Earl Sweatshirt’s 2018 album “Some Rap Songs” is a masterclass in brevity and efficiency. In this aspect, even the album’s title speaks for itself. Earl Sweatshirt, born Thebe Kgositsile and publicly preferring to go by Thebe, weaves a complex narrative of mental health and shifting family dynamics in only 24 minutes, packing in 15 fully-realized songs with an average length of just under one minute and a half each. The production itself is stripped back, experimental, yet powerful. For all these reasons, and even a few more, “Some Rap Songs” was my 2018 album of the year.
“Some Rap Songs” released in late November of 2018 to critical acclaim, but despite what the positive reception may suggest, the path to the album’s release was anything but straightforward. The child prodigy of the Odd Future collective, made famous by the rallying cry “Free Earl!” from fans during his stint in a Samoan boarding school, released his solo debut album with “Doris” in 2013 then followed it with the depressive switch-up of “I Don’t Like S---, I Don’t Go Outside” in 2015. “I Don’t Like S---,” known as “IDLS” by fans, started Thebe’s more serious forays into exploring the topics of substance abuse and mental health. Further, it delved into his relationship with his absentee father, legendary South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. Thebe went off the grid shortly after his 2015 release; with the exception of a handful of singles and features, he was non-existent for two years.
All signs pointed towards a comeback in 2018, as hype generated around a rumored project and a confirmed series of tour appearances. However, not one week into the new year, Kgositsile passed away at the age of 79 years old.
Devastated, Thebe cancelled his tour series, citing “anxiety and depression” in a press release and withdrew from public life once again. Critics wondered if the alleged 2018 album would ever see the light of day.
However, the sum of all these experiences — even though the lyrics and first draft of “Some Rap Songs” were finished before his father’s passing — the third Earl Sweatshirt LP was released on November 30, 2018 after a minimalistic advertising campaign of stripped-back soul samples posted on Instagram and two singles released to major streaming platforms.
“What if the entire album is just, like, instrumental interludes and some dude being sad over soul samples,” my then-roommate joked to me. Little did he know he had described by ideal dream album.
When I first heard the instrumentation on the album’s opener “Shattered Dreams,” haunting and slowed vocal samples from some 1970s funk band, I teared up a bit — not because of the production itself, but because I knew my roommate’s joked-about dream album had finally come to pass.
The standout tracks feature production that is dogging and depressing, but avoiding the outright slowness and lethargy that “IDLS” was sometimes panned for. The distorted instrumentals seem to awkwardly drag at times, but given the subject matter of guilt and dejection, this style of production complements the lyrics perfectly. If wonky and experimental, then this mesh of sound and substance absolutely could not work better.
Personal favorites “Veins” and “The Mint” are upbeat and beautiful on the surface; that is, they definitely “slap” if you don’t pay too much mind. The former’s opening lyrics of “Peace to every crease on your brain” take less of a sincere meaning with the album’s focus on damaging mental health; conversely, the closing lyrics of “Sitting on a star // Thinking how I’m not a star” paint the twin images of, optimistically, a celebrity who doesn’t feel appreciated by fans even though he is and, pessimistically, of somebody who can’t love themselves, no matter how hard they try or how much they do. The sadness of “The Mint” comes less from its lyrical content, but rather how the echoey and beautiful piano sample is offset by the dejected, defeated, guilty-sounding delivery.
The third-to-last track even prominently features audio from his parents, both of whom Thebe shares, or shared, complex relationships with. The second-to-last track, “Peanut,” lets the listener know that his, “Depression // This is not a phase.”
Any conscious listener is left thinking, “Take care of yourself, Earl, and god bless you.”
However, the final and 15th song of the album, “Riot!” chooses to be happy. It is purely a feat in beautiful sampling, one minute and six seconds of upbeat guitars, drums, rapturous trumpets, sparse vocals, and a collection of who-knows-what-else. In the face of the 14 previous songs of personal struggles or triumph in the face of great adversity, it’s an optimistic ending that suggests that Thebe can finally be happy. It is not a statement that life is perfect for him, or any of us, so much as it is a celebration that Thebe has made it this far, and that he’s still alive. And that, as juxtaposed by the last track’s apparent positivity, has to be worth something.
Image courtesy of Pitchfork