Earl Sweatshirt - SICK!
Jan 23, 2022
Are expectations the problem? I wonder that often when it comes to artists with projects close to my heart. It's sometimes difficult to distinguish whether you're not touched by an album because of something specific to it, or simply because it might not reach the heights of a previous release. For me, it's been the most difficult part of digging through SICK!, an album that underwent many changes throughout its development, going from a massive 19 track "more optimistic" album scrapped due to the pandemic to a mellow, minimalist 10 song record that finds Earl Sweatshirt in the clearest lyrical and emotional waters he's ever been in. Now a father and looking "...to meet people halfway," the production is less glitchy and inscrutable, and his writing focuses more on the world and his own successes rather than the insular, emotionally tangled narratives of Some Rap Songs and I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside. His feelings about things are more defined than ever, and it's exciting to see Earl so much more open to the world around him.

But, that's also where SICK!'s issues arise. Disregarding all the issues with mixing and presentation, it's difficult to get a grasp on exactly where Earl is looking to take things. Contradictions have been a central part of his music, trying to move through trauma while putting it as the central focus in his music or questioning his faith even as something greater seems to be pushing him forward, and that confusion is found all throughout SICK!'s pandemic-era stories. "You'll fall and slip again / I heard life's a trip," he playfully pokes on the title track, when before he was unable to stomach the current situation on opener Old Friend ("I fill a void with the pen, feel the fear, shrill / Couple stains that I couldn't shield"). All this is fine on its own, but it's never tied together in a meaningful way, making the album's mess of emotions not much more than that. His abstract songwriting doesn't do him any favors when he's talking about these real world events, either: while he's been open about his issues with drug addiction since the start of his career, there's only one way a line like "Fuck out my face with syringe" on Vision can sit with you on an album centered around the pandemic. When he focused more on his internal struggles, the thorny stems wrapped around every feeling made it all the more touching as he crawled through them towards the light. It's impossible to figure out what is at the core of SICK!, and it's hard to invest yourself in anything because of it.

Getting back to production, though, it's one of the most interesting and problematic points of the album's experience. This is the first album of Earl's where he hasn't been a producer on any of the songs, and the collaborative spirit working with all these different producers definitely gives SICK! a wilder palette than his past albums. Black Noi$e, who worked with Earl on his last album, produces nearly half of the songs here. Most apparent in his production are the blends of trap percussion around layers of psychedelic synths and samples: album single 2010 utilizes trickling synthesizers on top of skittering hi-hats and soft 808s that make lots of space for Earl to clear his thoughts. The other Black Noi$e cuts here, Vision and Titanic in particular, lean a bit too far into the trap side instrumentally that doesn't blend well with Earl's slow, drawn-out rap style, but jazzy finale Fire in the Hole makes a wonderful close to the record. Other producers are scattered all over, The Alchemist for string-heavy opener Old Friend and dingy funk cut Lye, Ancestors on the title track, Theravada and Rob Chambers on smooth soul single Tabula Rasa, Samiyam for the tense Lobby (int), and Alexander Spit for aquatic drumless dream God Laughs. Considering Earl was entirely hands-off production-wise, it's one of the most communal albums in his discography, but it also leads to mountains of inconsistency throughout. With each producer having a different idea on mixing, structure, and feel, jumping from 2010's glitch-trap and landing smack dab in the title track, with its lack of dynamic range and Earl's voice smothered by the percussion, the album loses and regains its energy so unpredictably that the slow moments are agonizing and the fast moments don't stick. Mismatches are found all across SICK!'s 10 tracks, and it's pretty difficult to find a through line from one song to the next. Combined with all the turbulence in the lyrical and thematic categories, there's not much substance when you look at the full picture.

Maybe that's the point, this unquantifiable strangeness you can't quite shake for whatever reason. It's clear that it was, in at least some fashion, part of what SICK! wants to do, to comfort and reassure those dealing with the same stresses and dread Earl has been these past two years. It's just that it seems that, just like the rest of us, Earl doesn't know where the end of it will be, throwing every idea out to see if any of them can be an escape. If it's meant to be this unstructured and broken, it still doesn't change the fact that there's not enough here to grab your attention for long. Each interesting development is held back by the fact that all the surrounding elements aren't able to support it, leaving the best moments feeling more like outliers than the peak of the climb. For the first time, Earl doesn't speak to the soul, and what's left in SICK!'s wake is muddy and limp and stifling.

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