Album Review: Earl Sweatshirt - Some Rap Songs

As it so often is, as a genre and an art form, rap music spent a bulk of 2018 being incredibly frustrating, with only a few incredible, truly worthwhile moments to be found.

There were artists that continued vying to transcend the genre and become ‘pop stars’ more or less, releasing unnecessarily lengthy albums in order to inflate streaming numbers, therefore padding overall sales in an effort to land higher on the Billboard album charts—focusing more on pushing a product, rather than something of substance.

Then there was Kanye West’s entire ‘Wyoming Sessions’ debacle—five weeks between the end of May and throughout June where West hastily ‘hand produced’ five albums—two of which were his own projects—and just barely meeting his Friday release date deadlines.

In a sharp contrast to an album like Migos’ 24 track Culture II, or Drake’s sprawling double album Scorpion, West’s series of albums were all exercises in brevity—save for Teyana Taylor’s incredibly rushed and allegedly unfinished K.T.S.E. (Keep That Same Energy), the other four albums all contained seven tracks total (Taylor’s, for some reason, had eight.)

However, in 2018, there were small glimmers of hope—albums that were actually interesting and exciting to hear—like the experimental and hypnotic Eyes of A Key by the enigmatic Mix-O-Rap, written and recorded in a penitentiary’s music room, the production value of the album is a place beyond ‘lo-fi’; or the dark, evocative lyricism of Paraffin or Manonmars—the former being the new full length from the independent hip hop duo Armand Hammer (Billy Woods and Elucid), who create an environment as stark as the album’s cover art; the latter being the self-titled full length debut from a moody and young British rapper who is almost too intelligent for his own good.

Then, there’s Some Rap Songs, the new album from Earl Sweatshirt—the kind of record that defies expectations as well as the genre itself, creating something that is both gorgeous and unnerving, and leaves the listener stunned in the process.

The straight-faced irony of the album’s title is certainly not lost on Earl—born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, nor should it be lost on you. The implications of a deadpanned title such as Some Rap Songs are that Earl, a rapper, will provide you, the listener, with a record full of music—the listener expecting the album to be comprised of ‘rap songs.’

I stop short of calling the album’s 15 tracks ‘songs’—the longest is less than three minutes; the shortest is 59 seconds. They aren’t sketches or incomplete—this is the material, as intended.

These are the rap songs.

At 25 minutes, Some Rap Songs is a dizzying collection of what could be accurately referred to as vignettes—breathlessly moving from one into the other, unrelenting in its nature. It’s an album that challenges its listener—it’s not ‘unfriendly’ or inaccessible, but if you haven’t figured it out already, it’s a difficult listen. It’s claustrophobic and disorienting, and in its cacophonic nature, it grabs a hold of you and never really lets up, even after the album’s abrupt conclusion. It demands your absolute focus and attention at all times.

Some Rap Songs transcends ‘rap’ as a genre, or a tag, and right out of the gate, it’s clear that this is art—an artistic statement—made by somebody who has outgrown simply being a ‘rapper’ or a performer.

Earl Sweatshirt is an artist—at only 24 years old, he’s lived practically a thousand lives already, and you can hear the weariness in the low timbre of his voice. Once poised to be the break out star of the now dissolved collective Odd Future, following the release of his eponymous mixtape in 2010, Earl’s parents shipped him off to a boarding school for at-risk youth, located in Samoa—missing out on the group’s commercial success in 2011, and returning home in 2012 shortly before turning 18.

While his proper debut, Doris, found him still working within the sophomoric humor of Odd Future, he left all that behind and truly came into his own with 2015’s masterful I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside—a brief, stark meditation on fame, depression, anxiety, and grief.

In a sense, Some Rap Songs continues in that vein, though it is much, much darker. The songs included on I Don’t Like Shit were still, you know, songs—based around identifiable refrains; here, there is none of that. It is more or less a stream of consciousness style delivery that finds Earl ruminating on the passage from youth into adulthood, his continued struggle with anxiety and depression, working through his complicated relationships with his parents, as well as grappling with the death of his father, the South African poet and activist Keorapetse William Kgositsile—who passed away at the beginning of 2018.


Truthfully, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the first piece from Some Rap Songs that was released in advance of the album’s announcement—there’s really no way you can call anything taken from this kind of an album a ‘single.’ “Nowhere2Go” was released about two weeks ahead of “The Mint,” the second piece of the album that was revealed ahead of the release date.

I wasn’t concerned, per se, about the quality of Earl’s output after hearing “Nowhere2Go”—I was just a little confused. Working in the context of the album is one thing, but taken outside of that, on its own—I was not entirely certain what, exactly, I was hearing—the jittery beat with time stretched, distended vocal sample running throughout most of the song’s two minute running time, coupled with Earl’s partially mumbled vocals—the whole thing was very disorienting.

But that’s the point—isn’t it?

