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Earl Sweatshirt Some Rap Songs Tan Cressida / Columbia

When Earl Sweatshirt re-emerged with Nowhere2Go, the lead single from his first album in three years, even his most ardent fans might have been caught off-guard. Under two minutes long, the track’s stop-start beat was initially jarring, and the notoriously sharp spitter’s flow was slightly slurred, his voice just about treading above the surface of the busy mix.

In hindsight, none of the tracks on Some Rap Songs would have performed well as a traditional lead single, but Nowhere2Go now sits snugly inside this strange and compelling project. Some Rap Songs is unpredictable, but that’s not to say Earl is being intentionally abstruse (on Twitter he appeared to take offence to a magazine’s description of Nowhere2Go as “wonky”) or that the record’s roughness isn’t deliberate. Most of the album was recorded a couple of years ago and the only material Earl chose to add more recently were the experimental closing tracks Peanut and Riot!, the former reminiscent of the surreal sounds of London-based musician Klein.

Tryna redefine this shit, I redefine myself,” Earl mutters on Nowhere2Go, referencing his struggles with depression. Over the years he’s connected with the New York free-spirited rap collective sLUms (who are name-checked a number of times on this album) and jazz-loving experimentalists Standing on the Corner. This musical development seems to have ran parallel to his emotional and spiritual growth.

At the age of 16, he became meme-ified and mythologised as a generation of teenagers screamed “Free Earl” while he was trying to compose himself at a school for troubled kids in Samoa. When he eventually joined his Odd Future group mates onstage, he’d not had a chance to practice his mic technique, and for his first song his voice was hardly audible. The trip-up felt symbolic: Earl couldn’t possibly be prepared for the fame that had hit him.

But Earl’s 2013 album Doris was a creative success – he matured his craft, retaining some of the OF’s skate-rat energy without resorting to the shock-tactics of his old lyrical content, which had become a source of embarrassment for him. Then after becoming increasingly disengaged with the culture of Odd Future fandom, in 2015 Earl came into his own with I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, a largely self-produced, hype-stifling album with greyscale beats and bars that felt like the diary entries of a stoned, nocturnal genius.

Recorded shortly after I Don’t Like Shit…, Some Rap Songs is the sunnier sequel. Earl still approaches subject matters like his reluctant rap star status (“Sometimes I wanna call it off… big dog, finna rip the collar off”), his cannabis dependency (“Three spliffs had my wing tips clipped”) and being held in the grip of depression (“Two years, I’ve been missin’ livin’ life”), but the soundscape is wholesome. Comforting voices are morphed, soulful guitar licks glimmer, pianos loops have a warm crackle while gentle strings usher the album’s most tender lyrics on Azucar (“My cushion was a bosom on bad days/ There’s not a black woman I can’t thank”).

Playing Possum intertwines the voices of Earl’s parents, Cheryl Harris and Keorapetse Kgositsile. Having been absent for the majority of his life, Kgositsile – a renowned South African poet laureate – had frequently been the subject of Earl’s lyrical scorn. After reconciling their relationship, Earl intended Playing Possum to be a surprise. Kgositsile passed away earlier this year before hearing the song, and it rings with a deep sense of poignancy.

In just under 25 minutes, Some Rap Songs explores a great deal of psychological territory. It’s a record that’s unconcerned about being liked, but it’s worth spending some time with it. Earl Sweatshirt has important things to say, and you’ve got to lean in close if you want to hear them.