Sweatshirt’s humility starts to look more like egoism.
While his former Odd Future cohorts Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean have made the best albums of their career by evoking the sprawling, sunny and faintly apocalyptic expanses of Los Angeles, Earl Sweatshirt went east. He works closely with rappers like Medhane, MIKE, Mach-Hommy, and Navy Blue, who seem descended from wizened vets like Ka and Roc Marciano, guys who use words and willpower to make an impression. It’s rap that begs comparisons to things like chess, poetry, and the art of the samurai: subdued, serene, and precise. Earl talks often in interviews and on Twitter about growing his own food, eating healthy and forgoing orgasms. He delineates between Thebe Kgositsile, guy, and Earl Sweatshirt, project. This is common in music, but on his new EP Feet of Clay his humility starts to look more like egoism.
On last year’s Some Rap Songs, he lowered his voice as if to undercut his own personality, and it was hard from a blind test to recognize him as Earl Sweatshirt. It worked because he allowed himself to slip in and out of his own music, treating the beats behind him as a thick, murky soup from which he occasionally surfaced. Here, the backing tracks are mostly stagnant and obstinate, and we’re left with this monotonous drawl kind of taunting us. All we hear here are beats and verses. Sometimes that combination sparks magic. Sometimes, that’s all we get.
Feet of Clay hits the ground running. Words tumble out of Earl’s mouth on “74,” and the beat lopes along at a slightly different pace, a low bassline occasionally bubbling up into a leering melody. It’s clear here that Earl is totally confident in the music he wants to make: his lyrics are clever (“your shit’s not knocking like the feds”) and cryptic (“the veil lifts, the pain salient”). It ends with a short tail of creepy sharpening-knife sound-effects that seems borrowed from one of the best Madlib beats, and we feel at home among music from a man at the top of his game.
Then we get “East,” where his voice seems haphazardly pasted over an unchanging loop of a string flourish from what could be a Bollywood movie. After a while, it becomes clear every song is going to have some kind of trick and find some way to undercut or subvert itself. The willingness of Earl and his stable of producers to subvert their own creations can be thrilling. “Tisk Tisk” inverts the mix of a typical rap song, with Earl’s voice emanating weakly from the middle as the beat booms from the less funky corners of the stereo field, righting itself on second part “Cookies.” But it gets a little exhausting. Can’t this thing slap every now and then?
Each of Earl’s past projects feels like an island: the guest-heavy debut-proper Doris, the darkly funny depression opera I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside through the funkadelic swamp Some Rap Songs. This feels like a continuation of the latter without the cohesion of words and music. The beats push at the extreme of what a beat can be, the raps push at the extremes of cryptic boho lyricism, and they seem to drift along on their own sleepy paths, parallel but never quite meeting.