Amid a rap culture of sprawling albums with cosmopolitan beats that hop between country and style, Earl Sweatshirt’s third album initially seems as modest as its title. Mostly self-produced and with few guests – two of whom are his own parents – its 15 tracks only break the two-minute mark twice. But it ends up being one of the best rap albums of the year, a smoky iceberg of great emotional depth.
Beats-wise, it’s a little like one of Madlib’s Medicine Show mixes, where grainy, sample-driven productions blurt like a haunted radio searching for a frequency in the past. Soul, funk and disco samples are cut up with blunt safety scissors, leaving bruised edges and loose threads. Some are seemingly heated towards melting point, resulting in beautifully drooping tones like the organ on Cold Summers; others are dried out, like the brittle, chalky piano on The Mint. The influence of J Dilla is clear, particularly the way the late producer seemed to wrap his bass in loft insulation, and pushed the beat slightly off its grid to unlock profound funk.
These lopsided backings perhaps evoke a blunted mind. “Bad acid did damage to my mental”, “three spliffs had my wing tips clipped”, and any drugs are interfering with already unstable brain chemistry. Earl has often been candid about his fight with depression, and the superb Peanut, written after the death of his father earlier this year, announces “this is not a phase” on a track so slow that it threatens to give up altogether. But, crucially, it still bumps along, and elsewhere there is a wit and warmth that suggests he is weathering life’s blows.
Amusing dismissals of his rivals are frequent, whether it’s in beautiful longform poetry on Loosie, or in neat punchlines: “They stable full of sheep, we staying on the lam”, “I heard you got your sauce at the Enterprise”. There is frequent reconciliation with his parents (after the frictions that had a teenage Earl sent to school in Samoa), most movingly on a track that weaves together public speeches by the pair of them. And there is evident joy in the sly pop catchiness of the tight triplet flow on Nowhere2go or the chorus of The Mint – moments like these put Earl in a lineage of truly great MCs from Nas to Cardi B, who can turn a melody out of an idle utterance.