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In Defense of Earl Sweatshirt's "East" (and his overall direction)

I'm a pretty big Earl fan and the response to his new musical direction (post-IDLTSIDGO) has interested me. While some aren't on board with it, understandably so, my respect for Earl as an artist has grown with each release. Admittedly, FEET OF CLAY has, overall, been my least favorite Earl project. It's not bad, but it contains some of my least favorite verses from him. It also contains some gems, some of my favorite verses. 74 (relentless crazy flow/rhyme scheme), East (as per title), Mtomb, OD, Ghost & Whole World contain some impressive verses. The single most important thing in understanding art or an artistic movement is context. So I'll provide some to show how impressive East really is:

Earl's writing has become increasingly cryptic and poetic, his rhyme schemes more unorthodox, more asymmetrical (but also covertly intricate). Before, Earl seemed primarily concerned with technique, his rhyme schemes dense and patterned, easily identifiable by the ear. Now his flows are looser, more abstract. He doesn't emphasize his rhymes as much but they're still there. During my first couple of listens of IDLSIDGO, I remember feeling vaguely disappointed that Earl's rhymes weren't as dense and technical as they used to be. It wasn't until later listens I realized his rhyme schemes were still there, it was just less obvious. I credit this to two things:

  1. His flow has become more laid-back (somehow), more spoken-word like, and this delivery doesn't vocally-privilege rhymes over non-rhymes as much. They don't land directly on the ear as rhymes.
  2. The way he rhymes has changed. I feel like Earl bored of his traditional rhyme-density, seeing as he'd proven he was a technical wizard ("Whoa" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anRkutaPS9w for proof). Like a lot of artists, after technical mastery comes experimentation. Borders are pushed. His raps at first tended more head than heart. As in, they were intellectual flexes rather than emotionally-driven. Earl showing off how, as a teenager, he could out-rap most in terms of pure technique. And secondly, he uses slant rhymes with increasing frequency. Whereas before maybe he'd rhyme "kraken/cracking", now it'd be "topic/conscious." 'Topic' and 'conscious' don't seem to immediately rhyme, but they share a phoneme, that 'o' sound. He's not rhyming words as much as he is syllables. He's gone deeper. He does still definitely still have direct rhymes, as he is a rapper, but they are of a lesser proportion than they used to be, with slant rhymes being used more. This yields a lot of room for assonance rather than direct rhymes.

Another thing about the increased cryptic-ness of his writing, the strangeness of his beat-selection, and why he'd go in that direction. Earl once said he considers IDLSIDGO as his first real album, despite it being his second. I speculate this is because he matured as an artist. He realized that he wanted to write from the heart, not just from the head. And also, he realized the importance of the unity between form and content (beats and lyrics). Beats were to be mood-driven, contextually appropriate to the lyrics. In IDLSIDGO, the beats are dark and gloomy, evoking the generally depressive energy of the album. SRS' beats are harder to link to a specific emotion, but they have a texture, a mood. They make me feel like I'm in Earl's head. They pull me into his mind-state. This is evidenced most obviously on Peanut (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NoWhrIll90), where Earl's primarily rapping about the death of his father. The beat is heavy, disturbing, depressed. It's like Kendrick's "u." Like we're inside Earl's stream-of-consciousness. His writing has an increased interiority to it. And if someone is to truly evince what it's like to be in their head, which is a singularly unique experience, their self-expression will necessarily become more idiosyncratic and strange. The more specific, the more universal (this aphorism doesn't work on the extremes).

When groups are bundled into a specific domain, they start to develop inside jokes, shared tics, slang etc. Their unity, the boundary separating them from everyone else, is symbolized by this 'secret language' with it's own rules and vocabulary. This works nationally (British English vs Australian English, regionally (Londoner dialect vs Liverpudlian dialect), all the way down to microcosms (neighborhoods, subreddits, friend groups, best friends, etc.) This secret language symbolizes and reinforces boundaries between them and us, whoever them/us may be. Phenomenologically speaking, the most fundamental boundary separating us from them is the ego-boundary. I am consciously me and not everything else that is outside me. And so within one's consciousness there is a sort of slang, symbolic psychodynamics wholly unique to the owner of the ego, a secret language that marks a boundary between myself and everything else outside me. If one wishes to use self-expression to indicate this, their output will be similarly cryptic, coded, wholly unto one's self. Earl's writing increasingly reflects this. We are tourists in Earl's mind, and it'll take time and effort to understand his peculiar regional dialect. Some things we'll never figure out.

