Pop & Hiss
Review

Earl Sweatshirt's 'I Don't Like ...': Grim, paranoid and grief-stricken

On his new album, Earl Sweatshirt tackles conflicts, separates the leeches from the snakes and produces heat

Earl Sweatshirt’s in a foul mood. He's lethargic and maybe even a little agoraphobic.

To paraphrase the title of his cuss-dotted new album, he doesn’t like [anything] and he doesn’t go outside. If he’s to be believed throughout the record, the rapper and producer born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile has mostly been dealing with a breakup, smoking weed, fighting with Xanax and lying real, real low. His only connection to the outside world, it seems, is his front door’s fisheye peephole and maybe the pizza man.

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FOR THE RECORD

March 23, 3:45 p.m.: The original version of this review misidentified the rapper responsible for the guest verse on the track “DNA.” It was Nakel Smith, not Dash.

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Even by Sweatshirt standards this is grim stuff, no small feat considering that on the title of his very first track he described himself as ugly, that throughout his 2013 debut studio album, “Doris” (after a couple breakout mix tapes and Odd Future releases), he cast a side-eyed glare at his increasing renown and worked hard to diminish expectations. On the new record he’s not hiding his grumpiness: “I’ve been like this since the Motorola Razr.” Considering he's just 21, that's more than half his life.

This is a different brand of darkness, though. Filled with barbs at former friends and verse-long defenses of his culpability in a recent breakup, Earl’s portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man reads as a kind of poetically executed tirade at both the world and himself, one tempered by his acknowledged good fortune. 

“Good grief, I’ve been reaping what I sow,” he raps on “Grief,” the first single. “I ain’t been outside in a minute / I been living what I wrote.” All he sees out there are snakes – “mama taught me how to read ‘em when I look” – so he’s staying in. He characterizes his grandmother’s death as when she “drank the mud.”

This relentless insight, consistently sharp skills as a writer and casually crucial delivery are key reasons why Earl's been so doted upon by both the hip-hop cognoscenti and fans of the written word. Yes, his back story is fascinating, but even without it his fans would be clamoring for new work. 

Any excitement accrued after his remarkable rise as a teenage member of the Odd Future hip-hop collective and son of accomplished parents, one a law professor, the other an admired South African poet and political activist, seems long gone. Lyrically black and gray with the occasional “crimson leak” of blood (and lots of marijuana green), the album has a Nick Drake-quality overcast patina.

Within these sparse, Rothko-esque works the artist dedicates deep, unflinching energy to documenting and hopefully exorcising his woes (or at least understanding them), delivering lines with wondrous cadence, zipping with a singsong musicality that illuminates what surrounds it. “Lately I’ve been panicking a lot – feel like I’m stranded in a mob," he raps in "Grief." "Scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop / Never getting out of hand, steady, handling my job.” 

Even his BMW is colorless: “I’m in that ash-gray Beamer, we’ll be calling that the pigeon coupe,” he explains during “Mantra” as an echoey bass drum kicks and a distorted Portishead-suggestive guitar tone cuts through the midrange. Elsewhere he describes his “face getting gray from the ash – but I’m laughing.”

For all his contemplation, though, Earl sure has been busy, evidence that the torture’s doing some artistic good, and that the storm clouds may pass. Why would someone so defeatist, after all, dedicate energy to producing nine of these 10 tracks when he’s got a buffet of producers at his demand? Why delve so deeply into the psyche while building ethereal, humming beats in his home studio when he could be sitting on the couch, counting his money and reveling in an autonomy that any artist would sacrifice an ear for?

These are the kinds of questions Earl addresses on "I Don't Like ..., I Don't Go Outside." Despite the shuttered windows, Earl explores his lot, his fortune both good and bad, his mixed emotions and his new and old relationships throughout the record. But his isn't the travel-the-world kind of searching.

Unlike Los Angeles' anointed king of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar, Earl's not advocating, isn't delving into his people's musical past to make connections, shows little interest in addressing big-picture ideas such as the recent racial turmoil in Ferguson and elsewhere. Rather, Earl documents his days spent “drinking and missing my grandmother,” others spent “plotting on my neighbors, asking God for favors.” Granted, Lamar is six years older than Earl and didn't release his debut album, "Section 80," until he was a few years older than Earl is now. 

Only a few guests stop by, and when they do it’s like they’re storming Earl’s apartment unannounced and casting sunshine on a cowering vampire. Longtime Long Beach compadre Vince Staples opens the album-closing “Wool” with a relentless drive. On “DNA,” rapper (and pro skateboarder) Nakel Smith offers a terrific verse in the form of a love letter to a long-gone relative while a heartbeat rhythm pumps.

Earl's wariness and weariness shouldn't be surprising given that for nearly a quarter of his life he’s been in the spotlight, growing up while surrounded with “a gaggle of a hundred ... thousand kids who you can’t get mad at when they want a pound or a pic / Cause they the reason that the traffic on your route was quick and they the reason that the paper in your trousers so thick.”

The artist entombs these verses within minimal, bass-heavy beats, down-tempo and dotted with flashes of melody and sparks of skittering high-hat. These productions are foggy things and reveal a man busy in his bunker working stuff out. He may say he’s wallowing and bitter, but within those walls he’s been building, examining, acting his age and contemplating. He’s been dealing with conflicts, separating the leeches from the snakes and making music.

Earl Sweatshirt

"I Don't Like ..., I Don't Go Outside"

(Tan Cressida / Sony)

Three stars out of four

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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