Earl Sweatshirt


by Joe Hughes III

A lot can change in a year. In March 2020, the United States declared the untamable spread of COVID-19 a national emergency, forcing millions of people into the confines of their homes. During the peak of this pandemic, people throughout the planet documented their experiences with loneliness, monotony, and addiction because of this new absence of socializing. Everyone seemed to have cabin fever.

In 2018, the same volatility applied to the 28-year-old artist, Thebe Kgositsile. Known by his stage name “Earl Sweatshirt,” the rapper canceled his upcoming tour, citing depression, anxiety, and the death of his father, the South African poet Bra Willie, as a reason to disappear from the public eye. Months later, Sweatshirt returned with his critically acclaimed Some Rap Songs, an album saturated with terse wordplay and detailed with grainy sound textures that both screech and reverberate within five seconds. Some Rap Songs explores these tensions in a bleak conclusion to these prominent themes: monotony, mental illness, addiction, and sorrow. By the end of my first listen, I had left not refreshed from gaining a newfound perspective, but instead, hollow from abandoning an old one.

This is where Sweatshirt resumes his artistic narrative, and he does so with surgical precision and athletic comfort. After Sweatshirt reintroduces himself with the 2021 single “2010”, produced by one of his label producers, Black Noi$se, he announces his long-awaited fourth studio album, SICK!

Instead of claiming most of the production as he does on his last two albums, Sweatshirt employs the talents of Black Noi$e, The Alchemist, and Sage Elsesser (credited as Ancestors), with performances from rap duo Armand Hammer, Zelooperz, and Na-Kel Smith. The 24-minute record sees Sweatshirt convening between “inside” “and “outside,” and somewhere in-between, detailing his longing for internal peace. After drowning his listeners in the middle of a somber, spiritual stagnation on “Old Friend,” the mood switches in its second song “2010”. Listeners find Sweatshirt in acrobatic harmony with Black Noi$e’s water-like synth melody and hip-hop percussion, depicting his aspirations for wealth amidst palpable danger in a loose syncopation. Sweatshirt describes his constant movement, often between inside and outside, with days spilling into the next (“Crescent moon winked, when I blinked it was gone”). The resounding bounces between Sweatshirt’s lyrics and the beat feel like being spatially and temporally everywhere at the same time. This is an effect that serves SICK! well because he balances this movement with lyrical density. The transition from “Vision” into “Tabula Rasa” is a perfect example of this balance. After diminishing the notion that Black children need magic to be happy in the preceding angelic banger “Vision,” Sweatshirt continues his documentation by describing what the truth looks like to him. billy woods joins the conversation, uttering the haunting and palpable lyrics “I made chicken late night in my boxers burning up the kitchen // She passed out right when I was done fixing // I watch reruns in the dark; fingers and lips glistening.” The twittering piano notes chime and clank like beer bottles loosening from a fridge, but Sweatshirt’s persistent cadence spills into each bar as though he were in a long-distance run or a wrestling match. He’s always moving in this album, and he’s moving with intention.

Sweatshirt’s certainty (“I know what’s real even when I’m feeling bad”) drives him from place to place in SICK!, and by the time listeners arrive at the second to last track “Titanic,” Sweatshirt seems to have found fun in his self-actualization. In this track, likening himself to Makaveli, Sweatshirt is the captain of his fate, eliciting images of cars and the tragic Titanic accident. But something about this track, with familiarly liquid instrumentation from Black Noi$e, feels liberating. “Give it to you, straight no frills,” is an uncompromising proclamation to live in the truth that he described in “Tabula Rasa”. And “Fire in the Hole” as the closing track seems to corroborate this.

In this track, the soft percussion only works as a marker of rhythm; electric guitar strings sonically occupy the most space. “Seeping into the mulch, I needed a quick result // I read it and don't respond // She see it and salt sprinkle // I needed another go // I'm seeing her when I want” is the mantra-like chorus, highlighting his unwavering acceptance with the unpolished truths that he encounters (“For the umpteenth time it’s only forward”).

SICK! is an album full of many notable highlights, many of which I’ve already listed, but the tracks “Lye” and “Lobby” fall short of his balance between density and cleverness. They seem to contribute much less to the album than the rest of the tracks, and although “Lobby” reasonably works as an interlude, its notion of being between inside and outside as suggested by the title, makes this theme overstated.

But as I relisten to the album, picking it apart for new meanings behind each bar, I’m reminded that this album is only 24 minutes long. It feels like an hour-long project. SICK!covers immense grounds in terms of topicality, and Earl Sweatshirt’s ability to pick up right where he left off with the integrity of moving forward, is commendable. SICK! is a chalice of sweet elixir that never empties if you partake in it.