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The Remarkable Clarity of Earl Sweatshirt’s ‘SICK!’

The onetime Odd Future rapper’s new album ditches the muddied mixes and disaffected shrugs of his most recent output in favor of something still oblique, but sharper and more expressive

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By the end of the 2010s, Earl Sweatshirt had burrowed deep into a digital sludge. He was cutting his songs shorter and leaving their mixes murkier; even as he grew more desperate on the page, he delivered those verses with a progressively flatter affect, a dead eye turned toward a decaying world. On Some Rap Songs, his entrancingly muddled album from 2018, manipulated vocal samples are sometimes more central than Earl himself. That LP ends with the recorded voices of his parents, the legal scholar Cheryl Harris and the poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, not in succession, but laid over top of one another, more data for the din.

This was in sharp contrast to the music that made him a star, including Earl, the 2010 mixtape that became a cult fixation while the then-16-year-old rapper was in Samoa attending a “therapeutic boarding school for young boys who may have lost their way.” The tape was morbid but vivid, and could be horrifying unless you were in on—or could at least identify—the joke. It was also technically marvelous, depending on your appetite for the syllable-obsessed pop horrorcore handed down from Eminem.

While the writing on Earl plays coy little games with tone and intent—the grisliest scenes and punch lines played off as riffs on those that came before them—the vocals themselves are earnest, often forceful. This remained true when Earl returned from Samoa and began his career as a professional rapper—albeit with some evident apprehension. “Chum,” the melancholy lead single from 2013’s Doris that hinges on this ambivalence, sounded at the time like an extended shrug, garbled and uncertain; heard today, after Some Rap Songs and its companion piece, the 15-minute 2019 EP Feet of Clay, it seems remarkably straightforward.

On SICK!, his new album released last Friday, Earl’s vocals are rendered more crisply than ever before (a decision executed by Young Guru, the longtime Jay-Z engineer who handled the record in its entirety). This is not a return to the more animated raps of his younger days, but a foregrounding of takes that are more confident and less put-on, huskier, closer to guttural expression. While Earl has always been the diametric opposite of a theater kid—Madvillainy was almost certainly a formative text—he does have a few different vocal modes he toggles between, and seems here to have finally arrived at the ones that convey the same sense of first-thought inspiration that courses through his syntax and song structures.

This sonic clarity is at wonderful odds with the conflict in the album’s writing. SICK! is the first piece of art I’ve come across that integrates the COVID-19 pandemic in an interesting way—that is to say, obliquely. Earl writes impressionistically, returning over and over to images that suggest the natural world revolting, overtaking us. (On the album’s opening song, “Old Friend,” he’s hacking through a thicket, then holed up in a cabin, then awash in heavy Catskill rains; a line that could refer to Odd Future’s dissolution could just as easily be about the literal wolves howling outside.) Small choices make time slip through even a careful listener’s fingers: Do you latch onto the unsheathed sword from “2010” or the futuristic bioterror (“hit the lab, whip up a cell”) from “Vision”? And so a news event that has been made normal through sheer overexposure is reimagined here as a plague from scripture or deep sci-fi; Earl seems seconds away from referencing those avian plague-doctor masks—or, on the eerily distant “God Laughs,” sounds like he’s rapping through one.

But the pandemic is not where the album’s core conflict lies. Earl instead spends most of its 24 minutes grappling with inner turmoil, the kind that bubbles up when you “can’t go outside no more.” At points he raps about marked progress. This includes numerous references to newfound religion. He makes sense of things through prayer on “God Laughs,” finds God “at the core of [his] dimming fire” on “Lye,” answers a prayer bell on “Vision.” Yet he still falls into Sisyphean loops. On the album’s final song, “Fire in the Hole,” he’s exhorting himself, once again, to stop ruminating: “​It’s no rewinding / For the umpteenth time, it’s only forward.”

In fact, Earl has grown so deft at finding the crevices in these life-and-death struggles that when he briefly conjures the social angst of his prior work, it seems strikingly low stakes. His grumbles about “Fixing my face, feigning interest” and his patience wearing thin on “Vision” are the kind of tension that he’s leaned on in the past (from I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside’s “Mantra”: “Now you surrounded with a gaggle of a hundred fucking thousand kids / Who you can’t get mad at when they want a pound and pic / ’Cause they the reason that the traffic on the browser quick / And they the reason that the paper in your trouser’s thick”). Of course, this passed for high drama in earlier days—the bizarre provenance of Earl’s celebrity has been an inescapable metatext since Earl exploded on Tumblr. With SICK!, though, he’s at last blotted that out, turning his gaze from the gap between his public life and his private one to the things so elemental that they render fame perfectly, finally meaningless.

Like all of Earl’s records, SICK! is secondarily about writing—the struggle to do it well, the solace that comes with it. This means that, even though the verses here are less self-consciously technical than the ones he was releasing 10 years ago, they are still stuffed with mesmeric detail and satisfying word games: Imagine the Liz Claiborne outfits his mother wore circa 2003—on the same song where he brags about being “cozy with the East Africans up north”—or how, in one of the album’s earliest couplets, which seems at first to be a vehicle for pandemic imagery, he shoehorns a “wildcat” into the line after one about striking workers.

