Lost in the Echoes

On Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs

Earl Sweatshirt Some Rap Songs, Columbia 2018

At some point in the last several months, for unknown reasons, the iTunes Music app on my iPhone decided it no longer needed to advance from one album track to another: A song ends and without intervention will repeat ad infinitum. This makes listening to music on the iPhone a very active experience now, because a click is necessary to move from, say, “Machine Gun Funk” to “Warning” on Ready to Die. Generally speaking this is an annoyance, unless I’m listening to Some Rap Songs, when the digital hiccup feels fitting.

The third LP from Earl Sweatshirt is an album of samples smeared into loops that doesn’t offer a compass or much in the way of solid footing. Where a given song ends or begins is unclear, with Earl’s mumblecore rhyme schemes – in approximation of distressed inner monologues – shoving a tune like “Veins” even further into abstraction. With loops already in play, the mandatory repetition of a song represents another, larger loop, or another string of them – so maybe “Red Water” is two minutes long, or 12 minutes long, or maybe it’s 20 minutes long.

It almost doesn’t even matter. Each song evolves into its own blurry, endless bummer, mirroring the cover art selfie, albeit minus any mirth.

Of course, at this point in this review, you might be wondering if I even like Some Rap Songs. Well, I do like it. The rap career as string of stream-of-consciousness scraps approach is possibly more effective and impactful than it was three years ago on I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, with our host and a handful of fellow producers twisting and smooshing soul, funk, gospel, and R&B scraps into ghoulish grayscale. The album sounds like a haunted house Earl can’t escape from; that the pathos feels both intentional and accidental, and that it slaps in its own mournful, bumptious way implicates us as listeners.

Fan-made cover for Some Rap Songs

Do we have any right to enjoy this so much? Each song ends almost before it begins, so sometimes verses or inflections emerge as signposts. “We roll tundras” is the first line, pregnant either with fate or possibility, on “Cold Summers,” which sounds like a session pro improvising an organ solo while you’re five or six in the bag. “The Bends,” all slurred, zig-zag lyricism and trilled soul, would rate a jumbo Wu-Tang Clan remix if big-time rappers still really went in for that. In its title and refrain, “Red Water” wittingly or unwittingly referencing a climactic moment in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, drowning the listener in psychic turmoil that might not be legible but is undeniably palpable. The last handful of songs on Some Rap Songs reveal compositional gifts that may bear fruit in the future. Already a veteran rapper at 24, Earl’s incapable of being anything less than compelling, even when lost in his feelings.

“Burgundy,” from 2013’s Doris, remains my favorite of his songs. A pre-fame Vince Staples shows up, rapping through a filter, to mock Earl: “Why you so sad all the time, like a little bitch?” Life is sadness; to be young is to be sensitive; to be artistic is often to be sensitive. Go back to the Earl mixtape from 2010 and you’ll hear a kid’s juvenile, Eminem-inspired venting – the sort of bile time forgets for most of us. Doris veers into a guest-heavy, multi-style schizophrenia that’s intermittently fun before I Don’t Like Shit… locates the curtailed, postcards-from-Hell style Some Rap Songs improves upon. Listen through it all and there are constants and shifts: He misses his grandmother before she dies, his relationship with his father is distant and strained, he’s famous but he isn’t really, his manager can do favors for you until no favors are being done for anyone. Variations on the same themes, the same nightmares. When does Earl get to live? When does his catalogue become something more significant than sheer survival? Late on Some Rap Songs, dank, high, and dormant, “Veins” doesn’t have any answers, but at least it’s got a resonant gloss on something he’s already tried to tell us before – “Sittin’ on a star thinkin’ how I’m not a star/I can’t call it, dawg.” Then, like a pint-sized Fonz, he doubles himself, two wiped-out Earls catch-phrasing in dejected, LP anti-climax harmony: “Eyyyyyyyyyyyy.”



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Raymond Cummings

Raymond Cummings is the author of books including Assembling the Lord, Crucial Sprawl, Open for Business, Notes on Idol, and Vigilante Fluxus. His writing has appeared in SPIN, The Wire magazine, The Village Voice, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. Whorl Without End, his latest collection of poetry, was independently published in January 2020.

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