I don’t know where you’re reading this at, but I know what you’re reading this in.
I know because I’m in it as well. This feeling. This stillness, this increasing dissociation after each new headline, this frustration towards everything. It seems apt then, that the universe has lined up in such a way that we’re in the proper setting to celebrate a record that deals with so many of these feelings, Earl Sweatshirt’s 2015 album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
Things were a lot simpler in 2015. I was sad and in high school. I didn’t wear the doughnut socks and the bucket hats and the Vans, but Odd Future was pivotal in my upbringing, and that was because of Earl. I got hooked on Doris heavy, but what I really got hooked on was Earl, the character. He was the constantly joking, socially awkward savant, blessed with creativity and a brooding voice. He’s six years my senior, which meant that when I Don’t Like Shit arrived, the early 20’s depression he documented so well was lost on me somewhat, but what did still connect were the songs’ feelings of lethargy and dinginess. Even the lighter, airier moments on the record have smudged edges. There’s nothing uninhibited on it. Everything is obscuring something else.
Like the current pandemic we’re faced with, Earl’s plummet was humorous in the beginning. In his 2015 NPR interview, shot a few days before the record’s release, he tells how the album’s title began as a joke. The album’s intro and outro, both noticeably less despondent than the other eight songs, were made in this window. It wasn’t until Earl’s self-described “month of debauchery” that things became much more serious.
“I went back on the road. But I went to, like, Eastern Europe. And I don’t eat pork. So I wasn’t eating s— because that’s all they had. And I just died. I had to cancel tour. And then it wasn’t funny. Then I was inside. I was f—ed up.”
The result of this month was I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, a time capsule from this period of stagnation. Earl has constantly referred to this album in terms of a photograph, and that’s what’s clearest to me returning to it now, especially in the wake of his latest releases. Back in 2015, this album felt like the bottom, like the lowest one could get. In the years of silence that followed it, I quietly hoped that Earl was doing alright, and was optimistic that he was. Where was there to go but up? Then came Some Rap Songs, and I realized just how wrong I was about where the bottom actually could be. In contrast with the singularity of I Don’t Like Shit, Some Rap Songs felt much more visceral and frightening, like a moving, mutating cloud. For as depressing as the content on I Don’t Like Shit is, we never lose Earl in the mix. He plays many roles, coming with aggression on the standout track “DNA,” and an overwhelming despondency on the monstrous “Grief.”
In contrast, by the climax of Some Rap Songs, the music has swallowed Earl whole. Earl feels like he’s standing on his tip-toes in a pool, sneaking in breaths between the crests of the ripples created by those splashing around him. The production and his voice seem like they were made at the same time, as if his words were physically welded onto the crackly samples. His verses come from someplace that’s slightly off-center, like he just woke up from a lobotomy and is trying to figure out what’s happening.
I don’t know which is scarier. Back in 2015, the photograph Earl ended up with was the product of several tragedies compounding at one time, taking hold of Earl before he knew what was happening. They combined to create that protracted moment of numbness, and then, as a moment does, it faded away. And now we can look back at it.
Some Rap Songs is different. I’m only halfway sure what I mean by this, but it feels like it’s still going on. Earl’s despair is hidden within the haziness, but when it finally comes out in the album’s final tracks, it is inescapable. Earl sums it up as well as one could on “Peanut.”
“Fleshing through the pain, depression, this is not a phase.”
The haunting instrumental of “Riot!” does provide some catharsis, but Earl isn’t a part of this. The song is a detached lament for Earl’s father, his uncle, and maybe Earl himself.
I’m not sure which album fits the times we’re in better. I hope, for all of our sakes, that it’s the one we celebrate today. It’s calming to think and affirm to ourselves that this year is just a moment, comprised of a series of tragedies, that will soon pass.
Yet, I know it’s difficult to know much of anything about what our future holds. Every day changes our trajectory by a couple more lives or a couple more days. This isolation may become us.
That 2015 NPR interview is so beautiful. He seems at peace. He’s at home in the comfortable pauses, drinking from his mic’d up water bottle, while the gravity of the hell he escaped from hangs over the room’s serenity. It feels like an epilogue. I hope we get one of those too.
5 years of life have passed since that photograph, and here Earl is, inside again, with everyone. I hope as much as one can hope that there isn’t a lower low this time around.