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Earl Sweatshirt photographed by Steven Traylor
Earl SweatshirtPhotography by Steven Traylor

Earl Sweatshirt’s new album is a very real exploration of trauma

Some Rap Songs is existential in its grief because it doesn’t offer a tidy conclusion – it’s just a young man, going through pain

Earl Sweatshirt’s music has always been misanthropic. While the rapper (born Thebe Kgositsile) is no longer rapping derogatory, juvenile, and sometimes straight-up vile lyrics, as he used to as a 15-year-old rolling with Californian hip hop crew Odd Future in the late 2000s, his last record, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, still had its share of scornfulness. His newest album, the raw, unpolished, and jazz-infused Some Rap Songs, explores depression, death, and the passing of his estranged father, the South African Poet Laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile. Where Earl usually raised his middle finger to the world, this time, he turns his anger inwards on himself.

Earl’s relationship with his father was tumultuous. “Me and my dad had a relationship that’s not uncommon for people to have with their fathers, which is a non-perfect one,” the rapper said in the Some Rap Songs press release. Before he died, Keorapetse Kgositsile offered a glimpse into this fractured relationship, telling The New Yorker that he’d never listened to his son’s music, but also ripping on hip hop as a whole, “I really don’t think (hip hop is) about anything of relevance, socially, other than young people saying they’re hurt”.

On its surface, Some Rap Songs revolves around Earl and the grief he feels over his father’s passing. “Papa called me chief / Gotta keep brief / Lock and load I can see you lying through your teeth,” he raps on “Red Water” over syncopated, slippery guitar loops. But in an interview with Vulture, Earl explained that he wrote 13 of the album’s 15 tracks before his dad’s passing. If Some Rap Songs is about pain, then, it’s not so much the pain of this event, but a trauma that runs deeper.

Depression is not a phase,” he raps laconically on “Peanut”, a despondent industrial number. It’s a theme that returns on “Nowhere2go”, a track full of chopped-and-screwed hi-hats, with bars that revolve around his own mental anguish: “Spent most of my life depressed / Only thing on my mind was death.” Meanwhile, on “December 24”, he spits out every couplet like an unsavoury flavour, directing his reflections over broken piano chords to a mysterious persona: “You were right / It took a couple of rights of passages to get grown.” For a rapper who loves loquacious similes, dirty double entendres, and audacious gibberish, he’s straight-up here about admitting the pain he’d incurred way before his father passed away.

At the start of this year, this trauma was crystallised when he dropped out of London’s Field Day festival and abandoned a string of other scheduled European shows. His representatives told Pitchfork that he was “battling anxiety and depression which has been compounded by the grief from the recent passing of his father.” Prior to the release of Some Rap Songs, Sweatshirt hinted at the weight of this work, tweeting: “TO SAY IM EXCITED TO B GIVING YALL MUSIC IS BIG UNDERSTATEMENT. THIS YEAR BEEN THE ROUGHEST OF MY LIFE, BUT HERE WE ARE !!!” For a young rapper to approach their career and music with this degree of frankness is what makes Some Rap Songs such a real listen. Earl explores the gamut of the human condition with songs that are unpolished and imperfect. It gives the songs real savagery.

One of the album’s most chilling tracks, “Playing Possums”, comes at the end. It features washed out synthesisers and vocal samples from his mother, the civil rights activist and professor Cheryl Harris, and his dad. Inserting his parents into the musical narrative, especially at the end of the record, feels almost cyclical. Speaking to Vulture, Earl describes the album’s jittery production and off-kilter loops as like “the snake eating its tail”. It goes round and round. Some Rap Songs is existential in its grief because it doesn’t offer a tidy conclusion. It’s the grim exploration of a young wunderkind, but predominantly just a young man, going through pain. It may be gritty, stark and brutal, but it’s beautifully honest, and that’s what trauma can be.