“Closed lips make the mouth breathers frown,” goes one of the rare lines that are immediately understandable on Earl Sweatshirt’s strange new album Some Rap Songs. It’s a quintessential lyric for the 24-year-old Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, partly because its wordplay is less about punch lines than about associative thinking, and partly because it’s explaining his entire approach of late. In a culture of talk, Earl’s trying to say less, better.
The notion that our society is too cluttered with stuff has been one of the great drivers of aesthetic innovation—see Brian Eno, Coco Chanel, or Frank Ocean—and the need for creators to fight against surplus would seem to be getting only more urgent. As streaming triggered a Cambrian explosion of content in recent years, pop music, especially in hip-hop, has fed the mess with deluges of deluxe-edition albums, mixtapes, remixes, and one-off singles. A feature of this bloat is shorter songs that revel in how little they say. Take for example Kanye West and Lil Pump’s two-minute smash “I Love It,” a comic-book speech bubble containing a single sentiment: I’m horny.
Earl, who arrived on the public stage at age 16 already with an air of the legendary, is playing a different game. The 15 songs of his tersely titled Some Rap Songs amount to just 25 minutes, and only two tracks break the two-minute mark. But within them is a deceptive sort of density. Not only are the songs thick with noise: warbled vocal samples, scuzzy guitar, furnace-room thrum, all arranged in disorienting, irregular loops. They’re also filled with lyrics that seem instinctual, fragmentary, underwritten, but that with repeat listens add up to a dark, complex picture. He doesn’t spell everything out, but this doesn’t mean he’s not saying much.
Earl has had a weird career. The son of the renowned South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile and the UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris, he found national fame in 2009 as part of the Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Posse members Frank Ocean; Tyler, the Creator; and Syd all went on to make works of brainy nuance, but back then, Odd Future were enfants terribles, cartoonishly glorifying rape, murder, and gay-bashing. Earl’s was the purest genius of the group, a verbal and comedic virtuoso even—or especially—on the most disgusting songs. But amid the group’s rise, his mother sent him to Samoa for boarding school, cutting off his communication with the mainland. Since his return, he’s capitalized on his early fame—but with music that’s insular and emotionally realistic, rather than the confrontational fantasies of before.