Okay, before I break down some of what Earl's doing on East, one last point: the beat. I don't think there's much I can do here. Personally, I don't mind it. It's a hypnotic loop that almost fades away to leave Earl's lyrics to take center stage. Though I understand if, despite the impressive lyrics, you cannot get past the beat.

The magic of dissection, for me, only generally comes when I re-listen to the song. On paper, with all the pieces dismantled and on the table, it's hard to see how it links the whole. When listening to it with new context, new ears, one realizes the dynamics and depth of everything that Earl's doing.

Now onto the lyrics. Notice how Earl strings together words with the 'o' syllable. 'O' like 'bottle' or 'topic' or 'conscious.'

Double back when you got it made

Thirty racks and weed, no fat in the collard greens

Off top was me, no cap, I don't bottle things

Flats and grandmama rings on the fingers that fondle the thing

Holla with glee

No mama this, no James Harden D

Weak niggas gaudy with peak

Followings just like me

I lost my phone and consequently

All the feelings I caught for my GF

We have the 'o' sound, which actually continues for most of this verse: collard, off, top, bottle, fondle, holla, not, mama, Harden, gaudy, followers, lost, consequently, caught

And secondmost, we have the 'ee' sound: weed, greens, me, glee, D, weak, peak, me, consequently, feelings, GF

We have some internals, with the 'a' sound: back, racks, fat, cap, flashin', grandmama

These lines are actually quite dense with rhymes, but because of the asymmetric flow, his laid-back delivery, and the slant-ness of the rhymes, it doesn't sound as dense as it actually is.

I can't get into all the meanings of the lines, but two stick out (one I actually just figured while typing this, despite having listened to this so much).

Off top was me, no cap, I don't bottle things

Clever wordplay. Notice the conceptual continuity between "off top" "cap" and "bottle." They all cluster around the concept of a bottle.

"Off Top" was also a song from Earl's previous album, IDLSIDGO. "Off top" in terms of slang can mean saying something truthfully or in an off-the-cuff manner.

"No cap" in slang terms, means... not sure how to explain it. I know what it means, but I'm not American. As per Urban Dictionary: "when someone writes “no cap,” it “basically means that they're not lying or 'capping' like they did something.” Again, this has conceptual continuity with the slang meaning of 'off top.'

I don't bottle things = I don't suppress my emotions. You put this whole line together and it's crazy clever what he's saying and how he's saying it. The bottle has no cap (the top is off) because his emotions are free to flow: Off top was me, no cap, I don't bottle things

Flats and grandmama rings on the fingers that fondle the thing

This line I just figured out while typing. Earl's grandma died some years back, and it's something that often weighs on him. We can see the journey through his lyrics. On Burgundy, he raps:

My grandma's passing,

But I'm too busy trying to get this album crackin' to see her

The key to the East line is a lyric from Solace, one of my favorite projects from Earl:

I got my grandmama's hands,

I start to cry when I see 'em

Because they remind me of seeing her

By Earl saying on East, by mentioning 'grandmama rings' and 'the fingers' I think he's talking about how his hands look like his grandmother's. As in, when he says 'the fingers' he's referring to himself, musing about her death.

There's a lot more I can say about the lyrics, but I'll stop here. Earl's rhyme and flow is really quite something. He resurrects rhymes mid-way through a sentence and just generally places them in these odd pockets, with many internals.

More evidence of the 'o' sound throughout the verse: bar, long, lost, exhaust, strong. And then after some bars later he brings it back again with gone, macabre, pop, cards, hard, star, cognitive, etc.

Also notice how, later in the verse, when he says:

The trip was long as steep

My innocence was lost in East

This is the same compound-rhyme scheme from earlier when he says:

Double back when you got it made

Thirty racks and weed, no fat in the collard greens

Off top was me, no cap, I don't bottle things

Flats and grandmama rings on the fingers that fondle the thing

Holla with glee

No mama this, no James Harden D

Weak niggas gaudy with peak

Followings just like me

I lost my phone and consequently

This rhyme scheme, which wasn't continued for a few lines, is suddenly resurrected lines later. He does this all over the song. There are so many more internal rhymes and phonemes he weaves through the song. He's doing something very unique and interesting with his flow, I think. And that monstrous technique, which some people feel may have been sacrificed in the name of experimentation, is still there. Consuming art is "straining to listen." If it's good art, the more effort you put in, the more strain, the more you get out of it.

submitted by /u/hamz_28
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