Album Review: Earl Sweatshirt & The Alchemist – Voir Dire

[Tan Cressida/Warner; 2023]

It’s quite a move to release an album called Voir Dire – aka, speaking the truth – and then cloak that release in a shiny cocoon of riddles and half-truths. Welcome to Earl Sweatshirt‘s Gotham City!

For the uninitiated: Voir Dire was released following a short run of riddles posted by Thebe Kgositsile aka Earl Sweatshirt. Those referenced master-producer The Alchemist “snitching” in two tweets – one from 2019 and another from 2021 – stating that he and Earl had recorded an album that they secretly released to YouTube under a pseudonym. The title of the record references the process lawyers and judges employ to vet whether jurors can be considered unbiased and fit to sit during a trial, which is further referenced by the artwork of a grim reaper swinging his gavel.

What seems like a pretty straightforward affair soon reveals itself as a bait-and-switch. If we trust The Alchemist’s statements then the record was released onto YouTube a little while after 2018’s Some Rap Songs. But this is directly contradicted by some of the bars that Thebe drops here, which references the birth of his son (which he revealed in 2021) and the pandemic era. Which means either Thebe re-recorded some of his bars over old beats to reflect his personal growth and deliver a more honest product, or that the entire story has been a ruse from the very get go.

Or wait: maybe Thebe swapped some of the songs on here with newer songs, with the older counterparts ending up on last year’s Sick!, which featured a bunch of Alchemist drops, or… Wait, Sick! was just a patchwork that was part salvage job of the allegedly lost project The People Could Fly, or… was it? The further one digs into the lore and thick web of Thebe’s output, the harder it is to discern fact from fiction, with myth and legend overlapping to create an all new sense of storytelling on top of reality. This isn’t connected to any sense of posturing or alter ego either: Earl Sweatshirt has always been one of the most nakedly personal rappers of the current era, with the startlingly brilliant solace actually functioning as a personal letter to Thebe’s mother, explaining his paralysing depression.

Still, ever since Some Rap Songs, there’s been a heightened level of meta-awareness and of loose ends. Sure, there’s been abstractions ever since Doris, but the atmospheric haze that engulfed Earl’s songs went from a casual atmosphere to a Silent Hill type fog. This evolution – in devolution of clarity – makes a lot of sense, considering how these works morphed from observations of Thebe’s daily struggles with addiction and depression on I don’t like Shit… to the socio-political topics of Feet of Clay to the diffuse lockdown-era-observations of Sick!: the gaze moved constantly outward, while Thebe’s bars fused the inner and outer worlds until they merged into dream-like gumbo hotpots which constantly mutated into new directions. At times, this would lead to records which felt more like collages than unified works, as Thebe gradually grew to become his very own court alchemist and jester at the same time.

With Voir Dire, there’s now an actual alchemist present – which allows Earl to let the jester out. Over 11 songs, he expertly fashions personal memories and clever poetry into a stream of conscience flow. There’s some clearer examples of this, such as “27 Braids” – originally performed as “Godspeed” in 2021 – where Thebe lays out his insecurities with becoming a father (“She said I got a son on the way / Made my bed so that’s where I’ma lay / My worry bones, my heavy head I carry home every day / My momma sayin’ that I’ll never be alone / Even though she gotta know that I know she dismayed / With the choices I made / The only way forward is unafraid and focused when I’m holdin’ these rings”), or “Mac Deuce”, which might reference Mac Miller but certainly chronicles the fall of rappers that struggle with their inner demons while rising to fame (“Don’t be shocked I couldn’t save you from your thoughts or what the fame do / From the sharks and what they fangs do / Or from your heart and what that pain do / From the start, built a box I couldn’t break through / You was lost”).

