Album Review: Earl Sweatshirt - Sick!
Everyday was trash
And this, I am aware, might make me sound what is commonly referred to as an “old head,” but when I think about extremely contemporary rap music, the thing I always come back to is this—a lot of it fails to moves me the way rap music from the early 1990s does.
I, of course, would like it to do that—or, at the very least, I would like it to leave a little more of a lasting impression than it does, or somehow resonate deeper with me as I listen.
But that rarely happens.
Near the start of 2015, the rapper known as Earl Sweatshirt, one of the real breakout performers from the once volatile and ubiquitous collective Odd Future, release an album called I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Dark and challenging—musically and lyrically, a bulk of the album was a meditation on grief—specifically, the grief over the passing of his grandmother. And near the start of 2015, I was also, much to my surprise, in a dark and challenging place—grieving a loss both expected and not—and while slowly sliding into a serious depressive state brought on by both this loss as well as the job I was working at the time and pressure I was under at said job, I more or less immersed myself in the disorienting, murky album.
And so it would make sense that, three years later, at the tail end of 2018, when the rapper known as Earl Sweatshirt but born Thebe Kgositsile released Some Rap Songs, a jarring, breathless 20 track album, or sound collage, depending how you look at it, written in part about both the death of his mostly estranged father and the death of his uncle Hugh Masekela, as well as his own mental health struggles—it would make sense that I would more or less immerse myself in that album as well.
And there was a time, mostly in 2019, and perhaps a little into 2020, when I began following a number of independent, underground rappers—some of them were Earl Sweatshirt-adjacent artists, and part of what was the referred to as the sLUms collective, which, for all intensive purposes, no longer exists.
But for myriad reasons—some of them were reasons simply impossible to overlook1, my dedication, or interest, and ability to keep up with all of these artists, has waned over the last two years.
I would not go so far as to say I cover my ears to newer performers in rap, or that I refuse to listen to recently released rap records—I just find, again, that these things rarely hit the way I want them to, and I find the older I get, the harder it becomes for me to even feign interest in keeping up with what is happening in certain genres, regardless of how much real enthusiasm I might have had at one point.
Mental health, as a whole, is not something that is openly discussed in hip hop. Not usually, anyway, and I had named it my second favorite album in 2018, but like many of my “favorite” albums from whatever year, I sometimes do not return to it all that often in situations where I listen from beginning to end, but there are a handful of very specific lyrics across Some Rap Songs that I think about regularly—notably, the ones where Kgositsile is extremely forthcoming about his mental health issues. “Yeah, I spent most of my life depressed,” he said over the jittery bounce of “Nowhere2Go,” or, “Depression—this is not a phase2,” from “Peanut.”
Or, and yes I know I am removing it from its original context, the observation he makes on, “The Mint”—“Everyday was trash.”
Everyday was trash.
Everyday, believe it or not, is still trash.
And in the press run leading up to the release of Kgositsile’s new “project,”3 Sick!, much has been made of the fact that this was not the album he intended to make, instead, he refers to it as a “humble offering” of tunes recorded in the wake of the pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns it caused, over the last two years.
Prior to that, Kgositsile was planning on making a somewhat lengthy album he had already given a title to—The People Could Fly. “Once the lockdowns hit,” he said. “people couldn’t fly anymore.”
Based on the cover art alone to Sick!, which features, in its center, a sculpted face (presumably Kgositsile’s) wearing a mask—it should be obvious that this is his “pandemic record,” but even without seeing the artwork, the current and seemingly unending state of the world both literally and figuratively play roles, both large and small, in this collection of songs.
Given the context with which this album was created, the most surprising thing about Sick! is even though this is Kgositsile’s “pandemic record,” it is not nearly as bleak of an album as I was anticipating. With that being said, it is, of course “dark” in tone, both musically and lyrically, though it also is far less challenging, disorienting, and claustrophobic in comparison to Some Rap Songs.
Retrospectively, I think one of the things that was difficult, initially, about Some Rap Songs was the way Kgositsile played with the humor, or irony, in the album’s title, juxtaposing it with how no song on it clocked in at over three minutes in length. They never felt unfinished, or like sketches, but rather, the album’s 15 tracks were presented almost as an experiment in brevity that was, at times, a challenge to wrap both your head, and ears, around.
Kgositsile’s follow up to Some Rap Songs, the Feet of Clay EP which arrived in the autumn of 2019, followed a similar format, and so it should not surprise anyone that almost every track included on Sick! is similar in concision. None of the songs here really go on any longer than they have to, or need to—even the somewhat lengthy instrumental epilogue to the collection’s final track, “Fire in The Hole” doesn’t feel out of place, but rather, is like an earned, or deserved respite from the speed with which the rest of this album unfolds.
