Well, the blame-slash-praise can be laid at the feet of Ivan over at Hip Hop Is Read. A few weeks ago, he unleashed his collection of the best hip hop songs released in 2012 (and it's a pretty good list, I must say, even though I was unfamiliar with a lot of it, given my tendency to live in the past like the old man that I am), and there were a few Odd Future choices thrown into the mix, which I looked up and listened to for the hell of it. Two of them specifically caught my attention: the posse cut "Oldie", which actually has a dope-as-fuck beat, reminded me that Tyler, The Creator's lyrics, delivery, and general sense of existing may turn me away, but his work behind the boards can be interesting; and Earl Sweatshirt's "Chum", which I found to be really fucking good. Perhaps I was just in a different state of mind when I heard those two tracks (I was on my way to get shitfaced at a New Year's Eve party, so maybe I was just in a good mood or something), but those two songs grabbed me and refused to let go, so I did some digging on my hard drive and found Earl's debut solo album, the conveniently-titled Earl, which I had downloaded from the Odd Future website back when they first broke through and I thought I was going to write more about the California-based collective, before Tyler's sophomore effort Goblin pretty much changed my mind for me.
Now, mind you, I've never written that I was going to ignore Odd Future. There are just far too many artists out there in our chosen genre for me to pay an equal amount of attention to every single one of them, and I'm resigned to the fact that not everyone will receive the same amount of shine. I appreciate that the group has brought a new perspective to hip hop, and I salute and appreciate everything that their resident singer-slash-occasional-rapper Frank Ocean has done (even though I'll readily admit that I have yet to listen to his major label debut, Channel Orange, in full as of this writing). I just didn't like Goblin. Tyler's writing was off-putting to me in the worst of ways: while I can easily tolerate a rapper talking about horrible, sadistic shit in his rhymes, I just can't bear to listen to it if it doesn't engage me, and that was Goblin's fatal flaw, being boring. Regardless of whatever critical praise Tyler's project received, I just didn't give much of a shit, and that essentially ended my interest in the Odd Future camp.
Until now, apparently.
Earl Sweatshirt has been elevated to the status of a mythical unicorn who underwent cross-breeding with a leprechaun-chugging three-headed Cerberus within hip hop circles. One of the youngest members of the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All collective, the man (kid?) born Thebe Kgositsile has the distinction of being the guy who has contributed the least to the overall movement, but who is held in the highest regard lyrically. Being as unfamiliar with the group's work as I am, I never really knew exactly why everyone was demanding Earl's return to the United States after his mother mysteriously whisked him away to an undisclosed location overseas (originally rumored to be Africa), allegedly in response to his selection of lyrical content (which Earl later denied upon his return to both the States and to the hip hop game). Prior to being sent away, he had recorded several cameos (one intended for Tyler's Goblin, which ended up locked in a vault because his mother refused to sign a release for her not-yet-of-legal-age son to appear on the album, which was the first one released for actual purchase by the camp) and a full (if you consider eight songs and two skits to be "full") album, Earl, which is supposed to prove that Earl Sweatshirt is the best lyricist in the Odd Future camp, which hopefully means that he elevates all of their material, versus having everyone else in the crew (mainly, um, Tyler, who I apparently harbor a grudge against, based on my writings thus far) dragging him down to their level.
So, thanks to his work on "Oldie" and "Chum", I decided to give this a shot. Also, it's really fucking short, which helps me a lot. Like you don't even know.
An uncredited Tyler and his crew attempt to introduce Earl, then “the newest Wolf Gang member”, to the masses, but he refuses to participate. Kind of funny, if only on the first listen.
Our host makes his first appearance on this title track, which features some obtuse and unstable production from Tyler that doesn't exactly work (it's a bit too awkward and inaccessible for the average hip hop head to get into properly), and a really long verse (and some throwaway bars toward the end) from Earl Sweatshirt that does. Newbies (such as myself) will quickly understand why many consider Earl to be the best actual rapper in the Odd Future camp: he flows with the swagger and confidence of a grizzled veteran at least twice his age, and at this point, the motherfucker was barely old enough to legally drive. This actually wasn't a bad introduction, even with the off-kilter instrumental threatening to turn this car around if you kids don't shut up.
3. COUCH (FEAT. ACE CREATOR)
Earl and Tyler (credited as 'Ace Creator') each take a verse-and-a-half over an oddly relaxing instrumental that, nevertheless, features Tyler unceremoniously pretending to actually murder his host on his own goddamn song. The guest star seems to rhyme for much longer, but Earl walks away having given the better performance, playing around with his bars as if it were as involuntary as breathing. The end spirals into the type of horseshit that made me not give a fuck about Goblin (unsurprisingly, Tyler is, again, responsible for this), but our host escapes unscathed. Except for all of the stab wounds and burned flesh, obviously.
