Riot and the All-Encompassing-Humanity of Earl Sweatshirt
By Matthewos Mesfin
There seems to be a false notion that assumes that innovation in music occurs because after a while audiences get tired of industry pushing the same repackaged content. This is not true. Nothing gets the masses going like familiarity. Look back at all the times of artists using the nostalgia of older music to sell records. For many in the industry, music comes second to business, and it is in their best interest to pump out music of the least effort and lowest common denominator.
This isn’t a diatribe against all the music coming out today; this has been going on forever and whatever old person says otherwise is looking at their past with rose-tinted glasses. Plenty of artists today are continually advancing the art forward, and not because it’ll see but because it is their truest expression of themselves.
Enter Earl Sweatshirt. Despite being only 27 years old, Earl Sweatshirt is very much a veteran of his craft. He broke through rap circles in the early 2010s with his dense lyrical style and crude subject matter: the lost child of MF DOOM and Eminem. Now, 12 years later, his style has taken quite the evolution, but in many ways, his musical journey is itself a testament to growth and the humanity within us all.
At times, Earl is pigeon-holed as a depressive rapper. It’s not that it doesn’t have merit: from the very beginning of his career, he has had a knack for brilliant lines about the most dreary of subjects. And going from the release of “I Don’t Like Sh*t, I Don’t Go Outside” in 2015 forward, he’s dove deeper into these topics, managing to thoroughly express the feelings of self-loathing, anger, and hopelessness that comes from depression like no rapper has. However, to say that this is all Earl is about is untrue, and disingenuous to his work.
Some Rap Songs, to many the pinnacle achievement of Earl Sweatshirt’s discography, is very outwardly a somber record. It’s slow, lethargic, with a lo-fi mix that, combined with it’s usage of slurred soul samples, creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. There are bars on here that pierce through the listener’s ear with how forthright and honest they are. And despite all of its anguish, it ends on such a blissful note.
Riot is the minute and six second instrumental closer to Some Rap Songs. It heavily samples a song of the same name by Hugh Masekela, a South African jazz legend and friend to Keorapetse Kgositsile, Earl’s recently deceased father. In it’s short runtime, it manages to bring an uplifting close to a record that at times finds itself in the depths of personal despair. In many ways, Riot is the triumphant closer of not just Some Rap Songs but Earl’s entire discography up to that point. It builds upon the instrumental outros littered throughout his previous projects “Doris” and “I Don’t Like Sh*t,” and provides a cathartic release for all of the gloomiest moments of his discography.
Riot isn’t the exception. Thebe’s music explores a range of emotions and feelings that he sprinkles alongside the darkness that he’s known for. The beat on Inside is a sentimental callback to the early production of Odd Future. On Azucar, over euphoric soul chops, he comes to terms with the relationship with his father, saying “Mama said she used to see my father in me //Said I was not offended”. On his newest record, Sick! there are pockets where he comes across with grit and energy, like he did on songs in the past, but this time exuding the confidence of a seasoned MC who has fulfilled what he has set up to achieve in the rap game.
In a world full of corporate manufactured music, it makes sense to label an artist as whatever the most obvious feature about them is. After all, it’s what the labels and executives are marketing them as. In certain situations, however, when it is glaringly obvious that the art one makes comes from real personal artistic expression, it is not only ignorant but wrong. Art is self, and for the very best, like Earl Sweatshirt, it encompasses everything it is to be human.