In an interview about the song, Earl said it’s the closest thing to a single he’s got—and I suppose he’s right. Musically, that jittery beat and distended vocal line winds up being moderately infectious the more times you listen through; lyrically, it “Nowhere2Go” isn’t exactly the ‘thesis statement’ of Some Rap Songs, but it does feature some of the lyric that wind up becoming the conceit of the entire project:

I think I spent most of my life depressed
Only thing on my mind was death
Didn’t know if my time was next
Tryna refine this shit—I redefined myself
First I had to find it—

The imagery that runs throughout Some Rap Songs is fucking bleak—there is no other way to put it—the album’s first two tracks, “Shattered Dreams” and “Red Water” share a lot of similar themes (particularly that of blood); on the former, Earl wastes absolutely no time as he begins dissecting his mental health—“Why ain’t nobody tell me I was bleedin’? Please, nobody pinch me out this dream,” he asks early in the song. Then, later, “Why ain’t nobody tell me I was sinking? Ain’t nobody tell me I could leave.”

On the latter, he returns to those same images, expanding them out and beginning to work in the incredibly complicated feelings he has about his mother and father—“Stork on my shoulder, I was sinkin’—I ain’t know I could leave…Blood in the water, I was walkin’ in my sleep; Blood on my father, I forgot another dream.”

Throughout Some Rap Songs, Earl’s calculated lyricism demands your complete, undivided attention—they are what make this album such a compelling, urgent listen. Using heavy metaphor and allusion, he continues to reflect on his family, his rise to fame, his mental health, mortality, and his past issues with substance abuse. Rarely is there humor—and if there is, it’s clever, biting, and subtle; and rarely are there signs of hope, light, or optimism. There is no clear resolution at the end of Some Rap Songs, but, again, much like the disorienting nature of the album’s collage style production—that’s the point, isn’t it?

Much has been made about the three years in between the release of I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and Some Rap Songs—mostly because Earl, as a person and a persona, is so reclusive. In the interim, he launched a clothing company called Deathworld, made sporadic guest appearances, as well as sporadic festival performances. He also called off a 2018 European tour because his depression and anxiety were too much at the time.

In interviews, Earl has alluded to the fact that he began working on this record—or at least even considering working on new material in 2015, but that production started in earnest at the end of 2016, and it continued to gestate throughout 2017.

The album, more or less, was completed by the beginning of 2018, but Earl added two additional tracks following the death of his father, as well as the death of his father’s close friend, jazz musician Hugh Masekela, which occurred only weeks later.

For an album that is pretty insular, it grows even more so with its final three songs—“Playing Possum” is a track that doesn’t feature Earl at all, but rather, overlapping vocal samples of his mother and father. His mother, Cheryl Harris, is the Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at UCLA School of Law—here, he interpolates a keynote address she gave, wherein she mentions her family (specifically Earl—referred to by his birth name of Thebe.) Blended in with this are pieces from Keorapetse Kgositsile’s poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow”—the entire track was intended to be a conciliatory gesture at mending the previously tumultuous relationship the three have had with one another.

Serving as epilogues, or afterwards, to the album, are Some Rap Songs’ final two pieces—the dark and distorted “Peanut,” and the instrumental “Riot!.”

“Peanut” was written after Earl’s father passed away, so lyrically it finds him addressing Keorapetse Kgositsile’s death in the most direct language—“Flushin’ through the pain; depression—this is not a phase,” he says, speaking slowly and emphatically as his voice is overblown, with the music in the background being, perhaps, the darkest sounding on the entire album. “Picking out his grave—couldn’t help but feel out of place.”

Even for as bleak and hopeless as Some Rap Songss, it ends on what sounds like a triumphant, borderline jubilant note. “Riot!,” entirely instrumental, is pulled together from a short sample of a 1969 song by the same name from Hugh Masekela.


Thebe Neruda Kgositsile is a complicated individual, and as Earl Sweatshirt, Some Rap Songs is a reflection of those complications. He would prefer a life away from the spotlight, full of solitude, but in contrast, he is not so much ‘drawn’ to fame, but he finds it alluring—something that is inferred on “Veins,” when he says “It’s been a minute since I heard applause; it’s been a minute since you seen or heard from me—I’ve been swerving calls,” then later, taking a more pensive approach—“Sittin’ on a star, thinking how I’m not a star—I can’t call it…Sometimes I feel like I wanna call it off.”

Some Rap Songs, in the end, is a look inside someone who is not afraid to let a listener in, per se, but hesitant to directly reveal too much—revealing as much as they are comfortable with, veiling things through dense, dark beats and labyrinthine, dizzying, metaphorical lyrics. It provides no easy answers, but being such an insular, reflective, and personal project for Earl, it really asks no questions for the listener—it expects them just to follow along attentively, with the only real conclusion, which certainly Earl already knew long before putting this record together, is that there is absolutely no cure for the human condition—but putting your pain and desperation into art is certainly a place to start.

Some Rap Songs is available now as a digital download; CDs and cassettes will ship mid-December, with a vinyl release date in late January.