By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
Expectations can be a crazy thing. When there’s an artist that you particularly enjoy, it’s easy to have an unconscious prediction on what may be best for each new release. Drake fans may want him to explore new forms of dancehall or get new features, Arctic Monkeys fans may want Alex Turner to go back to his rock roots, Subtronics fans may want a banger they can play at pregames until the end of all time. Our preconceived perceptions of an artist and what we want or predict to be released can, and will, affect our enjoyment of our artists.
An artist like Earl Sweatshirt is great at always subverting expectations like these.
Earl is a rapper’s rapper: intimate, clever, incredibly moody while being both profound and blunt. Throughout his career, he’s gained a reputation as one of modern rap’s most acclaimed lyricists, taking inspiration from artists like MF DOOM and baring his soul bare on his scattered catalogue. He makes music that is bound to make you feel despondent, sad, or even confused. In recent years, Earl has somehow been both prolific and in hiding, dropping a masterclass in lo-fi, emotional songwriting on Some Rap Songs and confusing fans with pirate-influenced horns and odd concepts on the Feet of Clay EP. With his recent streak of more abstract, cohesive projects, I very much expected SICK!, his latest work, to be in the same wheelhouse…maybe a longer album, more unique narratives?
But that wasn’t exactly the case. SICK! bucked my expectations in its short 24 minute run, featuring a scattershot collection of hip-hop that pulls influence from every previous Earl album while still doing its own thing in an isolated setting. It’s a great project, one that I think gets better with every listen.
SICK! seems to be completely in line with Earl’s modern work at first. Opener “Old Friend” is a dramatic mix of dirty bass, dramatic synth samples, and a terrifying verse from Earl as he discusses paranoia, the coronavirus outbreak, and his struggle to maintain friendships. It’s a great way to start the record, but its mystical tone is flipped upside down with “2010.” Immediately shifting gears, Earl sounds confident, shooting out vignettes that describe his own life over an odd, but decidedly modern beat. This sounds like 2012 Earl, only now he’s boasting the expert-tier pen he’s gained over the year. This wild mix of sounds from the first two tracks alone felt like emotional whiplash…and I think I get why.
The album captures the different states of being you’d feel while locked by yourself in quarantine. From the minimalist instrumentals, to the sparse vocal mixing, to the wildly shifting subject matter, it seems like SICK! has a mood that shifts as new successes and failures come streak across the tracklist. “Sick!” (the title track) is claustrophobic with its repetitive tones and drum beat, matching Earl’s stellar verse. His lyrics, to me at least, detail what Earl did in quarantine: smoking, doubting governments’ efforts to contain sickness, and being alone. While this may not appear to be a full “quarantine album” due to other topics being discussed, it feels like one. Even when a banger like the bass heavy, Zelooperz-assisted “Vision” comes in, it feels apocalyptic and sickly. Upon first listen, I was definitely confused on the scattershot approach the album took; Earl is often hyper focused on his work, but over time this approach felt refreshing, bold even. Each track feels like different notification you’d receive while scrolling through your phone in isolation. One minute you’ll celebrate your friends doing well, and the next you’ll hear about some new global tragedy.
Thankfully,the guests and producers on SICK! are anything but tragic. Guests Armand Hammer absolutely kill the sinister samples on “Tabula Rasa,” a track that sounds like a mix of Earl’s I Don’t Like Shi*t album and the murderous subject matter of Armand Hammer’s work (which is great by the way). It feels like every beat is meticulously produced and segmented into the album, with the following “Lye,” taking the minimal pianos and samples from the previous tracks as an intro to some crazy horns. Earl snaps on this Alchemist beat, pondering his own familial ties and skills in a way that reminds me of early Earl, back when he was more direct, a vibe felt even more on the villainy of “Lobby.”
While I do enjoy these songs, they carry an issue that I think holds this project back a little bit for me…they’re too damn short. I leave a lot of songs satisfied, true, but in the case of a few great one-minute songs, I wish they offered more: an extra verse, maybe some instrumental changeups. While Some Rap Songs had the same types of songs, they made up for it in devastating emotion and a lyrical cohesion that made them work best as parts of a whole. SICK! is inherently less cohesive, meaning its individual tracks may have to hold up as a piece of a whole, and sometimes I wish these shorter tracks had more emotion or content in store.
But with all that being said, they’re still great, and the album finishes as such. “God Breathes” is an amazing track, packing in an atmospheric beat that supplies Earl’s masterclass thoughts on isolation from family and addiction, each bar packing enough weight to balance out its brief runtime. “Titanic” is a zany banger, with an odd groove and weird ad-libs punctuating Earl’s “straight, no frills” storytelling. In general, Earl’s wordplay has been immaculate throughput the album, and these tracks are shining examples of it. You and I can have completely different interpretations of the abstract raps he records, but it’s remarkable that we can both agree that its fire. The pen and the production come together in harmony on the warm goodbye of “Fire in the Hole,” a song that seems to radiate optimistic energy amidst a melancholy guitar lick. Love is something that Earl rarely discusses, but here he is earnest, positive, looking to the horizon. As the keys reverberate against the bare soundscape of the outro…I can’t help but be glad that Earl seems to be in a better place.
All in all, I’m happy that SICK! exists. I’s a great listen front to back, only disappointing when the songs are short (even though they’re still great). While it’s not my favorite Earl album, I think it’ll be in heavy rotation for me throughout this year while studying, meditating, or driving in the dead of night. I can’t wait to see where Earl goes from here.
Tracks to Save: “2010,” “Sick!,” “Vision,” “Tabula Rasa,” “Lye,” “God Laughs,” “Fire in the Hole”
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