Martin Boev: Depression and mental health are themes that are often explored within the depths of music but rarely is it as poignant or brutally honest as on Earl Sweatshirt’s third studio album Some Raps Songs. At 15 tracks, it spans just 25 minutes. It is a brief but heavily dense album which features incredible sampled loops, muffled production and introspective lyricism from the 24-year-old rapper trying to come to terms with recent family loss, battling addiction and depression as well as giving his insight into some of his observations on the world around us as he sees it. Eerie in tone, experimental in execution and soulful in its delivery, there is something about Some Rap Songs that just makes me revisit it. Already 15 listens in, I pick up on subtleties in production and new lyrics I pick up on that stick with me for a while. Even after 20 listens, I still can’t wrap my head around this record, which is why I asked fellow writer and occasional contributor Saif Alavi aka Aural Grove to share his thoughts and digest some of the themes of this album.
So Saif, tell me a little more about your first experience listening to this record and what you took away from it.
Saif Alavi: On the same weekend this album was released, it seemed as if life inimically was waning in on me. Careening in between school and work, I barely had any time for introspection or isolated hobbies, as many college students would understand. The accruing stress kept becoming such an apparent figure in my mind. On Friday it was released, I had the night free. I sat through the nearly twenty-five minutes, instilled by the poignant articulation and varying degrees of sound, it was as if the night was specifically set up for me to ponder throughout the album. Although attempting to study each track in such a short amount of time, I found myself listening to the track “Red Water” the most. One of the aspects I noticed that differed from his previous two albums was his consistent use of alliteration. “Red Water” has this single line repeated that consistently drew me in as if I were meant to really take in the dialect. “I know I’m a king. Stock on my shoulder, I’ve been sinking. I ain’t know that I could leave.”That line continued to resonate with me as I periodically listened to the album. Red Water sparked the acknowledgment in my mind, but as I continued to listen to the stories told, I noticed this maybe Earl’s most positive album yet. Although not entirely jovial, I can see Earl’s maturity shine brightly in this project. Before I continue with my perception of the album, maybe you wanted to add anything on?
MB: The first few listens were difficult ones. I completely expected this kind of sonic direction from Earl, knowing his music influences. But this album felt skeletal, hollow and even empty in sound. Coming from I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, a more polished album in terms of its sonic quality, Some Rap Songs felt incredibly raw, which is refreshing. The beats are stripped down to only loops, the bass on it is muffled, the mixing poor. But it’s the fact that Earl seems to be making music for himself and himself only that makes this such a cathartic and liberating album. “December 24” was one of the major highlights for me, especially with lines like “Bad apple, daily clashin’ with my kinfolk/Bad acid did damage to my mental.” The way he is able to construct intricate sentences that are blunt and brutally honest just blows me away. It makes me worried about his mental health though, as hearing lines like “Bumpin’ shoulders with the devil in disguise” on “The Mint” with Navy Blue gives me an eerie, uneasy feeling. The Opening line to “Veins” is such an intelligent way to describe maturity and wisdom – “Peace to every crease in your brain.” The beat on “Azucar” is my favourite because it’s a soulful Dilla-like beat that alleviates the mood a little and creates a gorgeous aura.
Here’s a theory for you: the looped production on the album represents his state of mind being looped in an everlasting depressive state. The repetition in the beats sees his mind going in circles. “Riot!,” the closing track of Some Rap Songs, is entirely instrumental, notably sampling a song of the same name by South African jazz legend, and close friend of his father, Hugh Masekela. Notice how the title of that track has an exclamation mark, and the sample is somewhat progressive as there is no loop. I think and I hope this ending is a sign that he has broken out of this monotonous depressive state of mind and grown beyond that to see the light at the end of the tunnel. An inspiring and optimistic way to look at things, for sure. What are your thoughts on this?
SA: A couple of my peers both online and personally had the same feeling on the overall production. I’m glad you found that Earl found this piece as his piece and not just another commercial leap. In an interview I’ve seen around a month or so after the release of I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, he admitted to that album as his “first personal album.” I could see from the overall analyzation of the previous album that the production was his production, and the poetry was his understanding and coping. Earl always had the capability to construct such detailed nods and compact them into witty bars, bouncing from one after the other. I remember reading one of his earlier interviews and him admitting that a lot of his peers and listeners only thought of Doris as nonsensical rapping. It seems that no matter how clever or advanced his terminology is, there will always be the shell of personal honesty. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside made it a little easier to understand, but this album transparently made it clear what portion of his life each track belongs to.
