ALBUM REVIEW: Earl Sweatshirt, Sick!
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
While I don’t ever really like to be force-fed information by an musician concerning what their art means or the general mood they’re going for, I have always fucked with how transparent Earl Sweatshirt has been in regards to his releases. He hasn’t had an easy life, and the only reason I know that is because I’ve been listening to him since his debut mixtape, the content of which got him sent to Hawaii by his mother to repent. While songs like “epaR” and “Earl” have not aged well in this post-MeToo world we live in, the rage held deep inside them is blatantly apparent. The output he released when he turned 18 still had this anger, but it was more muted and filtered through this muddy atmosphere. He has been practicing social distancing since before it was a health concern, with his second record aptly being titled I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. “Grief” from that album especially found him buried deep underground, with only a rusty lantern to light his way, like a fucked up playthrough of Dark Souls. Some Rap Songs and FEET OF CLAY found him referencing his father, who passed in between those releases, and of course, he sunk deeply into that tragedy in his life. So when he decided to come back with a new album and announce it with a paragraph describing its intent, I read it and understood. “Before the virus I had been working on an album I named after a book I used to read with my mother (The People Could Fly). Once the lockdowns hit, people couldn’t fly anymore. A wise man said art imitates life. People were sick. The People were angry and isolated and restless. I leaned into the chaos cause it was apparent that it wasn’t going anywhere. These songs are what happened when I would come up for air.” While many were puzzled about Earl’s continued ascent into the darkness on his newer releases, the pandemic proved that his nihilistic, pissed off internalized madness was universal.
Surprisingly his fifth album, Sick!, is his most clear and uplifting. You would assume that he would cop an “I told you so” attitude after dreading life for so long, but it he went in the complete opposite direction. The album is filled with negativity, yes, but the production and delivery is so much more rich. For his last three albums, the production was mostly handled by “randomblackdude” aka Earl himself, and it was almost like he was unable to escape his own mind. I think the peak of the chaos had to be “EAST”, a track that marked his turn towards fully independent music with the establishment of his own label, Tan Cressida. The blaring Middle Eastern instrumentation and accordion samples just screamed “DON’T FUCKING LISTEN TO ME GO AWAY!”, but his closest fans never did. His production style was bold, experimental and uncompromising, especially on the peak of his talent, Some Rap Songs. However, similarly to FKA twigs, Earl needed a pick-me-up in his music. While I’d be content to hear another MAGDALENE or FEET OF CLAY from either artist respectfully, it would definitely pain me to see them, well, in pain. So while Sick! definitely sees Earl being less adventurous with his delivery and production, he relinquishes the sound to people he trusts and the results are positive (COVID pun intended). The Alchemist, Navy Blue, Black Noi$e and others all completely take over the beats for the first time in Earl’s storied career, allowing him to focus more deeply on his pen game.
“2010” was the first single from the release cycle and is the best song on the record. It’s a hopeful retrospective on his entire career in under three minutes. He’s living off “loose change”, the roof is caving in and he’s being chased around by the cops, yet, he is still “gung-ho with it”. “Walked outside it was still gorgeous,” he says “I didn’t look back when I broke soil/’Cuz every time I did, it would hurt more.” He is still grieving (putting dirt over loved ones), but he’s also breaking ground on a new movement. No matter what goes on in the world or Earl’s personal life, his cult fan base continues to grow and so does his money. He is finally realizing that an empire is being built underneath his feet, and while he still doesn’t forget those who have passed, he is appreciative of what life has to offer. “Vision” with fellow underground mover and shaker Zelooperz sees him on a similar tip. Regardless of what life throws at either of them, they are doing well, their family is paid, and their girls are iced out. Especially in pandemic times, when people are being evicted as thousands die a day in the hospital of corona, magic is not the boon. Everyone must fend for themselves, and as the snippet says at the end “Magic is only make-believe and our children do not need to grow up in a make-believe world. You need to tell them the truth and help make them feel proud of who they are.” Through the sadness and spite, Earl is able to show that he is still here, and trying to get better. Even on the short “Lye”, he raps, “Sometimes the pain sit and fester into hate, beloved/I’m workin’ on it.” While he was content in the past to grieve in the corner, now that he is forced to isolate, he wants to see the sunlight more than ever.
Sunlight also means collaboration and sharing in struggle with other like minded people, and that comes to fruition on the piano and drum backed “Tabula Rasa” with the wordy Armand Hammer. Having seen these guys in concert twice now, I can say that they are some of the most talented poets in the rap game currently. The way that they are able to compact so many disparate experiences, rhymes and disses into such small spaces definitely lights a spark in Earl. Lines like “Bury me in a borrowed suit/Give my babies my rhyme books but tell ’em ‘Do you’” from the duo feel deep and generational, while others are just so randomly rich in their detail, “I made chicken late night in my boxers burning up the kitchen…I watch reruns in the dark/Fingers and lips glistening.” Earl matches up the them, becoming an honorary third member of the group as he did on their song “Falling out the sky”. While his debut album had some features that didn’t even come close to his level, Sick! sees him challenging himself to spar with the best of them. When he takes it solo, some moments don’t quite hit for me. “God Laughs” and the short “Lobby (int)” are regressions back into his previous state. Yet, even though production-wise they don’t offer as much as I’d like, I find myself hanging on his every word.
On other tracks, like the aforementioned “2010” and the explosive “Titanic”, we get a perfect balance between commercial potential and esoteric word smithing. The latter track has this excellent Memphis sound with sticky trap drums, flooded with lots of weird little vocal snippet ad-libs from Na-kel Smith and samples of lions roaring, it fucking rocks. His Yoda-like flow is on full display with lines like “You know how revenge is best served, cold dish,” and the MF DOOM influence comes full circle when he says “Mask on like a supervillain/Daniel.” The album sticks the landing with the one and the following “Fire In The Hole”, which is him finally making the music he wants to. While Doris was full of Odd Future-style tracks with non-sequitur jazz parts at the end, this one is Earl getting his shit off in the midst of organic rock instrumentation. He is bathing in the warm guitars, light drums and pianos all throughout Sick! as a matter-of-fact. As the outro plays him out, we are able to reflect back on a more wholly formed version of Earl. Sure, the music is not as manic and groundbreaking as it was on Some Rap Songs, but we don’t always need that from an artist. Sometimes, tragedy and pain coupled with copious use of unstable coping mechanisms results in peak art, or even entire careers of highs (look at The Doors or Ol Dirty Bastard). However, on a human level, I’d rather see Earl be at peace than make another A+ album. So while Sick! lands safety in the B range for a lack of consistent sonic excitement, I’m glad to see him still making music at all.