While those shards of plague are meant to terrify (at one point Earl snaps at someone who approaches with a syringe), the images of nature engulfing us are perhaps not meant to be entirely foreboding. At the very least, they are a subtle reflection of Earl’s new fatherhood. There is something regenerative deep in SICK!. Maybe it stems from the hints of religiosity, or from that cleansing rain we hear at the end of “Old Friend.” If nothing else, the album is an achievement of scale, placing Earl’s personal struggles on a continuum of time and in a web of interconnected life. It is an album almost entirely about the self that does not scan as narcissistic—and is in many ways shockingly even-handed about its primary subject.

The centerpiece of SICK! is “Tabula Rasa,” a gorgeous piano cut produced by Theravada and Rob Chambers and featuring Armand Hammer, the New York duo comprised of billy woods and Elucid. While Earl has inspired (and, in turn, embraced) a cadre of younger, mostly New York–based artists who take stylistic cues from him, he has also revealed himself to be an enthusiastic fan of the older rappers in that city’s avant-garde. It was on his recommendation that the Alchemist, the legendary and legendarily prolific producer from Beverly Hills, discovered Armand Hammer. The album Alchemist made with them (last year’s Haram) took the duo to new levels of fame.

It is not difficult to see the ways that woods and Elucid have influenced Earl. But while he and Elucid share a mastery of tone that lets sincere spirituality coexist with venomous barbs, Earl does not employ the same verve or melody; where woods collects details and phrases from passersby and arranges them into synthesized wholes, Earl tends to leave his thoughts in pieces, enigmatic and epigrammatic. Hearing the three rappers together on “Rasa” is clarifying to this end. Early in Elucid’s opening verse, he raps “My core is a cauldron,” which might as well be SICK!’s subtitle. But he ends with a soft dissolve (“Draw me closer / Damn near intimate … ”) that it is difficult to imagine Earl even attempting. This gives way to woods’s story about an oldies night that, while it chases tangents in its middle, opens at coat check and closes postcoital in the glow of late-night reruns.

Earl’s closing turn is delivered more concisely, but is less linear. He returns again to the image of him writing, this time late into the night: “We keep facts in the midnight wax, family tree sap / Light leak through the leaves on familiar tracks.” He strings together non sequiturs; he raps explicitly about constructing a meaningful communiqué from disconnected fragments. By the time he says the three words “Ice sheet break,” he could plausibly be: flashing on another image of a crumbled natural word; putting pen to blank paper; or feeling his soul thaw. It’s as if everything is one of the “tall tales tossed to the breeze” he cites in the verse’s opening line.

These crisper raps on SICK! also mark a slight break from the aforementioned school of young artists who would cite Earl as a major influence, like MIKE and Sage Elsesser, who usually performs under the name Navy Blue but produces one song here as “Ancestors.” Where those artists helped stir—and largely still swim in—the mud of Some Rap Songs, Earl has transposed that blunted vocal tone onto the clearer, more upbeat palette he presents here. Some of the beats that Earl picked give him no choice but to snap upright. The Detroit producer Black Noi$e, who furnishes four tracks (“2010,” “Vision,” and “Titanic,” all of which are variations on an irresistible digital bounce, and the gentle closer “Fire in the Hole”), is the clear MVP. “Vision” in particular nudges Earl and his guest, the Detroit firebrand Zelooperz, into a metronomic pulse that coaxes from each rapper some of the album’s most interesting writing; both are forced to chop up and restructure sentences for rhythm and economy and to make hypnotic use of repetitive phrases.

But the album’s best song comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the Alchemist, with whom Earl shares a long working relationship. “Lye” plays at first like a brief interlude after the “Tabula Rasa” skeleton key, but in fact packs some of the richest imagery and most conflicted feelings of Earl’s whole catalog. There are the trips around the sun that make “the sludge get thicker,” the stained soles of Wallabees, the marble busts emerging from beneath flesh and blood. Before he raps about turning toward religion, he throws a sword “back into the vines,” giving himself over to the world he’s been hacking his way through. That alone is arresting. But after he does that—and after he mentions the “dimming fire” where he finds God—he pulls a brilliant little homonym from the song’s title:

What’s a little lie? / What’s a little lie?

That’s not where “Lye” ends. After he’s done rapping, Earl gives an account of having his hair straightened with that corrosive, titular chemical. He ultimately renders the process the way so many other Black writers, dating to and past Malcolm X, have: as one that is crude and dangerous—it ultimately sets his skull on fire. But there is a moment in the middle of the story when he sounds proud of the stoicism it takes to sit through it. “I gritted my teeth,” he says, “my eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn’t stand it any longer.” The fact that he was unhappy with the result didn’t matter while the tears welled up. And that’s what SICK! is about: the looping, overlapping struggles we get stuck inside, and the struggle to step back and see which ones are worth conquering.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.