But the majority of Voir Dire is written in lurid, almost dream-like voices, which skip between references and double entendre. “My Brother, The Wind” – which was first performed in 2019 – is a strangely compelling run down of polaroid-like snapshots that are always overlit and blurred: “Opaque, be complacent as the wind / My brother, like Sun Ra, we all need you / Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Dark legions, what’s the run-down / Lump sum’s a piece of summer, the guns now / And let me hit the spliff before that bitch run out”. The Godspeed! reference harkens back to the opening line of the track – “Nigerian wallet made out of snake” – which in turn mirrors the famous “Dead Flag Blues” line “I open my wallet, and it’s full of blood!”

On “Follow the Ruler” – dedicated to his deceased collaborator Drakeo the Ruler – Earl uses images of coming back from the dead (“Reanimated, I once had kicked the bucket (…) / Streetcar called pride droppin’ n****s off in the morgue”) to possibly pop-occult references (the lines “ Mutin’ one to 10, the only difference is the circle” could reference transmutation circles, which in turn are referencing back to The Alchemist), which all lean back to discuss depression. Meanwhile “Sirius Blac” makes references to the Corona pandemic and, possibly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Two-Face to observe a resolve from mental health struggles and the chaotic hardships of the Trump era. Harvey Dent is the perfect reference piece for this album: born via acid-bath in a court room, the former district attorney becomes an anti-hero, deciding between good and evil by the flip of a coin. Thebe uses this image to discuss his own process of decision making in light of dividing the persona of Earl and the artist behind it – the young father and the ‘gangster’. He even pokes fun at the process of division by shouting out the scene in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story where John C. Reilly’s character cuts his brother in half.

Earl’s words roll fluid from one image to another, never remaining on a topic for long, instead finding new comparison pieces and dualities to explore, painting the picture of a poet whose demons are present but remain at bay. This makes sense in the context of these songs appearing at shows years ago: they chronicle a time where Thebe recognised his mortality in light of newfound purpose. Becoming a father while at the same time observing friends pass along the way created a more mature perspective, thematically positioning Voir Dire as Earl Sweatshirt’s Rust Never Sleeps.

And then there’s the work The Alchemist provided with his choices. In line with the producer’s key aesthetics, each song is capped off by a short spoken word sample, which illuminates some of the themes of the track and provide a dream-like segue as change of scenery. Less obtuse and dark than some of The Alchemist’s previous major works – such as Alfredo or The Price of Tea in China – the songs of Voir Dire resemble RZA’s cinematic beats (“100 High Street”, “27 Braids”) as much as vaporwave (“My Brother, The Wind”, “All The Small Things”). “Geb” cuts its sample between lines, giving the impression of a vocalist who constantly hiccups, perfectly encapsulating the song’s themes of fractured personality and shattered mental wellbeing. It’s surprisingly pastel at times, possibly bathed in the halcyon glow of Earl’s nostalgia for heritage, which reflects off his newfound future as a survivor, as a father. Where The Alchemist has usually operated to cast the fever dream hallucinations of street-smart gangster rappers onto celluloid, on Voir Dire he’s fully embracing a more complicated narrative with many nuances.

It’s always hard to assess Thebe’s work upon release – it’s simply too sensual and hard to grasp to fully see its many achievements on initial listens. Maybe that’s why these songs gestated at live shows for multiple years, generating hype before finally seeing their proper release: to allow their creators the necessary distance to assert the right moment of birth. Or maybe Sick! was simply too dark to immediately follow – and in a way contradict – this breezy and comforting work, the most immediate and coherent work of Earl since I Don’t Like Shit… It’s a joyful and memorable release, presenting some of both artists’ strongest material with an instantly iconic flow, purposefully encapsulating the metatextual theme of uniting divisions. The dire gloom of the early years is gone, and the garbled mutations of Some Rap Songs and Feet of Clay have grown in clarity without losing any of their labyrinthine and gothic dynamics. Without calling a masterpiece just yet: this is a very special moment, both for Thebe and his fans. I leave the rest to Two-Face and the flip of his coin.