It is quite astounding, really, the way Kgositsile masterfully balances both a swiftness and a thoughtfulness to his lyricism—arriving in a song to say what he wants to say, or in many cases, needs to say, and at least giving the listener the impression that he is choosing his words with a meticulousness.
I hesitate to say there is a slight lack of cohesion in Sick!’s production, but in contrast to Some Rap Songs, a bulk of which was self-produced, there are some cooks in the kitchen here—Black Noi$e and The Alchemist are credited most often, as well as a handful of others. It isn’t a case of too many cooks, though, because the album thankfully doesn’t sound cobbled together, but musically, it’s missing the razor sharp focus and through line that Kgositsile’s most recent past efforts very clearly had—the focus and through line here is Kgositsile himself.
And because there are a few more folks involved this time in the album’s production, there are songs that are a lot more successful in their execution than others—and Sick!’s aesthetic works the best, or is at least the most impactful when it leans into a very spectral, or haunted, somber feeling, perhaps because that kind of a tone creates the best foundation for Kgositsile’s cadence.
Sick!, at less than a half hour, is obviously a very quick listen in terms of it seeming like it is just getting started, then suddenly it’s over, but it it isn’t a quick listen in terms of how much attention it deserves to be paid, with more and more of the album, both lyrically and musically, revealing itself to you the more time you invest in it. It was not on my first listen through, but within maybe the second of third (I have sat with this a lot4, if you can’t tell already), when I took note of the usage of out of context dialogue snippets and samples, woven into the conclusion of certain tracks, which, reminded me of the way The RZA would cut and paste portions of dialogue from old kung fu films in between tracks on golden era Wu-Tang albums—GZA’s Liquid Swords comes to mind first and foremost, simply because the eerie, unsettling nature it has overall, which is mirror to the best of its ability in very brief moments on Sick!
Not so much taking a little bit of time to warm up, or whatever, Sick! really finds its footing, or at least begins to become more musically compelling and build momentum with its third track, the titular song. Featuring production by model/skateboarder/rapper and Kgositsile protégé Sage Elsesser, “Sick!” is among the album’s more interesting beats because of the way it takes a slowed down, woozy piano sample, then places a jittering, slightly faster paced beat over the top of it, creating a very disorienting sensation and serves as the underscore for Kgositsile’s delivery. “Sick!” then collides somewhat, or is at least partially connected to “Vision,” one of two pieces on the record that feature guest artists.
One of four tracks produced by Robert Mansel, a.k.a Black Noi$e, “Vision” continues to make use of an eerie, distant, gauzy piano sample, and here it is punctuated by a spectral vocal sample, and a beat with slightly more kick, or propulsion to it. Giving guest performer ZelooperZ (Walter Williams) the first verse, Kgositsile arrives slightly after the halfway point, and delivers a verse that is one of the few on the album that makes the most obvious references to the pandemic and state of the world over the last two years. “Singular current event,” he utters well into his contribution. “Everything we in the midsts of—how long you waiving the rent?”
As Sick! nears its conclusion, the production on both “God Laughs,” and the aforementioned “Fire in The Hole” are also counted among the most memorable; the former produced by Alexander Manzano, finds Kgositstile’s vocals recorded and produced to sound distant, or at least, more conversational in the way they arrive within the structure of the song, which is surprisingly without any kind of beat, but is held together by the natural rhythm with which the lyrics are delivered in rapid fire, while warm keyboard tones, the sound of static from a turntable needle hitting a vinyl record, and warbled synthesizers oscillate underneath.
The later, which brings the album to an end through an extended piano solo from Ian Finklestein, is built around a short, chopped up guitar sample and a quiet percussive clip that skitters underneath, with producer Mansel behind the boards again, flanging and shifting the sounds, resulting in an effect that isn’t so much disorienting, or dizzying, but works to craft a reserved kind of cacophonic tension that, ultimately, is never released.
It makes sense, of course, that within the first two lines of the album’s opening track, “Old Friend,” that Kgositsile makes reference to the pandemic state—“The cost of living high/don’t cross the picket line and get the virus,” he warns, then later on in the song’s only verse, delivered with the kind of pensive, frenetic energy that only he has, “Fever in the cabin, I knew where we was headed. I ain’t counting’ no blessings, I sure as shit could measure.”
