Earl Sweatshirt & The Messy Reality Of Grief

“Bless my pops, we sent him off and not a hour late/Still in shock and now my heart out somewhere on the range” – Earl Sweatshirt, Peanut

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I was 21 when I lost my dad.

Grieving is often presented as a linear process in the media – the idea of the five stages, people telling you that “it gets better with time”, etc.

As helpful as that type of thinking is in the initial shock of losing someone, it’s not a particularly accurate summation of the long-standing effects of grieving.

While it does become the “new normal” over time, I’ve found that moments continue to affect me in a deeper way than they ever have before. It’s less constant, but it never really leaves you.

You never reach a point of “acceptance”, where it all crystallises into meaning and becomes something you can let go. You move on, and the day to day changes, but it doesn’t feel like it becomes easier.

Even after you accept the loss, there’s a sense of resignation that begins to pervade your thoughts.

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EARL Sweatshirt was 24 when he lost his father, former South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, in January 2018.

While most of his third album Some Rap Songs was complete before this (bar ‘Peanut’, which directly references his grief and album closer ‘Riot!’), the spectre of Earl’s complicated and distant relationship with his dad still looms large.

Earl intertwines both of his parents voices on ‘Playing Possum’, a beautiful sound collage of one of his father’s poems and his academic mother Cheryl Harris’ speeches that sounds almost like a peace offering to his recently-departed father.

Elsewhere on the album, his new pal New York rapper Navy Blue speaks of “Growin’ from my father/Bitter to his touch” on album highlight ‘The Mint’; a sentiment expressed collegially by both Earl and his guests throughout.

Art has been made about grieving a difficult relationship with a parent before, but it’s never had the level of verisimilitude and contrasting emotions that Some Rap Songs so vividly presents.

"There’s a looseness to Some Rap Songs in the way the verses work against the beats."

It never feels like Earl is drowning in self-pity either – his relationship with his father isn’t sentimentalised in the slightest.

It’s presented in uncertain, contradictory terms – from reminiscing of when “Papa called me chief” (‘Red Water’) to mentioning he wants his “father’s face when I’m not afraid” (‘Peanut’).

He’s not interested in fetishising his dad’s existence or his art, but instead paying tribute to the realities of the 24 years he spent with him.

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IT would’ve been an easy roadmap for Earl to look to Tyler the Creator’s insanely-successful Flower Boy project of 2017 and attempt a similar level of ornate theatricality in both his verses and guests.

But Some Rap Songs exists between the margins; an understated and toned-down record where songs barely reach two minutes and there’s not a chorus in sight. As a result, it doesn’t sound much like any other rap record made in 2018.

The production is dense, muddy and heavily reliant on loops (mostly done by Earl under his “randomblackdude” alias), and as Earl told Vulture a few weeks ago, “I really dedicate a lot of myself to not over-rapping.”

Earl is still the immensely gifted technical rapper that listeners have grown up listening to, and he even pitches his voice up on the woozy, punch-drunk ‘Red Water’ to sound reminiscent of his younger, Odd Future self.

But there’s a looseness to Some Rap Songs in the way the verses work against the beats; a casualness in the execution of the songs that belies the emotional intensity on display in the lyrics and well-chosen samples.

Earl’s eye for smart, non-obvious samples remains a secret weapon, too. He samples his recently-deceased uncle Hugh Masekela on ‘Riot’, a moving valedictory of an album closer that sounds like the first rays of light coming through after a long night.

There are also shout-outs to his new collaborators/friends in New York’s (sLums) collective in several songs (‘Azucar’, ‘The Mint’, ‘Nowhere2Go’). It’s the antithesis of the auteur-driven, “loner” image Earl has gained (not unjustly) during his career.

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GRIEVING in the digital age is a strange thing.

Between empty social media platitudes (Twitter comedian Limmy’s “he was surprisingly down to earth and very funny” bit after celebrity deaths is truly a gift that keeps on giving) and the half-life of a deceased person’s social media account existing after they pass, there’s an impermanence to the entire thing that’s garish in how casual it is.

"It never feels like Earl is drowning in self-pity either – his relationship with his father isn’t sentimentalised in the slightest."

Some Rap Songs reckons with this in a lived-in faithful way, both recognising the human being his father was and the flaws within their distant relationship.

It’s a remarkable achievement for any musician, let alone one that’s grown up as publicly as Earl. (Has any musician ever had such a strong body of work before 25?)

Some Rap Songs is a fascinating album, both musically and emotionally. Like grieving, there’s no easy answers within it. Just a restless, searching spirit comfortable with pushing the boundaries on what rap music can be.

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