Album Review: Earl Sweatshirt – SICK!

[Tan Cressida / Warner; 2022]

“I don’t act hard, I’m a hard act to follow,” seems like such a prophetic statement now. Back on 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Thebe Kgositsile created a tear in the universe with “Grief”. Maybe he knew it then, but he definitely knows it now. Kgositsile performs as Earl Sweatshirt, the former Odd Future member who never quite fit in with his cohorts. He lacked the zany antics of Tyler, the Creator, and he wasn’t the tender soothsayer that Frank Ocean was.

No, Earl was and has always been a challenging pillar for rap. He’s a rare breed of rapper who manages to be on a major label but sounds like he’s still slinging insults in a smoke-filled dive bar. Throughout 2021 he popped up frequently alongside those of his ilk, dropping ruthless bars on “Falling Out the Sky” from Armand Hammer’s critically acclaimed Haram, and slamming two thrillers on The Alchemist’s first This Thing Of Ours EP. It doesn’t stop there, he featured on Boldy James’ understated Bo Jackson, and made a late album contribution to Wiki’s Half God. All of this to point out that wherever Earl goes, success follows.

Following the breakthrough success of Doris back in 2013, every Earl release has pivoted in a new direction – sometimes harshly, and sometimes almost unnoticeably. The cycle isn’t broken with his fourth record, SICK!, but where the divisive masterpiece Some Rap Songs created a new canvas for him to rip through and delivered him to new fans, this one takes things back a few steps, digging into the core rap values that he’s been instilling in his craft since day one.

On last year’s Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler, the Creator pulled no punches and displayed his rap skills prominently. Earl’s doing something similar, and yet completely differently. With another 24-minute album, he bucks the trend of casual hooks and ear-pleasing rhymes, opting to harness his vocabulary into insular and witty reflections.

While not as fractured as Some Rap Songs, SICK! splices its narrative bits into short and concise morsels, with only four tracks on the album extending beyond two minutes. One is the hypnotic “Tabula Rasa” which sees Earl with frequent collaborators Armand Hammer (billy woods & ELUCID). It’s dreamier cut from Sweatshirt, with a pop-and-fizz feel to its production that sounds like an unearthed relic of a 1970s record store.

Considering this isn’t even the original album Earl planned to release, the maturity in his diction is evident right away. A Parental Advisory sticker may adorn the cover, but Earl’s vernacular has received a major overhaul since his uneven 2019 EP Feet of Clay. “2010” is a concise indictment of his youth, and it’s told vividly, “’03, momma rockin’ Liz Claiborne / Had her stressin’ up the wall playin‘ Mary J. songs.” He makes it obvious on “Titanic”, furiously giving his fans what they want – honesty: “Give it to you straight, no frills / What I think might pay the bills.”

With that honesty comes clarity, perhaps for the first time in his career. Doris did what a debut should do and introduced us to Earl and his abilities. I Don’t Like Shit saw the emergence of his darker side, waxing poetically about his struggles while throwing shade at the rest of the game. Some Rap Songs found a reeling Earl, devastated by the loss of his father and the untimely passing of his friend Mac Miller, which resulted in an aura of pessimism that slices through his verbiage. Earl pivots with SICK!, veering towards optimism instead.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Earl’s now all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, but it does indicate that his newfound responsibilities have influenced his music. Over the summer, via Twitter, he announced his latest project: fatherhood. This factored into him deciding to scrap a 19-track album originally titled The People Could Fly, named after the American Black Folktales. With the pandemic though, people were grounded and not flying; the planes landed and instead we became sick. This is central to outlook on the appropriately titled album we have now.

SICK! is a pure rap album, as only Earl Sweatshirt could deliver. There are no choruses, there’s no breakdowns or pop-laced hooks. The bars slap like they should – and always leave you slightly bothered. It’s not his horrorcore roots resurfacing, but lines like “My grandfather spoke 13 languages / somehow had nothing to say,” are nevertheless unsettling. This is the talent of Earl Sweatshirt. He utilizes every inch of the space he has and doesn’t need more time because he’s boxed himself in for greater success. This brevity is beneficial to his style, and never hinders the album.

In anticipation for SICK!, Earl stated he was going to “meet us half-way,” a departure from the disconnected nature of Some Rap Songs. That ‘half-way’ is truthfully just Earl removing the filter on himself and creating a vortexed sound that’s more focused than its predecessor. The samples and beats he employs are toned down, jazzy and elemental. The palette shifts from the Kid A-like ethereal sounds of “God Laughs” to the bluesy strings of album closer “Fire in the Hole”, which gently sends his audience out on a makeshift raft in the middle of a calm sea. It’s gentle, but keeps you on the edge of your seat as you wait for its brittle frame to cave in. It never does, but that feeling is what Earl wants you to feel, because that’s how he’s lived his life.