And the thing I maybe don’t so much forget about when critically listening to rap music, but was in need of a reminder about because I don’t believe I wrote about any rap records at all in 2021, was that it is one thing to just listen, for leisure, or whatever, and let the recognition of the lyrics come to you over time; it’s another thing all together to listen with analytical intent, and really look for those moments of thoughtful, clever, or surprising wordplay.
There is a near stream of consciousness to the way Kgositsile delivers his lyrics—and they aren’t exactly shrouded in mystery, but there is an ambiguity and a secrecy at times which makes them intentionally difficult to unpack or analyze completely—it requires a lot of effort, and time, and even then, a lot of them are purposefully open to interpretation.
There is one line, though, that left up to interpretation, that is troubling, given the state of the world, as well as this being Kgositsile’s “pandemic album.” And I would like to think that he is taking things seriously, or at least, is not dismissive of just how dire things are across the board—the press release announcing Sick! alludes to that, at least: “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.”
I would like to think he’s taking things seriously based on the cover art alone—his masked likeness in the center.
I would like to think he’s taking things seriously based on how many photos on his Instagram account find him wearing a mask.
Hastily searched, the phrase “Earl Sweatshirt Anti Vax” is now in my Google history, and if you do search it, or something similar, you’ll more than likely find yourself doing a deep dive through a handful of Reddit threads that are, more or less, all asking the same question, based on the lyric that, left open to interpretation, is troubling.
On “Vision,” shortly after his reference to a moratorium on rent, he utters the line, “Fuck out my face with syringe.”
“I really really hope this doesn’t mean what I think it means or that y’all hear it wrong,” is the first annotation—and it isn’t even so much an a annotation, really—for this lyric on its Genius page, and the further you spiral into the sub Reddits regarding “Vision,” you wind up scrolling through three conclusions—Earl is anti-vax; Earl is not anti-vax and this is a reference to intravenous drugs; or, lastly, he’s talented and the music is good, so what does it matter if he’s anti-vax or not.
This ambiguity, or reason to pause, doesn’t—right now, at least, make me think less of Kgositstile as an artist, and didn’t noticeably change how I felt about Sick! while listening to it upon release for analytical purposes5, but it does leave me, in the end, with a slight sense of uncertainty, or uneasiness that might never really see any resolution.
Throughout the history of rap music, there are numerous examples of when a guest artist’s contribution is so thrilling or compelling, it, perhaps intentionally or not, upstages the main performer. There are three guest artists featured on Sick! and Kgositsile doesn’t so much allow them the opportunity to upstage him, or steal the spotlight completely, but gives them enough freedom to leave their share of impactful, lingering bars.
The creative wordplay on, of all songs, “Vision,” from featured artist ZelooperZ, includes a series of lines that stopped me in my tracks as I didn’t so much find myself unpacking them, but marveling at the smirking, clever layers he created in a short amount of time, specifically in the way he plays with the delivery and pronunciation of the expression “blast for me,” arriving after he says “Desert Eagle”—but he, seemingly intentionally, muddles the articulation to also make “blast for me” sound an awful lot like “blasphemy.”
Sick!’s high water mark, both in terms of guest appearances as well as being the finest song on the record, is its second single, “Tabula Rasa,” which includes turns from Billy Woods and Elucid—the duo known as Armand Hammer.
The longest track on the album, and built around a ghostly sample of tinkling piano keys, a laid back drum beat, and a disembodied, out of context vocal sample that continues to be chopped up throughout, Elucid is given the first verse, and with Kgositsile taking the third, it’s Billy Woods that delivers one of his trademark, blistering, urgent, and darkly self-effacing verses—the gravity of which hits, and hits hard upon initial listens, but its brooding immediacy continues to build through subsequent times through.
Since the release of their bleak 2018 masterpiece Paraffin, Armand Hammer have issue two additional full lengths—2020’s uneven Shrines, and last year’s Haram, an album I have never listened to, but would have gladly sit down with had the cover art6 been an image of literally anything else. Billy Woods, arguably the more thoughtful of the duo, has issued a handful of material on his own in recent years—two albums in 2019, one of which is among the most impressive, cohesive, and emotionally charged records I have ever heard, regardless of genre, and one unsettling collaborative album with Mother Moor at the end of 2020.
Woods, in his verse on “Tabula Rasa,” is working from the place where his lyrics thrive—pensive and desperate. “Bury me in a borrowed suit,” he bellows as his contribution to the track unfolds at a rapid, unrelenting pace. “Give my babies my rhyme books but tell ‘em, ‘Do you.’ Give my enemies the good news—time flew. We was probably brothers back then like T.R.U.”
