Earl Sweatshirt has occupied many roles. As part of Odd Future, he was rap’s tearaway prodigy, someone whose word-play could move from the explicitly caustic to the playfully surreal in a single bar. His time in Samoa made him a cult figure, a mysterious force whose background and context seemed up for grabs.
A recent label switch saw Earl move things around once more. Tan Cressida is set to expand, he insists, with a major label partnership enabling him to create a pipeline between hip-hop’s left-field and much larger audiences. ‘SICK!’ is part of those ambitions; a riveting, distinct project, it blends bravura production with some of Earl’s finest raps yet, dolling out personal observation and cutting societal critique in an intense fashion.
Containing a mere 10 tracks, ‘SICK!’ is a staggeringly consistent document. ‘Old Friend’ is a soulful opener, before ‘2010’ dials it back to his opening mixtape, over a decade ago. Fluttering electronics permeate the backing, while Earl’s mic control has scarcely been more on-point.
‘Lobby’ has a sparsity that echoes grime, its eeriness made all the more forceful by its concise – 72 second – length. Indeed, ‘SICK!’ owes much of its impact to Earl’s stuttering approach – get an idea down on tape, and move forwards. Sonically, it aims for hip-hop blunts, these , Dilla-esque nuggets of club-focussed sonics the flip between vintage samples and staunch futurism. ‘God Laughs’ for example, has an almost psychedelic backing, while title cut ‘SICK!’ revolves around that whispered female voice, a cinematic evocation of LA, peeling back the surface of vintage Hollywood.
The most developed moments on ‘SICK!’ act as a fulcrum. Earl Sweatshirt has long cited Armand Hammer as a profound influence on his work, and the two parties go long amid the piano-led sonics pointillism of ‘Tabula Rasa’. ‘Vision’ is a four-minute excursion, with Earl paired up alongside Zelooperz; much more than lush than other aspects of the project, it manages to paint in the finer details, while still mirroring the raw elements that define this era of Earl’s work.
A fantastic release, ‘SICK!’ pushes Earl Sweatshirt into a new chapter of his work, while adding further context to what has come before. The production work is impeccable, its dizzying imaginative flurry the perfect hinge against Earl’s lyrical precision. Short but emphatically creative, it presents an entire universe to explore, with its finer details laying in wait for repeated listens. A bona fide left-field statement released on a major label, Earl’s singular position in rap music remains a source of inspiration.
Words: Robin Murray
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