Since the 1990s, the list of underground hip-hop stalwarts to gain cult-like followings runs deep and potent. Punchline specialists like Big L and slick spitters like Mos Def and Talib Kweli of Black Star emerged as prominent figures on the East Coast prior to the turn of the century. Come the early 2000s, Atmosphere and Aesop Rock had opened up even more avenues for progressive rap music through introspective emo-raps and philosophical lyricism. During the same time, MC-producer virtuoso’s MF DOOM and El-P were building up catalog’s that are now considered legendary.
The lore surrounding these alternative and low key movements within hip-hop extends into the present day. Due to the mass commercialization of the streaming era, these underground rap artists are now more accessible to millions of fans around the world than ever before.
Ranking among the most revered and beloved talents in the modern era for this sector of rap music is Earl Sweatshirt. Since first blowing up as a part of Odd Future nine years ago, Sweatshirt has maintained a relative amount of commercial viability in comparison to other alternative hip-hop acts. But much like Tyler, the Creator and the rest of the Odd Future affiliates, the grimy aesthetic and rebellious spirit of Earl’s music have always made him a counterculture favorite.
The California-based MC and producer is as skilled at evading the spotlight as he is at rapping, having been mostly unheard from since dropping his 2015 LP I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. In the period since that album’s release, Sweatshirt has endured significant personal hardships. These include ongoing battles with depression and anxiety, as well as the passing of his father, South African poet and political activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, who has been a frequent reference point in Earl’s music before.
These introspective themes ooze all over Some Rap Songs, Earl’s third commercial release for Columbia Records. Tireless was the hype train that led into SRS; teaser singles “Nowehere2go” and “The Mint” only seemed to increase the anticipation for the new record, hinting at a dreary, lo-fi sonic direction and a noticeably dark and cathartic version of Earl gracing the mic.
Such is the case for the rest of the album. The 15 tracks, which total to a brief 24-minute rotation time, play like a series of short, ominous anecdotes that peer straight into the challenged mind of Sweatshirt. Filled cover to cover with moody and obscure sample choices, the music is a testament to Earl’s skills as a steady producer, and the stories he tells are an ode to the brutal realities of mental health and the personal struggle that often forelies the healing process. His internalized thoughts and emotions, many which center on the state his own well-being, are laid out flat for everyone to absorb.
When it comes to words, Earl is an architect and it’s no secret that he is one of hip-hop’s most melancholy marauders. The combination of his sharp pen and cold lyrics have positioned him as a universally well-regarded rhymer for nearly a decade, both in terms of technical ability and substance. Some Rap Songs features another heavy dose of introverted sad-raps that ranges from hopeless, like on the scatter-brained “Nowhere2go,” to heartbroken and skeptical, such as on “Loosie.” The latter features some of Sweatshirt’s grimmest couplets:
Main line, underneath the skin of grapevines
Save time, serpent, no need to hiss
Found a reason to live, doubt can be an abyss
For Earl, there is no shying away from the morbid pitfalls of drug abuse. Here, he comes right out the gate saluting dope fiends before cleverly flipping the line into a double entendre that leads into a bleak documentation of his lack of trust in those around him. Few rappers can tackle depressing topics to such artistic effect.
As impressive as Earl’s rhyme patterns and flows can be, it’s nearly impossible not to be concerned over what exactly he’s saying. “The signs say we close to the end…over the flames, pokin’ the pit, hoping I don’t total my shit,” he raps on “Eclipse.”
Some Rap Songs is a predominantly dark listening experience, but as indicated by the start of the third bar in “Loosie,” there are subtle moments of hope and optimism sprinkled throughout the record. In the midst of the gloomy beats and song themes, these instances are uplifting and blissful. The phantasmagoric instrumental on “Azucar” sounds like a Donuts deep cut. Two of the album’s final tracks, “Playing Possum” and “Riot!” also reach divine highs, the former of which features an inspiring sample of vocal snippets from public speeches given by Earl’s parents.
On “Veins,” one of the most self-realized spots on the record, Earl calls out “Peace to every crease in your brain” – an implication that at the end of the day, he is a well-intended individual who wants to spread a positive message to those supporting him and the dark tones in his music, though very intense at times, are a result of him expressing himself and reflecting on his own experiences and personal bouts with mental health. More so than ever before, Earl’s self-awareness is pushing his music forward.
Earl is unquestionably indebted to the gritty underground scenes that came before him. His work nods to Madlib’s dusty sample loops, Blu’s down-to-earth swag and conscious bars, and Jneiro Jarel’s hazy and fragmented soul-hop; but where Some Rap Songs bears the most weight is in the power of Earl’s voice and the depth at which he’s assessing his own life. It’s his most personal release to date, by a long shot. It maintains the grim life analysis of previous works while taking a deeper look inward, reflecting not just on feelings and moods, but the prolonged effect which solitude and aging can have over the course of time. For the first time, he’s leaving it all on the table.
Favorite tracks: Cold Summers, The Mint, Loosie, Azucar, Playing Possum