Earl Sweatshirt projects have always been a mixed bag for some listeners. Nobody can deny his talent as an MC; From the Odd Future days to I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and killer feature verses, his bars and rhymes are often untouchable. That’s why his newer style has been a bit frustrating. On 2018’s Some Rap Songs, he delved into the lofi sound (check out our guide to the Slums scene!) which brought a low, slurred flow and harsh beats. The powerful lyrics were still there, but it was frustrating to some that he wasn’t using his talents for more straightforward rap. On his newest album Sick!, Earl seems to have finally settled into the proper niche.
True pain, I couldn’t eat or sleep for seven days
Maimed me, I ain’t weak
Keep changing for the better, what to do when your job thankless
In the middle of the marsh where mosquitoes chomp ankles
Swamp marching on on the quest for my lost halo, God
The two most apparent things to longtime Earl fans on this album are the production and his flow. Whether or not you were a fan of the true lofi sound he dabbled in, this sound seems to be the perfect middle ground between all his styles. Largely produced by Black Noi$e, Navy Blue, and the legendary Alchemist, there are far more distinct drum patterns on here and some beautiful samples (soul vocals, dancing keys, light horns and some weird electronic sounds on 2010). There is a very warm and personal vibe to many of these beats, even when it gets dark. Some tracks even touch on a twisted trap sound which is interesting to hear Earl over on occasion (reminiscent of “Ion Rap Beef Remix” by the late great Drakeo the Ruler). So while these aren’t exactly your average boombap beats, they are far more grounded and memorable on their own than those which frustrated listeners on recent outings.
It should also be noted that while the beats are a return to form, Earl himself hasn’t delved all the way back into his classic style. Most of these songs don’t have hooks and are very short; The songwriting typically just consists of an intro or outro and a dense verse, making for a very rewarding and complex 25 minute listen. His flow is pretty diverse on here as well. So before even delving into the lyrical content, Earl’s sound alone on here is much more appealing and suitable for him. Sounding less like MIKE or Navy Blue on here, he seems more aligned to the style of the Mach Hommy’s, Quelle Chris’, RAP Ferreira’s, and Billy Woods’ of the world – and it seems to be the perfect match.
Midtown, n—-s pimpin
Iceberg, MAC kinda slim
What they couldn’t see sinking ships
Capsize mean you’s a flip
Send a postcard from the depth, Bleed the vein till nothing left
You look drained, you should get some rest
As far as lyrics go, Earl’s message is generally very coded but with plenty of standout bars. Given the title and cover art, there are bound to be messages about Covid and society’s reaction to it. Before Sick!‘s release, Earl recounted, “People were angry and isolated and restless. I leaned into the chaos, because it was apparent that it wasn’t going anywhere. These songs are what happened when I would come up for air”. Thus, Earl’s personal experiences during this period and commentary on America are a focal point of the album.
On “Tabula Rasa”, following stellar Armand Hammer verses and over a beautiful and nostalgic beat, he discusses his growth through these formative years and all he has overcome, only to fall into more bullshit. On the standout “Vision” with Zelooperz, Earl reflects on how we have been alone through much of this, albeit sounding a bit pissed off (“How long you waiving the rent?… Fuck out my face with syringe”). Its also on this track where he leans into themes of blackness and self love with the outro skit. The message that to be black is beautiful – even magical – is powerful and much needed in these times. Earl is a powerful voice on such topics. Otherwise, the album is chock full of both clever wordplay and vague poetry which speaks to Earl’s mindstate and world view.
Overall, Sick! is some of Earl Sweatshirt’s best work and seems to mark a new era for him. He has finally settled into a sound which is perfect for him, reflecting both his artistry and raw lyricism. On top of that, we get riveting themes and a much needed perspective on our world today. We can only hope to hear more from Earl soon because he might have entered a career renaissance.