Earl Sweatshirt's Resilience Is the Remedy on 'SICK!'

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Jan 18, 2022

Opening new album SICK!, Earl Sweatshirt exhibits a creative clarity his music has eschewed in recent years. On first track "Old Friend" — which sounds and feels like an account from one companion to another after time apart — wistful strings from the Alchemist soundtrack rhymes of filling a void with writing and busting open blunt wraps to fight pandemic cabin fever, maintaining "strong spirit where the body couldn't get asylum," finding "the middle in a bit of balance."

This lucidity, seldom felt as strongly in the kaleidoscopic cacophony of 2018's Some Rap Songs and on the shadowy, spectral 2019 EP Feet of Clay, is at the core of SICK!, driving momentum for Earl's navigation of present-day pitfalls, viral or otherwise. While the artist ended up scrapping a 19-song project with "a really optimistic energy," as mentioned in a recent Rolling Stone interview, in favour of SICK!, he still leads with encouragement, rapping on "2010," "We got us a fire to rekindle / Redirect the fight where it's meant for / Triumph over plight and immense loss."

Resilience, and an eye on a route forward, manifest even in the smallest observations of Earl's prose — pandemic uncertainties be damned. "Keep changing for the better, what to do when your job thankless," he offers on "God Laughs," knowing how even the best-laid plans can be sunk while "swamp marching on, on the quest for my lost halo." On "2010," he also contends with the difficulty such decisions can evoke: "Didn't look back when I broke soil / 'Cause every time I did it would hurt more." On closer "Fire in the Hole," led along by a cinematic guitar loop conjured by Black Noi$e, Earl affirms, "It's no rewinding, for the umpteenth time, it's only forward."

This juxtaposition is also explored in a sequencing sense, with the placement of the title track of SICK! back-to-back with the ZelooperZ-assisted "Vision." The former sounds as if it were conceived in the thick of pandemic doldrums, with Earl seeking "pleasure by the gram" over dour, cascading keys, monotonously declaring "Somethin' gotta give, cover me, I'm going in." Soon enough, it backs into the vibrant, gleaming glissando of the latter, ZelooperZ ascending on the wings of his blissed-out bars before Earl picks himself up: "Couldn't belittle myself / Couldn't be all weak-as-hell."

However, that mindset at its most striking on "Tabula Rasa," the project's centrepiece, on which Earl and Armand Hammer (the duo of Billy Woods and Elucid) sidle up to stumbling piano-bar production and pour out clever, affecting verses. Elucid's stoned reflection and Woods's recollection of a night out eventually leave their host to throw caution to the wind: "You only trash if you trash, I keep it simple and dynamic / Trust the passage rites to life's chapters / I have to write to find balance / This game of telephone massive / I do what I have to with the fragments."

What constitutes the "end" of the COVID-19 pandemic will differ among us, and with SICK!, Earl Sweatshirt relays that the continued, hopeful push forward into the future — however long — will be all the more advantageous with one's best foot forward.
(Tan Cressida/Warner)

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