Earl Sweatshirt’s ‘Some Rap Songs’ proves to be so much more than that
Words by Brinsley Chidavaenzi
Rappers public profiles are almost inhuman. Their Instagrams are like new episodes of a high profile MTV show. With drama unfolding every 24 hours, Hip-Hop becomes the new show where we watch people become voices of the world. For better or worse. Antics, misjudgement, arrests, heinous acts – it’s become static and we’re all immune to it. It all sweeps together into the cycle of PR and engagement in the attention economy on social media which drives attention and company profit. Everyone keeps tabs on everybody; it’s a trade of value in which the services you sign up for are free. Earl Sweatshirt’s body of work speaks for itself and is far away from the 24-hour world of rap.
Some Rap Songs is a collage of intimate psyche renderings over the past few years of Earl’s life. Shoutouts to loved ones, shoutouts to new associates, self-honesty, self-medication, new internal strength and slick wordplay are just a few of the perspectives on offer on SRS. Working through loss, pain, death and mental health – these are constant ongoing things which go on without a resolve, which is why there’s no resolve on SRS.
Some Rap Songs resonates because I can hear the place Earl speaks from, it’s a hell of a place. Words are only half of the picture in this place and it’s hard to show the outside world without words which just scratch the bare surface of feeling. Words are the driver in rap music and serve as the beginning and end point for painting a descriptive picture in the world of what’s happening on a song; from artist to listener. Usually, more words would mean more description, more words, more room for potential rhythmic complexity and ‘lyricism’ which scores high in Hip-Hop brownie points.
It’s impressive to hear someone string multi-syllabic rhymes and rhyme schemes which are varied in a 16 bar verse but what does it mean when you’re not saying anything? Not much. SRS eschews verbose writing which is commonly found in ‘lyrical hip hop’ and fairs for a more visceral free-form delivery with direct lyricism. The dense and complex interplay of his verses remain but aren’t harnessed to a grid or conventional Hip-Hop rules. Sometimes the delivery gets fragmented, slows and speeds up, goes behind the beat, words run over each other. Jazz looms over SRS like a rhythmic ghost navigating the production along with Earl. This change in direction also reveals a sharpening of his art and ultimately a sort of conclusions – from the roaring potential of ‘Doris’, an insular reflection of ‘I Don’t Go Outside’ to the mature reconciliations of ‘Some Rap Songs’.
Exactly for this reason that Peanut had me speechless when hearing it on the first time. By far it’s one of the saddest, heart-wrenching songs I’ve heard this year and in a long time. I’ve finally heard a song that articulates sudden loss and the feeling of pain and ending brewing, like a heart being yanked and a body being yanked into the earth’s soil.
Peanut reminded me of a devastating personal experience this year; of where I had to console a loved one after being told at 3 AM they discovered news of a close family member passing away. The suddenness of time and processing the immediate pains in real time, whilst still in deep disbelief and the post-processing and various mental states after.
Being to hear a specific feeling in music that I haven’t heard being articulated with such specificness and resonance gave me a peace of mind because it’s a space I wouldn’t want to frequent in my everyday life as it’s not the nicest to be in and have to face everyone with a smile would be a lie. The expression ‘music is therapy’ fits like a glove here. The streak of Playing Possum – Peanut – Riot holds significant weight for reasons like these and more, not just for me but I’m sure for many who can insert their own into the narrative wherever possible. The lo-fi sound has turned into somewhat of an enterprise in the past few years, from increased searches of ‘chill lofi beats’ and ’24/7 chill lo-fi radio’ etc. The sound has ranged back from the days of Adult Swim and Toonami bumpers and preceded by Hip-Hop releases that were released in this state due to technology only outputting at these settings as opposed to the desired effect.
The lo-fi world that Earls surrounds himself and his words by on SRS is a contrast to the ‘chill-hop’ playlist in that disrupts the easy listening and palatableness of the sound with technological inconsistencies throughout. Tape hiss, beat dropouts, stutters, pitch bends, highlight the production beautifully with the most skeletal of loops providing the soundtrack. The more I listen to Earl, the more I realise he was a way with words which are healing, beautiful, transcendent and most important; human.
An excellent quote by the late James Baldwin on sacrifice exemplifies the effect of Earl’s work:
“Millions of people whom you will never see, who don’t know you, never will know you, people who may try to kill you in the morning, live in a darkness which—if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define—you are responsible to those people to lighten, and it does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in a way a crab is useful, the way sand certainly has some function. It is impersonal. This force which you didn’t ask for, and this destiny which you must accept, is also your responsibility. And if you survive it, if you don’t cheat, if you don’t lie, it is not only, you know, your glory, your achievement, it is almost our only hope—because only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. “
Some rap songs, huh?