Earl comes back to life over a dope-as-fuck Tyler-crafted instrumental, over which he delivers three solid verses and a truly shitty, simplistic hook in roughly two minutes. The imagery borders on surreal, especially toward the end, where Santa Claus and his family somehow become involved, but Earl has the confidence and, more importantly, the competence required to make it all work. (The beat aids him tremendously in that capacity.) The dipping of the toes into homophobic bullshit at the very end doesn't ruin the song, but, especially post-Frank Ocean, one is left wishing that Earl had come up with another way to convey the mic dominance of his crew. Still, this was pretty good.
Skit. One that could have altered its final line of dialogue and contributed to an entirely different title, too. Odd Future are so casually homophobic, it's like it's the early-to-mid 1990s all over again. Or like living in a frat house. Yeah, I'll go with the second joke.
Easily the finest song on Earl, hands down. After that previous ridiculous interlude sets up “Luper”, Earl takes Tyler's beat, which rises and falls alongside our host, and skillfully articulates a bad breakup, with all of the rationalized thoughts and out-of-left-field anger that comes with it. This was actually kind of brilliant: Earl throws the listener for a loop at the very beginning, where he seems to rhyme about a mundane morning spent getting ready for school, before shoehorning in the actual subject matter, and he has more than a few choice lines (my favorite being, “When she left, it didn't break my heart, it broke my torso”). Everyone reading this write-up should switch over to YouTube or something and give it a spin. Now. Do it.
7. EPAR (FEAT. VINCE STAPLES)
Lest you all think that Earl Sweatshirt is far too sensitive to be a part of Odd Future, he hits the listener with a fairly bleh song that both rationalizes and dismisses the act of rape (which is, conveniently, the title of this song spelled backwards). Left Brain's instrumental is a bit more accessible than the rest of the shit on Earl, which means that more people may find themselves partaking of a tale where our host murders a woman because she keeps fighting off his sexual advances. Appalling, absolutely, but, as with everything Wolf Gang, everything is said for shock value's sake only, and at least Earl says it well enough. Still, I didn't give two fucks about the song as a whole.
8. MOONLIGHT (FEAT. HODGY BEATS)
Meh, especially all of that “you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight” shit, but, as he also did on “epaR”, I am appreciating how Earl is minimizing the contributions from his guests so that he can stand out. Aside from Tyler, of course.
9. PIDGEONS (FEAT. WOLF HALEY)
Speaking of Tyler, the de facto RZA of Odd Future (a comparison I abhor, but it's an easy one to make) dominates “Pidgeons” (under another alias, 'Wolf Haley') to such a degree that the motherfucker stops the song to take a nap, and Earl and company are stuck twiddling their thumbs, at least until The Creator brings back the familiar mantra, “Kill people! Burn shit! Fuck school!” You know, the kind of shit that warms your heartstrings. Anyway, I liked everything on here aside from Tyler, up to and including Tyler's beat (simple and effective), even when it morphs somewhat to announce the guest star's arrival, and our host's actual verses, some of which are amusing. Not bad. And, full disclosure, I actually did like Tyler's callback to the album intro at the very end.
This finale gave me a fucking headache, as BeatBoy's beat was all over the goddamn place, leaving Earl in the dust, although he admirably attempts to make “Stapleton” even remotely interesting. He fails, though. And so.
THE LAST WORD: So I didn't find Earl Sweatshirt's debut Earl to be this hidden gem or the Holy Grail of underground hip hop that every other blog seems to believe it to be. There were a couple of songs that pretty much blew donkey dick, and the two interludes were essentially useless. However, the songs I did like, I fucking loved. Earl sounds like he learned to rhyme by listening to some of the better lyricists in the game, and although he does succumb to the shock-value tactics championed by his brethren, he actually does have a good-enough flow to force the listener to look past them, for the most part. Tyler's beats all manage to sound pretty good, in that sparse, universal (in that none of the tracks he produced sound specifically like they were recorded in California) way that I prefer. (The other two producers fare less well, so I won't focus on them at all, apparently.) Earl ends up being an enjoyable trifle, one which showcases our host (leaving most of the Odd Future camp off of the album was actually a pretty brilliant move) and a surprising level of promise for his future work. I'm not back on the bandwagon or anything, because I never jumped on in the first fucking place, but thanks to Earl Sweatshirt, I may or may not be a little bit more willing to see where this OFWGKTA thing goes in the next few years. Don't hold me to that, though: I still have tons of shit to cycle through in order to meet my self-imposed goal.