Some Rap Songs is a hip-hop requiem. The 15 songs that make up Los Angeles-based MC and producer Earl Sweatshirt’s third solo album run for just over 20 minutes, but they resonate like a successor to J Dilla's Donuts in their emotional resonance and hauntingly fragmented form.
Some Rap Songs is a hip-hop requiem. The 15 songs that make up Los Angeles-based MC and producer Earl Sweatshirt’s third solo album run for just over 20 minutes, but they resonate like a successor to J Dilla’s Donuts in their emotional resonance and hauntingly fragmented form.
Throughout the album, Earl’s introverted, free association-styled lyrics are imbued with a ghostly subtext: Blood is a recurring reference, allusions to mortality and death underscore many of the verses, and there are instincts to flea from life’s pressures. “Peace to my dirty water drinkers/Ain’t nobody tryna’ get it clean/Ain’t nobody tell me I was sinking/Ain’t nobody tell me I could leave,” Earl opines on the opening song, “Shattered Dreams,” which is bedded by warm and fuzz-laden low end tones. The track plots a course for the rest of the album, which grapples with the idea of dealing with departure, whether spiritually or physically.
At the start of this year, Earl’s father, the South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, passed away at the age of 79. After Kgositsile’s passing, Earl (naturally) canceled shows and retreated from public life to grieve. Earl’s father’s voice now appears posthumously on “Possum,” a song that intertwines his words with those of Earl’s mother, Cheryl Harris. It’s a poignant tribute, part of Earl’s cathartic mourning process. And it’s just one layer of emotion in an album comes together like an intimate, old fashioned mixtape that’s been painstakingly sequenced by hand.
The production on Some Rap Songs is credited to Earl, along with assists from Black Noi$e, Denmark Vessey, Elsesser, and Shamel from the New York City art troupe Standing On The Corner. Soul and jazz loops are swaddled with thick swathes of static and ambient hiss that imbue the tracks with either a warm or an eerie undertone. But beyond the vibe of the production, it’s the expertly patchwork way the 15 songs are stitched together that gives Some Rap Songs such an intimate feeling. At first, tracks appear to end abruptly — but close listening reveals they’ve been pieced together with tender thought.
Early on, “Red Water” is hooked around Earl repeating a number of lines over and over to hypnotic, lullaby effect. Then out of nowhere, a frazzle of free jazz noise kills the track and snaps you out of the daze; next comes the a capella command “We roam tundras,” before “Cold Summers” kicks in, complete with Earl rocking an opening rhyme scheme that’s straight out of MF Doom’s book: “The boy been gone a few summers too long from road running/Trunk full of old hunnids/Of course my old lover was scorned, we grow from it/Don’t tell me they don’t hunt us for sport/I chose substances/No cuddles, the bases is all covered.” During the album’s mid-section, static wholesale overtakes the nostalgic, piano-laced “Mint” and ushers you into “The Bends.” Then that song’s extended warped vocal sample makes way for the brooding and ghoulish “Loosie,” before a snippet of Earl’s filtered voice announces the beginning of the soulful, reflective “Azucar.” Each seemingly sudden progression is planned, linked to the one before it but also designed to move the listening experience along.
Earl’s short verses might seem like unfinished ideas or thoughts yet to be fleshed out, but that’s because the emotions the MC is fathoming out — grief and depression and introversion — don’t always lend themselves to being spread out over a rigid three verse song format. Feelings don’t work like that — and Some Rap Songs is an album that wants us to feel something.
The climax of Some Rap Songs pushes this home. After the tributary “Possum,” we’re taken to “Peanut,” a dark and disorienting song where Earl’s voice is distorted and fractured. He attempts to codify the emotions he’s been inching towards: “Flushing through the pain/Depression, this is not a phase/Picking out his grave/Couldn’t help but feel out of place/Try and catch some rays/Death, it has the sour taste/Bless my pops, we sent him off and not an hour late/Still in shock and now my heart out somewhere on the range.” Then Earl signs off with the words, “My Uncle Hugh.” They’re a reference to Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpet player and friend of Earl’s father who also passed away this year. Instantly, “Riot!” starts up, a sweet but bluesy instrumental track that samples Masekela. Then a minute later the song stutters and abruptly stops. Suddenly, these rap songs make sense.
Earl Sweatshirt, Some Rap Songs (Tan Cressida/Columbia)