In the short statement regarding Sick! when it was announce, the rapper known as Earl Sweatshirt and born Thebe Kgositsile, said with the world in such a tumultuous state, he “leaned into the chaos,” and that the 10 songs found on the album were what occurred when he “came up for air.” It’s easy to say there is no resolve in a previous effort of his, like Some Rap Songs, mostly because of the abrupt and confusing way it ends, but the truth is that there is resolve, or some kind of reconciliation, in that album’s final moments—attempting to make peace and put to rest the volatile, difficult relationship he had with his mother, and finding his way through the grief coming from the loss of both his father and uncle.
I do hesitate to call Some Rap Songs a concept album, but it was a collection of material threaded together through a very clear idea, and upwards of four years later, I hesitate to call Sick! a concept album as well. It is both not indented to be some kind of grand artistic statement or declaration, nor does it unravel with that kind of clarity. It’s loosely connected by the simple notion of existing in our world right now—the pain and confusion, and it’s a reflection on that, and in the end, much like there is literally no end in sight to the upheaval the pandemic has caused, there is no real resolve or very obviously conclusion as Sick! comes to an end.
Essentially a song in two distinct parts, the album’s final track, “Fire in The Hole” provides Kgositsile one final opportunity for a breathless verse—one, perhaps, even cloaked in more fragmented imagery and ambiguity than anywhere else in this collection. And before the dramatic, yet incredibly soothing, piano epilogue to the song takes over and brings the song and album to a close, one of the last images Kgositsile leaves us with is this—“It’s been a minute since I blew up your line; I leave town fast, out the dungeon like Outkast. Funnels with the loud pack. Hunter’s boots crunchin’ through the brown grass.”
This isn’t a hopeful ending at all—not for him or for us, but it is one of the want, or at least finding the ability to escape, as much as someone is able to right now.
Is Thebe Kgositsile, the rapper known as Earl Sweatshirt, an anti-vaxxer? There are those who feel something like that doesn’t matter, and it’s tough for me, as the kind of listener I am—more than passive, less than a rabid fan—to make that kind of call based on what I see and what I hear. Like the murky ambiguity his lyricism thrives in, and like the lack of a clear resolve as Sick! comes to a conclusion, there is no clear answer.
Sick! as an album, or a “project,” or whatever one wants to call it, is able to thankfully transcend the circumstances it was created under, meaning that, if anything, time will be kinder to the material found within, and what it lacks in sheer focus and commitment to an aesthetic and through line, it makes up for with Kgositsile’s trademark sense of blistering immediacy and command of language.
1- This is in reference to two specific, Earl Sweatshirt-adjacent artists—Medhane and Ade Hakim. I legitimately loved Medhane; his 2019 album, Own Pace, was incredible and compelling, and shortly after he released its follow up in 2020, Cold Water, he was accused of sexual assault, and more or less handled the accusations pretty poorly in terms of how he addressed them publicly. He’s released at least one or two albums since then, but regardless of if he really did sexually assault someone, I never felt quite right about listening to his music after that. Ade Hakim is another story—outside of how laughably expensive he sets prices for his musical output (selling vinyl copies of his albums for over $100, $75 for a digital download), he also became a very vocal anti-masker and was extremely dismissive of the pandemic in early 2020.
2- There is a similar turn of phrase used on May God Bless Your Hustle by MIKE, where he breathlessly spits the expression, “Depression isn’t just a phase.”
3- It’s tough to know if a 10 track collection of songs, running less than a half hour in length, is an EP or an album. Pitchfork, when Sick! was announced, just referred to it as a “project.”
4- This is just a quick aside to anyone still reading the footnotes who might care about my writing “process,” and how literally everything I wrote in the second half of 2020, and everything from 2021 required me to own a physical copy of the album and sit with it for multiple listens, often drinking a mixed drink (an old fashioned or a gin and tonic depending on the season), often taking notes, then sitting down to actually write. Sick! is currently only available digitally—uncertain if physical copies are in this album’s future. The roll out for the last two full-length Earl Sweatshirt albums, as well as the Feet of Clay EP have all involved a digital release first, then physical iterations in the future.
5- It seems worth noting that of the two pieces regarding Sick! that were published within the week of its release, neither of them discuss this lyric or even post the question of it is a veiled anti-vax sentiment.
6- The cover art depicts two severed pig heads. And even if I wasn’t a staunchly ethical vegan, I think seeing something like that in my music library or on my record shelf would just be too much.