Earl Sweatshirt has never been one to stick to one style for far too long.
Stemming from his first two projects in Earl and Doris, he displayed his now trademark monotonous flow and showed off lyrical capabilities that ranked him amongst the best of his generation. His intricate songwriting only improved as his career went on, but the sound of his albums shied more and more away from mainstream comfort — much like how he strives to steer clear of the public eye.
His rapping on I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside and later his magnum opus Some Rap Songs detailed a troubled and depressed mental state — and the production reflected that, touting lo-fi songs that sounded dark, fragmented and nearly broken. He continued to wade in that darkness on his last release Feet of Clay, but on his latest Sick!, it seems as if the rap virtuoso has arisen from that sunken place finding himself in a world ravaged by an ongoing pandemic amongst a myriad of other issues.
On his brief 24 minute, 10-track fifth studio album, Earl trades his previous abstract and murky production style for something clearer and more direct. He takes a step back from beat-making this time around and allows trusted companions like The Alchemist, Black Noi$e, and Ancestors (aka Navy Blue) to fulfill his ever-changing soundscape.
Instead of the looping, woozy sounds found on his previous two albums, he works with beats ranging from aggressive and hard-hitting like the single “2010” or smooth and soul-sampled like on “Tabula Rasa,” featuring cryptic duo Armand Hammer. On the opener “Old Friends,” the masterful emcee comes through over a rising, buzzing beat while discussing the sour situation the world finds itself in.
Strong spirit where the body couldn’t get asylum
The cost of living high, don’t cross the picket line and get the virus
Wild cat has got ’em in a bind, stay inside
Know I came from out the thicket smilin’“Old Friend” – Earl Sweatshirt
The pandemic is referenced throughout the project and is clearly another weight that adds to Earl’s heavy conscience. None of that is more apparent than on the title track.
Earl sounds as if he’s just recovering from some illness, creating the feeling of him being stuck in a rainstorm. He raps about pushing through the hardships in life and how the pandemic has affected all of our lives in some way, shape or form. He then adds a sample of famed Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti speaking about how necessary revolutionary art is needed during times of crisis.
Kuti’s outro brings a new outlook on both Sick! itself and Earl’s overall mindset. The Odd Future pioneer never wasted a line in his music and has always used it as a way to reflect his life at the moment. However, for this project, his lyrics are not solely focused on him, but on everything surrounding him as well.
He weaves his personal demons with the insecurities society is facing and balances both acts beautifully. It’s the most outward his lyrics have been and he delivers each line with such a blunt dictation that it leaves a lasting impression on the listener like on the ghostly “God Laughs.”
These days, I’m mindful of what I embrace
Operating on an empty tank, spank me, fumes fueling a flame
My grandfather spoke thirteen languages
Somehow never had nothing to say to Boot Raymond“God Laughs” – Earl Sweatshirt
Over the years, the nonchalant wordsmith has dove deeper into his underground sound — embracing the unconventional and innovative creations that he himself has helped popularize. He enlists the help of Detroit’s Zelooperz on the stunning “Visions,” as the pair soar over an airy, dreamy instrumental produced Black Noi$e rapping about fulfilling visions they had for their careers and lives moving forward.
It’s a standout track with each part of the pair delivering quotable line after quotable line. Their stop-and-go flow perfectly complements the spatial, light production and makes it a must-listen for any hip-hop fan. The tracklist continues to deliver stellar new editions to Earl’s catalog like the horn-driven “Lye” and it doesn’t let up until the very end.
To close out the album, Earl flows over a lavish, mellow guitar sample on the laid-back “Fire in the Hole.” The title is a reference to Earl spitting fire lyrics with everything he puts out and he lives up to that fact with this finale. He shouts out New York rapper Akai Solo and makes a reference to Bootsy Collins’ classic “I’d Rather Be With You.” As his hook begins to fade, the piano gently playing in the background overtakes the sample and the delicate keys ride the beat and album out.
Sick! may not wholeheartedly shock listeners like Some Rap Songs may have in the past, but it’s yet another stunning outing from Earl Sweatshirt nonetheless. He retools his style just as the world had to retool how to operate in a pandemic — projecting his thoughts about current events better than any other rapper who’s attempted to in the past few years.
Above all else, he accomplished this without sacrificing what makes an Earl album feel like an Earl album. He remains nearly an untouchable wordsmith and, like Some Rap Songs, he spits some of his illest bars to date on Sick! — curing the culture and himself in the process.
Listen to Earl Sweatshirt’s ‘Sick!’ below!