By Christian Hince
Before SICK!, it had been over three years since Earl Sweatshirt’s last album, Some Rap Songs. With adept rhymes full of emotional substance and muddy atmospheric production, the record was an achievement that cemented Earl’s place in hip-hop history. It expanded on the already deep focus of mental trauma shown on 2015’s I Don’t Like S***, I Don’t Go Outside, and was an artistic accomplishment completed quickly with 15 songs in just 24 minutes.
On his new album SICK!, his deft rapping and introspection are still there, but Earl has entered a new chapter. While still struggling mentally, SICK! indicates that his doom and gloom is in check, and he’s excited to improve.
“Know I came from out the thicket smilin’,” Earl raps on the opener “Old Friend,” a wistful ode to writing as a method of therapy. “I fill a void with a pen, feel the fear, shrill,” he continues. While just 80 seconds, it’s a beautiful song that shows Earl having found peace with a troubled past in a chaotic world.
Looking at the tracklist indicates a major similarity to projects past, with SICK! composing of 10 songs in 24 minutes. It also shows the other significant change Earl makes on the record: every beat is made by someone other than himself. His gloomy, hypnagogic beats defined his previous three projects. So of course, him delegating this aspect of his music elsewhere was something noteworthy from the outlook.
For much of SICK!, the muddy, unorthodox mixing found on previous projects is traded for something more balanced, befitting of Earl’s progressed mental state. The record’s sound isn’t quite as groundbreaking as that of his previous two LPs, but it’s still more-or-less cream of the crop. Production from the likes of close friend, The Alchemist, on the warm, fuzzy horn-oriented “Lye” and Alexander Spit on the somber personal cut “God Laughs,” are a couple examples of Earl complementing his poetry with A-1 beat selection.
Befitting of the title, SICK! is a direct product of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sick! is my humble offering of 10 songs recorded in the wake of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns,” said Earl in a December press release, according to Pitchfork.
Before the pandemic, he was working on another album called “The People Could Fly,” named after a book he used to read with his mother. The worldwide woes to come of the virus diminished Earl’s optimism suggested in the title, so he focused his work on something timelier.
“I leaned into the chaos cause it was apparent that it wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. “These songs are what happened when I came up for air.”
References to masking and lockdowns can be found across the album, among allusions to other aspects of life through the pandemic. “Vision” discusses the “singular current event” we continue to live through in most detail.
His verse also led to online suspicions of anti-vaccine sentiment with the line, “Ain’t no parade in the tent, f*** out my face with syringe.” Earl later rebuked this interpretation via Twitter, asserting the line was discussing drug addiction.
“Vision” is just one of three songs on the album with one or more features. On the track, Earl’s verse is preceded by a contribution from Zelooperz of the Detroit-based Bruiser Brigade. Zelooperz contrasts Earl’s approach to rapping with a laid-back delivery while sneaking in clever one-liners such as “simply sin for me, b**** sing a symphony.”
“Tabula Rasa,” another song with guest contribution on the mic, comes on directly afterwards, and is an album highlight that gets better throughout its runtime. Earl and NY duo Armand Hammer offer verses full of imagery and pensive reflections on life over a jazz sample chopped up by Rob Chambers & Theravada.
Armand Hammer starts by discussing his personal social isolation, rapping “I’m broken links, my circle shrinking smaller,” while offering strong imagery in lines such as “tears and snot bubbles, sob puddles, I lay in the wet spot.” Woods follows up by detailing a nightclub scene, referencing his Zimbabwe origins, rapping “every car foreign and we drive ‘em on empty,” and speaking on what he’d like to see after his life ends. “Bury me in a borrowed suit,” he raps. “Give my babies my rhyme books, but tell ‘em, ‘do you,’ give my enemies the good news: time flew.”
Earl opens the final verse by admiring his family history decades deep in black civil rights. The “family tree sap” he mentions consists of Cheryl Harris, a civil rights law professor at UCLA, and his father Keorapatse Kgositsile, the late poet laureate of South Africa and prominent apartheid activist.
He talks about his frustration as a COVID-era artist, rapping “asymptomatic, but I get sick of the delays.” With black social activism in his lineage, Earl also weighs in on the national anger over continuing police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S.
“Streets ablaze with the anger, complacency and deceit create,” Earl raps. He alludes to this same passion for justice on other tracks too, sampling a speech from Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti on the album’s title track, and by quoting Malcolm X on “Lye.”
“Lye,” similarly to tracks like “Old Friend” and “Tabula Rasa” expresses the peace and flame of optimism that Earl has tended through the chaos of the last two years. Cruising over The Alchemist’s warm production, he talks about finding new outlets of interest, rapping “explorin’ a couple different avenues and stayin’ dangerous,” along with having rediscovered spirituality after years of gloom. “Callin’ out for Lord, lookin’ low and high,” he raps. “Finally found it at the core of my dimming fire.”
He also makes sure to explore his pain on “God Laughs.” Earl describes himself as “operating on an empty tank” before briefly telling the story of his grandfather’s alcohol-fueled demise.
“His body on a road where his mind flailin’, funeral weightless,” he raps. Despite this trauma, Earl emphasizes resilience, rapping “maimed me, I ain’t weak,” and affirming his mission of self-improvement, talking about “swamp marching on, on the quest for my lost halo.”
His use of walking as a motif for personal growth is found in a couple of other places in the track list. “2010,” which is just the second song on the record, features one of the defining lines on SICK!, “foot shook ground when I stepped on it, never looked back when I broke soil, cause every time I did it would hurt more.” In Earl’s usual stream of consciousness format, we see snapshots of his time growing up under the care of his single mother in addition to statements of motivation.
The album’s closer, “Fire In The Hole,” uses imagery of soil rather than mulch to sum up the impact of COVID-19 on the album’s identity. “Blood seeping into the mulch, I needed a quick result,” he raps. Clever imagery in lines such as “the shield took a couple chinks but it never broke,” reinforce Earl’s resilience and commitment to growth, and the motif of walking returns in the final line with him rapping “hunter’s boots crunchin’ the brown grass.”
This is what SICK! is all about. Trudging on. Making peace with past trauma. Understanding new pain rather than getting swallowed in it. It doesn’t feature the same experimental, genre-defining heights of IDLSIDGO and Some Rap Songs, projects representing a creative peak that few rappers ever reach. Instead, the pain explored on these previous records is approached by Earl with a refined insight for health and self-improvement, who illustrates this with his wonderful gift for excellent rapping. SICK! is a natural progression in the story of Earl Sweatshirt, a person who’s always changing but continues to make great art.