There is a moment in Kendrick Lamar’s album opener “Wesley’s Theory”, where we hear Dr. Dre warn Kendrick that, “Anybody can get it / The hard part is keeping it.” He’s right though; in this modern age of music, artists can rise just as quickly as they can fall. Being subject to such intense media hype, and close public scrutiny, can tend to disillusion, or discourage, the artist. Cue in Earl Sweatshirt - 16 when he released his debut mixtape to critical acclaim. Strongly predicted by media and fans alike to be the bright new star in hip hop, it took most by surprise when he abruptly vanished from the world.
One year on, it was revealed he was forced to attend a boarding school back home in Samoa, to atone for, and help eradicate, his bad behaviour. Earl was, finally, back in America to produce music, and joined his Odd Future crew in one of the more impressive posse-cuts of the last few years, “Oldie”. With 2012, came his colleague’s universally acclaimed debut album Channel Orange. By featuring on Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids”, Earl was only 18 when he became a household name in hip hop; his status later confirmed with the release of his stellar lead single, “Chum”.
“Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks.” His sombre, introspective nature struck a chord with many listeners, who held on to his every word. His debut album Doris was heavily anticipated, with many expecting a classic; a masterpiece. What we received, was a body of work largely void of hooks – making it difficult for the average listener to digest. It was a bold move; while the album was sonically impressive, his nonchalant verses underwhelmed many of his fans. Still acclaimed by critics, his hype had nonetheless decreased ever so slightly.
Two years on, he has returned with his sophomore effort, the brazen, I Don’t Like Shit. It’s even more restrained than its predecessor; stripped back in every detail. Earl himself produced almost all the tracks, and there are only a minimal number of guest verses. This lack of variance, in both his verses and his production, suggests the result could be somewhat lacking in effort, and in quality. While true to an extent, it’s far from a weak record; it will still be one the year’s most cohesive, and fascinating, hip hop albums.
“I’ve never been this transparent with myself or with music. I’ve never been behind myself this much.” A botched release, courtesy of his label, devastated Earl. With the album announcement arriving sooner than he anticipated, he urgently released his lead single, “Grief”. It’s immediately the most interesting track he’s ever produced, and the most mature he’s ever been. An eerie, ambient-shoegaze drone shrouds his vocals, creating a dreamlike state, as he voices, “I’m fleeting thoughts on a leash / For the moment, high as fuck / I’ve been alone in my shit for the longest.”
The second track, and true opener, “Mantra”, is the most vulnerable, yet ferocious, we’ve ever heard Earl. Aimed at his contemporaries, as well as his ex - with whom he recently broke up with – he spends every moment of the track delivering some of his most structured, and direct, bars to date. “You can tell the Reaper I’mma meet ‘em when he send for me / With a cleaver and a .30, and some twisted weed.” He’s not ready to leave the game just yet, but when his time is up, he’s not going without a fight; he’s leaving his mark. Similarly, in the late highlight, “DNA”, there is the lyric, “Tell Momma I’ll get a gun if I get too popular.” It’s interesting to note the ambiguity of the statement; is this gun aimed at himself, or at those after him?
His state of mind is the most interesting concept, or theme, on the record. There are hints of depersonalization hinted throughout his lyrics, and for him to commit to something so whole-heartedly seems an act of defiance in itself. “I just want my time and my mind intact / When they both gone, you can’t buy ‘em back.” These are the lasting final words of his lead single, a bracing reminder that he’s just as real, and just as prone to stress, anxiety, and expectation, as we are. Unwilling to conform, and true to his sound, it’s inevitable that in time, he may lose fans, and listeners – as Dre warns. But evidenced by I Don’t Like Shit, he’s more worried about losing himself in the process.