For this review, I shall only refer to Earl Sweatshirt, the name most people are probably more familiar with, as Thebe Kgositsile, his birth name. If you need reason why, here’s a snippet from Some Rap Song’s twelfth track, “Veins”:
“Earl is not my name, the world is my domain, kid.”
The third-to-last track of L.A. cult moniker Earl Sweatshirt’s third studio album Some Rap Songs (“Playing Possum”) interweaves a keynote speech that his mother – civil rights lawyer and UCLA professor Cheryl Harris – gave and a poetry reading from his father – the late South African poet Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile – as a conciliatory gesture: Thebe wanted to fix his once and, frankly, still fractured familial relationships. Ranging back before the FREE EARL phenomenon, diehard fans have long noted the strife between Thebe and his parents regarding the pursuit of his rap dreams. Defying their expectations (along with ours) while playing peacemaker and dealing with his own grief has always been Kgositsile’s goal. Some Rap Songs is, in many ways, accomplishing all of this in a mere 25 minutes.
From promotion to merchandise, production to the cover art, Some Rap Songs is a culmination of Earl’s creative juices, producer ego randomblackdude’s sonic bravery and Thebe’s dark, complex introspection, even though a surface level analysis may come off as the total opposite. Thebe created a niche hip hop market for his staggering horror style with 2010’s EARL tape and the prodigious 2013 project Doris; the two projects showed off Thebe’s ear for ominous melodies and drums that are equally crisp as they are militant, as well as the tongue-twisting brutality of his lyricism that can only be described as lyrics to piss off old white people. But after a skateboarding accident that cooped him up in his apartment, Thebe released the excellent I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and moved closer to the sound that he currently occupies: a barrage of sewered beats and malformed rhythms that are fearful of life, death and love.
Some Rap Songs is less of a lazy understatement and more of a near perfect exercise in brevis and humanist creativity. Underneath all of the darkness of IDLSIDGO, Thebe still managed to squeeze in jazz-centric inserts of pianos, guitars and horns. Some Rap Songs delves deeper into these interests, with Dilla-esque sampling skills and Madvillain-ish experimentation adding soulful context to Thebe’s struggles. The result is not the cleanest – clicks, pops, off-beat rhymes and lingering waveforms litter the entire project – but it’s just as obscure and interesting as is Thebe’s headspace; it’s full of mistakes, but the mistakes are intentional and humane.
Singles “Nowhere2go” and “The Mint (feat. Navy Blue)” are woozy and spiraling, yet they are the microcosmic reflections of the project overall and of Thebe’s current temperament. The collage-fashioned production on “Nowhere2go” makes way for Thebe to reorient himself back at the top of the game with his newfound inspiration. On the song he says, “Tryna refine this shit/ I redefined myself/ First I had to find it, uh.” SRS can be summed up in these words; this fruition of Thebe’s own artistic promise has allowed him to finally capture moments of happiness, regardless of whether they’ll last or not. “The Mint,” which has one of the mere three features on Some Rap Songs, offers Thebe’s world-building abilities; the song is about the things around him, rather than whatever he does in the studio. The opening verse is handled by New York undergrounder Navy Blue, who raps about his motivation to provide a good life for his mother. Thebe, on the song’s outro, details his life’s priorities by saying “Lotta blood to let, peace to make, fuck a check.” To him, his music and its successes will never overcome life’s daily doses of tragedy.
Perhaps the most polarizing string of emotion involves the album’s final two songs, “Peanut” and “Riot!.” Recorded after his father’s death, both tracks are full of intense soundscapes and Thebe’s most heart-wrenching work to date. Thebe’s broken voice plays over vicious low-ends and loose drums on “Peanut,” as he relates his immediate depression following his father’s death to his future. “Flushin’ through the pain, depression, this is not a phase” he says, accepting the inevitability of this sad, sad life. Countering this, however, “Riot!” samples “Mace and Grenades / Riot” by Hugh Masekela, a friend of Thebe’s father. The jarring instrumental serves as Thebe’s moving-on-party, as victorious trumpets blare on to represent Thebe’s plans to keep progressing as a man, even though darkness will always lurk.
Some Rap Songs is the year’s defining rap project: wit, self-awareness and fulfillment find themselves parading around freely and with good health. Thebe knows his journey is not nearly done, and he has yet to feel as if he has peaked. The 24-year-old, unfortunately, won’t have time to right some of his wrongs, but Some Rap Songs is the springboard from the fist-fighting discography that was, to a world that is somber yet embracing, idiosyncratic yet pure, future-forward yet past-mending.