ALBUM REVIEW: SICK! by Earl Sweatshirt

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WRITTEN BY: Dylan Stevens

Just over two years after the release of Feet of Clay, 27-year-old abstract rapper-producer Earl Sweatshirt has released his fourth full-length album on January 14, 2022, aptly titled SICK!. It has been just over three years since the drop of the seminal Some Rap Songs, the groundbreaking and hauntingly beautiful album that saw Earl begin to parse through a truly depressing time in his life while floating over expressive but succinct sample-based production. The project felt like acceptance—Earl, born Thebe Kgositsile, had just bared the death of his father, a man who the rapper had not been shy to peel back the curtain on his rocky relationship with in the past.

Earl Sweatshirt had a troublesome introduction to adulthood. Blowing up at the age of 16 after posting the gruesome video for “Earl,” it was clear that the kid had a deep appreciation for Hip-Hop and wisdom beyond his years. Despite his rapid success as a member of Odd Future, behavior issues outside of the music saw his mother ship him to a Samoan boarding school in an effort to find a therapeutic answer to his personal issues. Even after returning home to adoring fans and widespread success, feelings of grief-stricken depression and struggles with alcohol and marijuana addiction have proliferated throughout his music ever since. Luckily, with each project Earl has seemingly become more self-assured on his journey to artistic and personal maturity—and SICK! is no exception.

The album was announced by the drop of the video for “2010” on November 19, 2021. The video finds Earl rapping all over a cozy Californian home to a rolling, often reversed sample loop and some knocking asymmetrical kick and snare patterns. The psychedelic trap-inspired instrumental, provided by Black Noi$e, is not one that Earl has been known to flow over before. Regardless, he bounces effortlessly over the beat with a nostalgic verse reflecting with lines like, “Foot shook ground when I stepped on it / Didn’t look back when I broke soil / ‘Cause every time I did it would hurt more.”

The second single, “Tabula Rasa,” switches the tempo back to something a little more familiar. Teamed up again with the rapping duo of Armand Hammer, a short, chopped soul sample featuring a passionate vocal slice—produced by Theravada and Rob Chambers—plays the background to some of the most focused and potent lines on the whole album. E L U C I D and billy woods open the song with vivid bars transcribing past experiences that crafted their identities before Earl can step up to the mic. His follow-up verse appears to display a mixture of frustration and hunger as a result of the “complacency and deceit” created by those in power during the COVID-19 pandemic— the period in which Earl claims this project was conceived. This is no better communicated than in lines like, “Asymptomatic, but I get sick of the delays—faster, faster,” as well as billy’s simple affirmation, “Live for the living.”

The final single, “Titanic,” was released a few days before the album and is one of the most boisterous songs that Earl has ever made. Once again produced by Black Noi$e, the track creates a ghostly mood with its bubbling, ethereal, and airy melodies supplemented by varied deep kicks and a classic trap snare. Earl jumps straight to the point, opening with, “Give it to you straight, no frills.” He continues on to harp over revenge, villainous activities, and running up his stats among other braggadocious jabs. Overall, it is refreshing to hear a change of scenery for the rapper but it is clear he might not be used to flowing over instrumentals this upbeat.

The mixed-bag of production continued into the night of release as the tracks all along the album often jump between trap-inspired psychedelic rap to collected, focused verses spit over top of selective vintage loops. For instance, the opening track, “Old Friend,” is an 80-second stream of consciousness over brooding, drumless horn progressions featuring chilling lines like, “The cost of living high, don’t cross the picket line and get the virus,” seemingly commenting on the sickness of society as a result of the pandemic, but also attempting to reveal the antagonist nature of humans to begin with.

The album then creeps on to tracks like “Sick!” and “Vision,” which employ stuttering hi-hats and booming 808s that boost the energy before sliding back into a groovy song like “Lye.” Even with the diverse, aux-cord-in-the-car-type mood swings exhibited by this album, Earl properly ties it all together keeping the verses focused on topics related to working through trauma and pushing to progress through life during one of the most confusing times in recent memory. Most of the tracks never reach two minutes but continue to craft intriguing lines and moody soundscapes.

The album ends with the languishing “Fire in the Hole.” Scored by none other than Black Noi$e, the emotional guitar—paired with a steady drum loop—carries the song into a beautiful piano outro as Earl unveils his uneasy feelings about a romantic relationship. He reveals cautious optimism in lines like, “Rewiring, patchin’ holes / It’s no rewinding, for the umpteenth time, it’s only forward.” “Fire in the Hole” is a gorgeous outro to an album filled with occasional unease. It caresses the ears, if only momentarily, giving the listener the ability to have some kind of closure even if it means baring vulnerability.

Earl Sweatshirt’s SICK! is a group therapy session for the countless amounts of people who have felt their growth stunted by symptoms of grief and complacency in this pandemic. Earl is trying to become a more mature man—one that can set a good example for his young child. In the end, everyone wants to get better, but sometimes one has to sink before they can reconcile with their own experiences.

Track List:

  1. Old Friend
  2. 2010
  3. Sick!
  4. Vision (feat. Zelooperz)
  5. Tabula Rasa (feat. Armand Hammer)
  6. Lye
  7. Lobby (int)
  8. God Laughs
  9. Titanic
  10. Fire in the Hole

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