Opening new album SICK!, Earl Sweatshirt exhibits a creative clarity his music has eschewed in recent years. On first track "Old Friend" -- which sounds and feels like an account from one companion to another after time apart -- wistful strings from the Alchemist soundtrack rhymes of filling a void with writing and busting open blunt wraps to fight pandemic cabin fever, maintaining "strong spirit where the body couldn't get asylum," finding "the middle in a bit of balance. "
This lucidity, seldom felt as strongly in the kaleidoscopic cacophony of 2018's Some Rap Songs and on the shadowy, spectral 2019 EP Feet of Clay, is at the core of SICK!, driving momentum for Earl's navigation of present-day pitfalls, viral or otherwise.
Since 2013, Earl Sweatshirt has been committed to drawing out his thoughts in the fewest words possible. Both his debut album, Doris, and 2015's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside refined the verbose rhymes the California rapper made his name on while under Odd Future's wing in the early 2010s. His love of words remained but he was searching for clarity, a quicker route to the sources of his anguish: his then-damaged relationship with his mother; the loss of his grandmother in 2013 and his father in 2017; and the constant negotiations of being young, Black, and in the limelight.
Hip-hop has more bizarre, anomalous, boundary-shoving artists right now than it ever had before the turn of the aughts. From JPEGMAFIA to Death Grips to Injury Reserve to Danny Brown and beyond, there's no shortage of shit—for lack of a better phrase—that high school and/or college weirdos can play with pride. You could attribute this creative explosion in rap to the Internet (or most other genres, for that matter).
Earl Sweatshirt has been lost in time. In 2010, Odd Future was on the cusp of breaking out with Tyler, The Creator at the helm. While attention centered around Tyler for his shocking antics (I.e., he ate a roach in "Yonkers"), Earl stood out for his innate gift for rhyming -- a trait shared with his father, African Poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. After the release of his 2010 debut mixtape, Earl, he fell off the grid.
Like many artists, Sweatshirt felt the turmoil of the pandemic to the core and turned that anguish into art. "People were sick, the people were angry and isolated and restless" he says about the new project, originally intended to be what one can only assume, a longer album with a deeper context. But the world had different ideas and gave us all something else to focus on.
Earl Sweatshirt has occupied many roles. As part of Odd Future, he was rap's tearaway prodigy, someone whose word-play could move from the explicitly caustic to the playfully surreal in a single bar. His time in Samoa made him a cult figure, a mysterious force whose background and context seemed up for grabs. A recent label switch saw Earl move things around once more.