Review: Earl Sweatshirt, ‘SICK!’

Following years of misrepresented assumptions, hip-hop’s most obscure lyricist makes his identity clear, continuing down the post-Odd Future path that many didn’t expect, but best represents his artistry.

It’s no surprise to those in tune that Earl Sweatshirt’s rap persona is vastly different from the mastermind behind the music. While his music may be littered with themes of depression of grief, the mysterious emcee holds a golden personality that shines best outside of his workspace and a love for music that has grown out of his Los Angeles roots.

With his most recent musical release, SICK!, Earl strives to give listeners a taste of his style that they aren’t familiar with, but is filled with flavor and personality.

Photography: Ryosuke Tanzawa

Earl’s music is usually focused on finding the antidote within the cure, but SICK! takes a different approach in placing the candy within the medicine. As a listener, you may not enjoy the bitter taste of his pessimistic rhymes but once you accustom to the flavor, Earl’s music becomes much clearer as each line cuts deeper into the base of the project.

SICK! is a minor offering, reflecting on the gloomy nature of the world after entering the pandemic. Initially working on an entirely different project titled The People Could Fly, Earl saw the dire state of the world and completely switched direction. In a press statement, he stated: “A wise man once said art imitates life. People were sick. The people were angry and isolated and restless. I leaned into the chaos, ’cause it was apparent that it wasn’t going anywhere. These songs are what happened when I would come up for air.” The album’s title and main single serve as an influence from Earl’s shadowy process.

All of Earl’s projects have managed to stick to the same minuscule template of short run times and cohesive tracklists; His most recent effort falls under the same process but differs from the rest in terms of content. Earl’s pen normally touches on the different emotions most are scared to delve into, and while Earl will always be transparent about his struggles in his music, SICK! embraces a different side of Earl that rarely intersected with his artistic persona. The project faces a shift to a more bouncier sound, forcing Earl outside of his comfort zone to let loose and switch up flow, but the lyrical capabilities are still unmatched.

Earl always makes a personal effort to display parts of his character that are considered foreign to his artistic persona. But SICK! remains rooted in the introspective lens formed by the introverted emcee. His dreary flow has always been a perfect match for the heavy emotional subject matter present in his music, even going as far as slurring his words while he rhymes. However, the chaotic nature of the project finds Earl shifting into different zones, but staying rooted in expressing certain conflicts. From the braggadocios nature of “Titanic” to the internal reflections of his family life on “Lye”, Earl adapts to the bouncy feel of the production, shifting through different topics in the middle of his verses.

A major standout was the ZelooperZ-assisted cut, “Vision”, which at the surface is a highly exuberant display of lyricism from Earl and his Bruiser Brigade pal who tosses Earl the alley oop to land the slam dunk final verse. Like his good friend, Earl starts off with an flamboyant set of opening lines (“I did some dirt with the clique / Went and got cliqued by myself”) then transitions into a more contemplative zone as he discusses the frenzied nature of the pandemic-driven world (“Singular current event, everything we in the midst of / How long you waiving the rent? / Moratorium extendo, I’m just evading the pit”). The shift in topics mid-verse is an appropriate exhibit of how diverse the content is and how smooth Earl is with the many transitions on the album.

While Earl’s lyricism is the main attraction for this project, the production’s base plays a vital role by building a gloomy aura to suit the near-tragic subject matter. The star-studded roster of production from the likes of Alchemist and Navy Blue are perfect fits for Earl’s somber style, but the producer who really stole the show was Black Noi$e, doing nearly half the project. Black Noi$e’s haunting instrumentals combined with Earl’s sleepy flow perfectly blend together to contribute the daunting essence that fittingly coincides with the album’s lawless nature.

If there’s one thing Earl’s recent projects have proven, its that his dreary-styled flow doesn’t compromise for the average listener. Some of the major criticisms given usually involve the inability to adapt to his drowsy delivery, but beneath the dull surface is a gold mine shining with lyrical creativity. Those that can accustom to this new wave of sluggish rappers in hip-hop can clearly see the highly technical rhyme schemes and amazingly clever lines that Earl effortlessly delivers.

Earl’s music is purposely filled with the intent to convey his deepest innermost thoughts and emotions. And while many believe the rapper’s pessimistic lens solely stems from a place of grief and depression, SICK! exhibits how even the state of the world could have a heavy effect on an individual’s frame of mind. From the surface level, it can be fairly difficult to understand Earl and his unorthodox approach to music, but the monotonous nature of his music speaks life to those who understand the rapper’s position.

With its hypnotic production style and diverse flows, SICK! is the perfect starting point to delve deeper into the complicated mind of Earl Sweatshirt. It may not sound all that pretty initially, but the beauty is in the pain, breaking down the everyday struggles we all come face-to-face with, but never reveal, in a minimalistic manner.

8 / 10

Best tracks: “Vision”, “Old Friend”, “Fire in the Hole”, “Sick!”, “Lye”