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What happens when an iconoclastic recording artist, so fully committed to contradicting convention, goes the other way around and embraces the mainstream sound? We don’t know yet, but we get an inkling with Earl Sweatshirt’s new album Sick!, which doesn’t so much embrace convention as it does co-opt it, wrangling it into new shapes and forms to suit Earl’s contrarian ways.
For years, Earl has been nothing short of a masterful technician, weaving words together like Arachne at her loom. He’s also been, for lack of a better term, hip-hop’s consummate curmudgeon, grousing that I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside over beats that could wrack the listener’s nerves and obfuscate his impressive wordplay.
This wasn’t always the case. When Earl first showed up on the DIY scene alongside Odd Future, his was the exciting voice that proved complex, intricate raps could coexist alongside other styles like Tyler The Creator’s horrorcore and Domo Genesis’ updated G-funk. His debut Doris offered forward-facing production from The Neptunes and features from a who’s-who of other highly gifted lyrical technicians who’ve since gone on to bask in varying degrees of stardom; think Tyler, Vince Staples, and Mac Miller.
Then, after releasing the above-mentioned I Don’t Like Shit, Earl became disillusioned with the rap game. His next two projects, Some Rap Songs and Feet Of Clay, have an unfinished quality to them. The mixing is all over the place. The stream-of-consciousness rhymes are only occasionally lucid enough to be decipherable. The beats are muddy, disconnected, and obdurate, clashing spectacularly with each other and with Earl’s admittedly still very expert raps. Both projects were still highly regarded by critics and fans, but less and less inviting for less-hardcore followers.
But he’s since mellowed out, telling Entertainment Weekly’s Marcus J. Moore, “I’m ready to embrace all of this. I believe I’m ready to feel it. I feel fuller. I’m less confused. Like, ‘Yeah, let’s go to the studio. Let’s go on tour.’ I wasn’t developed enough to fit the mold all those years ago. I’m ready to be in the league now.” It’s possible that fatherhood has granted him perspective (his son was born at some point within the last three years), or that going through the pandemic with the rest of us made him feel more connected. Certainly, cutting down on his drinking helped, as he told Moore. But whatever it is, his output has benefitted from it — at least, from the perspective of someone who always kind of side-eyed Earl as being unnecessarily standoffish and pretentious.
That newly relaxed stance is evident in the relative accessibility of Sick!, from the beat choices to the raps. I’d never have called him “nostalgic,” although his rhymes have always been ruminative and autobiographical. But there was never the sense of warmth that would have suggested he looked back on his life with any degree of fondness. However, on tracks like “2010,” he takes stock of all he’s seen and accomplished since his explosive debut with his upstart skater posse, Odd Future.
Earl imposes his will over contemporary cadences on “Vision” and “Lobby,” which pair his propensity for stripped-down instrumentals and quirky samples with booming 808s — the sort of production that you could almost hear modern-day trap artists on. When he does indulge his jazzier inclinations on “God Laughs” and “Tabula Rasa” with Armand Hammer, the results are smoother than on his previous iterations of the sound, with looped lounge pianos and contemplative rhyme sequences that highlight his newfound sense of security.
Even though he’s grown up, though, there remains an element of inscrutability in his music, a chip on his shoulder that has been reduced in size but is no less embedded in the fabric of his being. His rhymes still require “hard hat and ax pick” levels of exegesis, the title track nearly washes out his vocals in favor of an admittedly hard-hitting drum pattern, and you won’t be hearing many requests for Earl’s new music at any clubs or parties anytime soon (none you’d want to go to, anyway). But what feels more important is that Earl is in a good place, mentally and emotionally, and that’s translated to art that is proportionately more enjoyable.
Sick! is out now via Tan Cressida and Warner Records. Stream it here.
Earl Sweatshirt is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.