Since the release of his debut album Doris in 2013, Earl Sweatshirt has being saying more with less words, creating short but lyrically dense albums that capture fragments of his state of mind into capsules of incredibly vulnerable and revealing songs. His 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside was the first album that truly felt like his own creation and vision (as mentioned in his Microphone Check NPR interview that year), and has since taken his craft to new heights. His 2018 album Some Rap Songs has received universal acclaim from critics and fans alike, creating some of the most disorienting, left-field hip-hop I’ve heard in quite a while. He dealt with grief, trauma, addiction and depression on that album, at times feeling suffocating and uncomfortable to listen to. It was his incredible ability to condense ideas into tracks that are only between 1 and 2 minutes in length. Brevity is poignant when done right, and oh boy did he deliver on that album. His 2019 EP Feet of Clay continued some of these ideas, but didn’t quite have the punchiness or replay value as his other albums. He takes time releasing new music, which is what makes his releases ever more special.
SICK!, his fourth studio album, is a project born in the last few years with the backdrop of a global pandemic, something he refers to a lot throughout the 10 tracks. He finds new life, bringing hard-hitting, electronic and more drum-heavy production to the table. It’s his first album that includes no self-produced music, and it’s allows him to find new pockets, new flows and new ideas to the table. Shoutout to Alchemist, Black Noi$e, Ancestors, Theravada & Rob Chambers, Samiyam and Alexander Spit who contributed to the sound of this project. A lot of futuristic electronic sounds feature on tracks like “2010” and “Titanic”, which are contrasted by the crisp, soulful beats on tracks “Tabula Rasa” featuring Armand Hammer and “Fire in the Hole”. He kicks the album off with the Alchemist-produced “Old Friend”, where he starts with “Strong spirit where the body couldn’t get asylum / The cost of living high, don’t cross the picket line and get the virus / Wild cat has got ’em in a bind, stay inside / Know I came from out the thicket smilin'”. My interpretation, not only on these opening lines in general but on the concept of the album as a whole, is that for the longest time, Earl has been dealing with trauma, grief and depression, things that have really fucked with his psyche and mental wellbeing, while the world around him has been healthy (pre – Covid), and now that the world is sick in general, he has finally found internal solitude. Now a father and with a partner he loves deeply and cares for – the Black Noi$e produced “Fire in the Hole” seems to be an ode to family, love and looking forward and positively into the future. The AKAI SOLO shoutout is cool, ad there are so many good lines on this track that makes me want to return to this one again and again. There is something truly hypnotic about the Zelooperz-featured “Vision”, which features one of my favourite beats on the album. “Tabula Rasa” with Armand Hammer is another clear standout. Bars upon bars, this track is just relentless. billy woods’ verse is just so dense and intricate (“Give my babies my rhyme books, but tell ’em, “Do you” / Give my enemies the good news: Time flew / We was probably brothers back then like T-R-U”), while Earl’s flows on this track are just incredible. “God Laugh” is another soulful track (produced by Alexander Spit), and some incredibly dense and disorienting rhymes that are chaotic in their delivery and heavy in their themes, mainly talking about his grandfather’s death to dementia, producing one of the most poignant lines to me on the album, “Through his brain getting chipped away at daily / His body on a road where his mind flailed and funeral whaled us”. The beats on “2010” and “Titantic” are some of my favourites on the album, with the latter track being a real hitter, with a clever ode to MF DOOM – Mask on like a supervillain / Daniel, who you in the den with? Lion”.
For an album that’s titled SICK!, this album definitely feels like Earl is healing his own sicknesses, or rather, things he’s had to deal with over the years. Trauma, grief and depression are still all central themes on the album, yet he’s tackling them with maturity and positivity that feels right. Despite the world suffering around him, he seems to have taken a step back the last few years, both mentally and generally, reflecting on his own state of mind, observing the world around him but keeping a distance while being closer and closer to the people that he loves. Fatherhood I’m sure has given him a new perspective on life and, with the help of his partner and the friends and family around him, has found balance that seems to work for him. At least in terms of the music itself, SICK! is Earl Sweatshirt’s most uplifting album to date, a full-circle moment that sees him closer to finding inner peace amidst the chaos of the outside world.