If one is to believe a vocal majority of established (and Caucasian) critics, hip hop is ‘growing up’. Music journalists have suddenly decided that the genre has developed to maturity, pointing to the success of rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt as examples of hip hop’s developing intelligence and nuance.
In truth, such broad statements are patronizing, and largely unfounded: hip hop has always been a great deal more intelligent than the mainstream media gives credit. And although Earl Sweatshirt’s new album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is indeed a powerful, cerebral and impressive work, to pretend that depth and weight has only now become popular in hip hop is an insultingly white-washed statement.
It’s impossible to argue that rappers like Sweatshirt exist in a vacuum: the artist has both feet firmly planted in a tradition of rappers who are less concerned with braggadocio, and more concerned with emotional truths. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is grounded in the realities of what it is like to be an African-American living in contemporary America, but the work is devoid of sweeping, politicized generalizations. Tracks like the evocative, layered Grief work largely because due to how intimate and personal they feel.
Although Sweatshirt’s landscape is urban, and although he tackles issues such as drug abuse (on Inside), death (on album opener Huey), and resisting organized religion (on Grown Ups) he never pretends to have all the answers. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is a profoundly personal work, and all the better for it. Sweatshirt might not know how to make the world a better place, but he certainly has no fear in going over what’s wrong with our destroyed, damaged planet. He speaks as an everyman – a profoundly anxious, profoundly cautious optimist.
With the exception of the slightly predictable album closer Wool, every single track of the album bursts with defiant oddness, from the swirling darkness of DNA to the touching madness of AM Radio. Faucet is one of the record’s real highlights: it’s blistering, disturbed, odd, and yet utterly accessible.
Brevity is another one of Sweatshirt’s great skills; some of the strongest tracks on the album run less than two minutes. Off Top, with its powerful, pained lyrics, and direct, uncluttered backing lasts for only one minute and forty seconds, but not a beat or a word is wasted. And Inside, a track that pits lush, dreamy instrumentation against harsh yet darkly playful lyrics (check out the wordplay on “My first apartment was really covered with roaches/Cause niggas was really smoking”) is a lean minute forty nine. If it were any longer, it would undoubtedly lose some of its power: in the words of Raymond Carver, Sweatshirt gets in, then gets out, before the listener has even realised how much the young rapper has achieved in such a short space of time.
Indeed, the entire album only runs for just under half an hour, but it’s a half an hour one is unlikely to forget any time soon. After all, as Sweatshirt himself aptly proclaimed on twitter: “WHEN YOU GET DONE LISTENING TO IT, LISTEN TO IT AGAIN, THATS WHY ITS 30 MINUTES NUMBNUTS”
Ultimately, to claim that Sweatshirt has only now discovered that hip hop can be moving and intelligent would be wrong; but to claim that the artist fearlessly takes risks, and relentlessly pushes himself towards greatness is right on the money.