You mentioned that you felt there were some uncomfortable segments from some of the tracks such as the quote from The Mint. It’s funny you found that, because although I understood his admitted depression is apparent in this project, what captured my focus was the bars articulating some of his positivity. In one of my favorite tracks, Loosie, one of the first phrases reads “Serpent, no need to his/Found a reason to live.”
Going off from your theory, I wouldn’t have thought of that. I would have retorted that theory and said that the likes of Knxwledge and Madlib have conducted Hip-Hop under that garment, but that chosen style of production may have been conducted on purpose. I would need to understand the state of depression a little more, but the mention of the loops emulating the repeated states of depression lit a bulb in my head. In terms of Riot! I understand what you witnessed now. I found that Death Grips could have ended The Powers That B in a similar fashion. The track Death Grips 2.0 ends in a curdling and boisterous sound play. Along with the quasi-title, I theorized it as a mint in their evolution of music. The funny part was how after the album, their Punk-Rock persona, The I.L.Y’s, were introduced not much later.
One of the aspects that really allowed me to appreciate this narrative are the nods to his influences from his family, as you mentioned. I first noticed this from the song “Playing Possum”, which conspicuously credits his mother and father for the vocal samples. When you pointed out that Riot! sampled Hugh Masekela, I’m starting to see that family may be one of the most significant themes on this album. What could explain the shorter duration could be that he said all he needed to say for this or that the production was meant to be short. I’m not so sure. What do you think about it?
MB: Just briefly on his state of mind on this album, I do feel like this was one massive therapy session for him, and I do hope he is in a much better place now than he ever was before. Family is definitely an important part of his life right now, he even had to cancel his tour earlier this year due to his depression and grief from losing his father (RIP). “Playing Possum” was a beautiful track, especially when his mother Cheryl Harris said “To my son Thebe (Words like) / Cultural worker and student of life (Home)/ Whose growth and insights inspire me, a thousand kisses.” I genuinely feel like he is closer to family and loved ones now than ever before, but his brutal honesty about his own depression really did make it difficult to endure at times. As for the brevity of the album itself, I just think he wanted it to be short and concise. The funny thing is that in twenty-five minutes, he was able to articulate more than other emcees can in double that time. And I love the fact that he has gone from an incredibly abstract rapper on Doris to a straight-forward and unapologetically honest rapper with his last two records. It was a dense listen and one that needs constant replay. One thing I would love to see him do is collaborate with the likes of The Alchemist, Madlib, Knxwledge and Daringer to name a few to diversify his production. One of the reasons it took me a while to get into this album because my expectations were for him to have a diverse array of producers on this record. I’m not taking anything away from his production at all, though seeing him collaborate with more producers would be interesting. As a final question, would you agree with my sentiment, and where would you want Earl Sweatshirt to go from here?
SA: Earl’s honesty is what I agree with on your part. Earl is an unpredictable artist and that’s what I appreciate about him. I don’t really have any expectations for him, as he seems to be keen with the evolving nature of Hip-Hop music itself. Hopefully he continues to change his style regardless of who he collaborates with. I would like to see him work with artists such as Madlib as he did in the past, but if he changes his dynamic totally, I would assume it’s coming from a holy place from his heart and mind. He did mention he had a lot going on through his life, especially this year. It must be strenuous battling with depression as well as maintaining his art and celebrity. I feel like that his fight alone is what inspired this album, as made it such a pure and honest confession. If at some points the album was hard to listen to at times, then I feel like the album really did its job well.
I’m glad we both dedicated our free time to really study the album. This was definitely a narrative not meant for singular or casual listening. Projects like these need a focused dissertation and being that Earl is able to provide that with only his third album, I am excited to see where he heads next. Whenever that may be.
MB: I echo everything you just said. He’s not making music for anyone other that himself it seems and that is to be admired. He doesn’t care for celebrity, that much is clear, and it’s good to see art created in its purest form. Thanks a lot Saif for taking the time to digest and write about this project, and I hope there will be many more to come of these. Check out Saif Alavi’s page Aural Grove here on Medium.com.
You can listen to Earl Sweatshirt’s third studio album Some Rap Songs below via Spotify below, and don’t forget to support!