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Album Review: Earl Sweatshirt’s 'SICK!' is refined and resilient

California-native Thebe Kgositsile, better known by his stage name, Earl Sweatshirt was just 16 years old when he joined Tyler The Creator’s burgeoning hip-hop collective, Odd Future. 

After releasing his cult-adored mixtape Earl in 2010, Kgositsile spent a year at a boarding school in Samoa. Upon his long-awaited return, Earl dropped his critical smash debut album, Doris. Beloved for his languid, precise flow, dissociative production and introspective lyricism, young Thebe quickly became one of the most exciting alternative hip-hop MC’s in the game. 

Fans saw Earl continue to develop the potential shown on his debut through two subsequent releases, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (2015) and Some Rap Songs (2018). The latter project saw Earl push hip-hop to it’s strangers and produce an instant internet classic that earned him the respect of the rap community. 

One EP, a pandemic and a child later, Earl Sweatshirt has made his comeback with the release of his fourth full-length LP, SICK!. 

Right from the gate, any fan of Earl’s could tell you this was not the same young talent behind Doris, or the experimental mastermind behind Some Rap Songs, but rather a seasoned and refined rap icon giving a sophisticated take on modern times. 

The opening verse of the album on “Old Friend” exhibits the familiar surgical rhyme schemes of past projects and touches on life during the pandemic and even nods to Odd Future’s split. Though the rapper is still in his element in terms of technical ability and imaginative lyrics, one noticeable difference on this project is in the beat selection. 

With the aforementioned first track and it’s successor, “2010,” it is apparent that in lieu of the slowed, smudgy, molasses-soaked samples and ghostly percussion commonplace in Earl’s previous work, is an adoption of trends in modern trap, with the first beat of the album sounding like it could have been off of Playboi Carti’s self-titled record. 

What is really striking about this album is the new outlook Earl seems to have on life. While the pandemic was a time for reflection and evolution for all of us, for Earl it was a time of rebirth. No longer a Tyler protege, and now a father of a young child in the strange days of 2022, the rapper seems to have gained a more positive and less angsty view on life as he has journeyed through adulthood. 

Throughout SICK!, a common theme is resilience and making it out of the mire, whether that be the pandemic or his relationship with drug abuse in the past laying out untouchably poetic bars on “God Laughs:” “Keep changing for the better, what to do when your job thankless / In the middle of the marsh where mosquitoes chomp ankles / Swamp marching on on the quest for my lost halo.”

For all of the dense rhymes and positivity that this album is blessed to have, comes uninteresting, lethargic tracks such as “Sick!” or “Lye” and mediocre features that stand in the shadows of Earl’s previous collaborations such as Frank Ocean’s verse on “Sunday,” or even Navy Blue’s feature on “The Mint.” 

At the end of the day, Earl Sweatshirt is still one of the most proficient rappers to have graced the genre, but this project lacked the ambition and excitement that allowed young listeners to connect to his music in the first place. A couple of great tracks has made the long wait worth it, but there definitely is more (and better) to come from this legend of Los Angeles rap. 

Rating: 3.25/5


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