise about this.

And I want to start with how Earl himself described this: 'a collection of observations and feelings recorded during the death throes of a crumbling empire'. In other words, pseudo-apocalyptic dystopian musings that aren't trying to be cohesive because they wouldn't be in the breakdown of society, more focused on internal crises because it'll be where Earl could most effectively address his existing demons, notably the deaths in his family, a breakup, and a fair amount of alcohol abuse. Now let me stress that this isn't a bad idea for a project: even if I'd argue billy woods both on his own and with Armand Hammer beat him to the punch in sound, content, and style multiple times, I was curious how Earl would approach some otherwise rich material... so it was more than a little jarring when his lead-off song was a slice of passive aggressive bragging rife with gallows humour that seems to be more about his independent hustle than anything deeper. It gets a bit darker and more focused on 'EAST' - although we'll come back to why that song doesn't stick the landing - and both 'MTOMB' and 'OD' seem to highlight the lonely recklessness that's causing him to lash out and self-destruct, especially given how he's reached an age he didn't expect to hit. It's also at these moments how he references he's 'post-performance' - moving past the artificial structures likely asked by the label for something more raw and real, in the hope that bleeding for his art will allow him to heal. But it's interesting to see how that healing takes place on 'EL TORO COMBO MEAL', where Mavi adopts a very Earl-esque flow to discuss how he's channeled his angst and grief into his work, both on the court and in the streets, and Earl... well, he's sick of being ignored, so he's going to keep carving his own things and socking stuff away even despite being at the precipice... but even that's brushed aside on 'TISK TISK / COOKIES', where he tries to show some compassion for those who lose their humor and innocence in pain or trauma. 

And yet the EP ends on '4N' with both Mach-Hommy and Earl seemingly embracing the hard-edged, survivalist gangsta stoicism they need to survive even despite the trauma, which might not be surprising and might feel realistic to the scene, but doesn't reveal. Hell, I'd argue it does even less - Earl has always used gallows humour and blunt obliqueness to skirt full truth, and the power in his work has either come from where the veils fall away completely or in the case of Some Rap Songs, he literally can't contextualize the full experience of his loss. And like Some Rap Songs, there's an element of contradiction, where you can tell Earl is showing deflective contempt while still craving the audience - but the fragment of trauma we hear feels underdeveloped, especially when you consider the broader societal context he wanted to establish - which might have a parallel to the world at large but never fully sketches that link. There was more of an emotional core that made the best moments of Some Rap Songs shine through, that the trauma could be at least explored in a wider setting, but FEET OF CLAY acts as though it can't outright show even a fresh taste of the weakness implied in its title - again, believable in the framing, but it mutes the impact and can't help but feel calculated on a project so abortive and fragmented, especially with Earl's increasingly frank style... which is the last thing he should want.

But this cycles back to the production... and look, there's barely anything to say here, especially when it's not that far removed from the same issues I had with the muddy, lo-fi blend that Earl used on Some Rap Songs. I will say it's blatantly obvious when it comes to pure vocal fidelity on 'MTOMB' and 'EL TORO COMBO MEAL' when producers who aren't Earl step in, in the first case with The Alchemist's Mtume's sample and soulful foundation and then with Ovrkast on the latter with the twinkles of keys and lo-fi crooning off the rumbles of drums... and unfortunately, they wind up as some of the better moments here. '74' swamps itself out in glassy taps and cuts itself off before the melody forms, the shuddering nasal horn and vocal warp of 'OD' never coalesces on an actual tune, 'TISK TISK / COOKIES' is literally two muddy fragments mashed together full of grainy shudders, and '4N' is a reversed psychedelic bass line clipping the edge of the mix that barely evolves over the extended runtime - how in the Nine Hells Earl could make a song on an EP like this sound underwritten, I'm honestly a little shocked, but he did it. But the song that I'd argue most captures my frustrations here is 'EAST', where you get a loop of a squawking accordion passing as a beat, further ramping up the tragi-comic sense of melody that Earl has really had on all of his albums... and yet here it feels like a snippet of zaniness that not only misses the mark opposite the darker content, especially given the sequencing before it, it feels like an attempt at what Danny Brown has done so well with Paul White on Atrocity Exhibition in taking a zonked out tone for ironic contrast... shame he picked one where the kookiness just doesn't land.

But as a whole... look, I get the feeling that Earl knows with this direction in his sound that he risks losing fans, but that's not why I'm lukewarm on this at best. I don't mind the sonic shifts - hell, I wish more of the lo-fi fragments connected more strongly - but FEET OF CLAY feels like it's pulling its punches, and that is what gets truly distracting here, especially given that away from major label control he could do whatever he wants... and yet he delivers a rote continuation of Some Rap Songs that only seems to retract upon the ideas he was exploring there. Again, the rapping is good and I can appreciate enough snippets to give this a light 6/10, but like with Some Rap Songs it's difficult to recommend - maybe give it a chance if you're curious, it's certainly short enough to take a quick listen, but I'm not sure it's worth throwing a boulder at these feet of clay - just saying.

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