Album Review: Earl Sweatshirt, ‘I Don’t Like S—, I Don’t Go Outside’
Remember a few years back when the west coast rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All exploded into the national consciousness? Like Eminem before them, they attracted oodles of attention -- and a number of think pieces about the threat they posed to society -- with their violent, frequently homophobic lyrics and rape references. What would become of these outsiders seemingly hell-bent on bringing down the system?
Fast forward to the present -- these artists are now respected musical citizens. Odd Future sponsor a music festival, Camp Flog Gnaw, which ran for the third time this year; in this age where every town has its own three-day music extravaganza, what could be more normal? Group leader Tyler, the Creator is accepted as a talented rapper and a provocateur, but no longer seen as a menace to society. Frank Ocean and the group the Internet -- which contains OF members Syd the Kid and Matt Martians -- are esteemed players in R&B.
And then there’s Earl Sweatshirt, who released, the bold, intensely personal I Don’t Like S---, I Don’t Go Outside this week (March 23).
Ironically, the members of OF who got the most press attention -- aside from Tyler -- were mainly the ones least involved with the group. Ocean, for instance, joined late in the game and became a critical favorite for his solo work. Earl's trajectory was the opposite: He was a crucial OF member in the early stages, playing an integral part in the group’s rise, but he got pulled out of the action when his mother shipped him off to school in Samoa.
Of course, this only added to his appeal. Not that he needs the help -- his verbal gifts are undeniable. Jay-Z’s talent is to sound boyish regardless of age; Earl is one of several young rappers to emerge in the last few years with a voice that seems to belie his youth (another would be Chicago’s Lil Bibby). At a time when many rappers are playing with delivery but placing less of an emphasis on actual language -- take, for example, Atlanta’s Young Thug, who is frequently unintelligible -- Earl reaches back to a previous time when MCs reveled in tricky, glorious wordplay.
His raps are dense, low and mostly constant in tone; he loves packing bars full of internal rhyme and then enjambing lines to the point where he seems to be ignoring the beat, playing a long game that the listener can’t discern until the last moment. Take part of the first verse from “Hive” (which appears on Sweatshirt’s debut album, Doris), and try to divide the lines into simple segments: “N---a listen, the description doesn't fit if not a synonym of menace / Then forget it -- in turn, these critics and interns admitting the s--- spitted just burn like six furnaces / Writ it affixed, learning them digits and simultaneously dispelling one-trick-pony myths / Isn't he?”
Just because Earl has made the jump from rebellious to respected doesn’t mean he’s problem free: The rollout of I Don’t Like S--- did not go according to plan, leaving the rapper furious with his label. (March has not been kind to hip-hop releases -- a similar mess occurred with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.)
Earl unleashed a series of tweets on March 17, including “I WOULD LIKE TO PERSONALLY THANK @SonyMusicGlobal 4 F---ING UP THE ROLL OUT PROCESS OF MY S---. SOMEONE GOTS 2 PAY 4 THEIR MISTAKES !” The MC explained the situation further to NPR’s Microphone Check. “I was devastated,” Earl said. “[E]specially because I feel like this is my first album. This is the first thing that I've said that I fully stand behind … it was really like zero-percent of what was supposed to go right went right. Like, y'all got an F. It's not chill.”
But the bungled rollout doesn't impact the music, only when and how people encountered it. In an age when rap full-lengths -- and full-lengths more generally -- routinely clock in between 60 and 80 minutes, Earl’s latest release is shockingly short, stopping a few seconds shy of half an hour. He sticks to the muted palette of his last album, favoring gloomy bass and muddy drums (almost everything is self-produced). Occasionally a guitar or keyboard adds a scrap of melody; several songs segue midway into instrumental outros.
A few figures dominate I Don’t Like S--- to the exclusion of all else -- Earl’s ex-girlfriend, his dead grandmother, his mother, his new fans and his fickle friends -- and the MC is unsparing towards all parties, including himself. “Out the toaster, I gotta focus my family problems,” he raps on the raggedly pretty “Faucet,” referencing his time in Samoa. “It hurt cause I can’t keep a date or put personal time in / Or a reverse of the times when my face didn’t surprise you / Before I did the s--- that earned me my term on that island / Can’t put a smile on your face through your purse or your pocket / S--- in a pile, never change, I’m stupid for tryin’ / Still just too busy wildin’.” He also takes part of the blame for a dissolved romantic relationship: “Last couple months was the worst, cause I smashed all the trust that I earned.”
Earl is struggling to adjust to his celebrity, which is a common trope in rap, but few MCs have illustrated the catch-22 nature of this dilemma so simply. “You ain't ask for this,” Earl reminds himself on “Mantra.” “Now you surrounded with a gaggle of 100 f---ing thousand kids / Who you can't get mad at when they want a pound, a pic / Cause they the reason that the traffic on the browser quick / And they the reason that the paper in your trousers thick.” His main recourse -- aside from music -- is drugs. On album opener “Huey,” Earl spends “the day drinking and missing my grandmother;” this happens again in “Grief.” On the same song, he confesses to relying on Xanax to handle panic attacks.
For a rapper who came up as part of a seemingly tight-knit group, it’s especially affecting to hear his tales of loneliness: “Don’t know where I’m going, don’t know where I been / Never trust these hoes, don’t even trust my friends” (“Grown Ups”); “All I see is snakes in the eyes of these n---as” (“Grief”). But Earl ends the album with a kiss-off, an assertion of independence -- “Give a f--- about the moves all these losing n---as making now.”
There’s strength in the knowledge that he’s got his own problems to worry about.