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Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs Makes the Deliberately Wrong Feel Right

On the cover of Some Rap Songs, the latest album from the enigmatic and reluctant rap star Earl Sweatshirt, there’s a shaky photograph of an unknown smiling person blurred beyond any easy identification, as though the photographer dropped the camera in the middle of taking the shot. It’s an apt visual metaphor for the music itself, both in the image of a spark of life amidst chaos, and in the sense that the creative process of taking the photo may have been ruptured as it was happening. Some Rap Songs is a portrait of an artist in the midst of a nightmare, and its sound—harsh, unfinished, disorienting, deliberately wrong—is a reflection of that mindstate.

Since Earl’s last album, I Don’t Like Shit. I Don’t Go Outside, he’s seen the death of his father, the poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, and dealt with depression and anxiety that sidelined him for much of the past two years. Perhaps as a result, his new music is crammed with ideas, and moves at a rate that can be difficult to keep up with. Earl, however, sounds right at home. His rhymes approach the music with little regard for what might be considered proper timing, or mixing, and the songs work well despite this—or because of it. He is defiant about preconceived notions of how a well crafted record should sound, and Some Rap Songs seems intent on proving that there can be beauty in ugliness, clarity in disorganization. “You went and gave me a cape / but that never gave me no hope,” Earl raps on “NOWHERE2GO,” seemingly referencing the adulation, and subsequent alienation, he received from obsessed fans in the early days of Odd Future. “I found a new way to cope,” he finishes, on a track whose dense abstraction is miles away from the music that made him famous.

Madlib’s leaky basement cellar vision of hip-hop is a key point of reference, and Earl uses those wobbly rhythms to reflect an equally unstable world. Some Rap Songs feels like living inside of the head of someone who thinks too much, its existential dread unfolding from the fragmented samples and antiquated boom-bap bass. Despite superficially old-school touches, the sound of Some Rap Songs is more radical than simple nostalgia would allow. Accordingly, Earl also resists the impulse to shape his complicated memories into neat narratives with satisfying conclusions. Earl and his father had a distant relationship before Kgositsile’s death, for instance, and Earl does not shy from the contradictions that color so many father-son relationships. “Hate swimmin’ through your bloodlines,” Earl raps on the intro track “Shattered Dreams.” And on “Peanut”: “Bless my pops, we sent him off, and not a hour late / Still in shock, and now my heart out somewhere on the range.” Earl’s deadpan delivery may lead you to believe he’s just naturally jaded, but it’s a defense mechanism, belying just how heartfelt and tortured Some Rap Songs can be.

Earl was always the most talented member of Odd Future, though in the early days, he could be just as juvenile and thoughtless as his buddy Tyler, the Creator, was at the time. He worked through those impulses and emerged a stronger, more inward-looking rapper, in part through a stay at a boarding school for at-risk teens that was infamously mandated by his parents just as Odd Future was becoming a popular phenomenon. Both Kgositsile and Earl’s mother Cheryl Harris are quoted lovingly near the end of Some Rap Songs, in what feels like a gesture of gratitude for their guidance. Whatever got him here, the album reasserts his status as a uniquely fascinating rapper. On Some Rap Songs, he’s making the most adventurous and exciting music of his career so far.