Earl Sweatshirt’s latest album “SICK!” is a lesson in “less is more.” The album lasts just 24 minutes, but one comes away from the underground rapper’s 4th studio effort reeling with the camouflaged force of Earl’s laid-back, introspective rhymes, rapped over uniquely swirling, lo-fi beats, that evoke staticky public access programs and half-forgotten children’s television. “SICK!” is like being beat to death with a sledgehammer wrapped in velvet – and it’s Earl’s best album to date, in the opinion of this reviewer.

The cuts on “SICK!” are short, with 6 not even cracking the two-minute mark, but the individual songs blend into each other, making the album feel uniquely cohesive – not a collection of songs, but a meditation set to music.

“Old Friend,” the first track, sees Earl obliquely lamenting the COVID-19 pandemic – “don’t cross the picket line and get the virus” – while referencing his writing process and personal problems, which are only ever hinted at on the album. All of this is set to a flowing string loop, produced by the legendary Alchemist, one of modern rap’s most prolific producers.

“2010,” one of the album’s singles, gives Earl a chance to move fast and break things, and Black Noi$e’s skittering trap beat, counterpointed by glimmering, ephemeral synths, is a worthy soundtrack for a diatribe on Earl’s progression as a rapper, from early life (“’03, Mama rockin’ Liz Claiborne, had her stressin’ up the wall playin Mary J. songs”) to his growth and development as a solo act (“Ride alone at night, I get clear thoughts, caught a couple slights and I veered off”). None of this, Earl clarifies, has come without pain, however – “And I didn’t look back when I broke soil, cause every time I did it would hurt more.”

The album’s title track is slowed down, almost chopped and screwed, with Earl slurring bars about “gas siphonin’, smoke in my diaphragm” over a syrupy piano loop, punctuated with a trap-influenced 808 beat. It’s short and sweet, and serves as a precursor to “Vision,” a longer track which features a Zelooperz feature. The Detroit rapper feels out of place on this album – one of the few issues I have with “SICK!” Zelooperz’ acerbic, repetitive, call and response style doesn’t fit all that well, and Earl could easily carry “Vision” by himself.

On the other hand, “Tabula Rasa,” which features New York duo Armand Hammer (Elucid and the legendary Billy Woods) is the best song on this album, by virtue of a guest feature that gels perfectly with Earl’s closing verse. Elucid’s gravelly stream of consciousness verse references “tears and snot bubbles, sob puddles,” and “truth with a stash pocket for a lie,” while angrily lamenting that “some talk like they never got punched in the face.” It’s working-class rap, the best kind. Billy Woods’s guest verse name drops Kofi Annan, Wole Soyinka, and Sese Seko Mobutu in one breath – before making “chicken late night in my boxers, burning up the kitchen.” Finally, Earl brings it home with a seething meditation on improving as a rapper – and as a person.

“Lye,” a apres-song wind down after the sprawl of “Tabula Rasa,” is less straightforward and more free-associative. Earl’s talking to himself here, trying to get his thoughts organized before finishing the album. It’s a diary entry set to a horn section, and gives the listener a chance to relax before the trappy, more energetic “Lobby.”

“God Laughs” directly references Earl’s isolation and frayed nerves, as the rapper claims to be “operating on an empty tank, spank me, fumes fueling a flame,” but acknowledges that his struggle is a path to something greater – “in the middle of the marsh where mosquitoes chomp ankles, swamp marching on on the quest for my lost halo.” It’s a message of hope, and perseverance, even as Earl acknowledges his depressive, self-flagellating nature.

In “Titanic,” the album’s penultimate track, Earl throws in a reference to the late great MF DOOM – “mask on like a supervillain, Daniel, who you in the den with?” – whose passing in 2020 sent ripples through the rap world that are still influencing songwriting even today. Na-Kel Smith, noted Odd Future collaborator (and “Mid-90s” actor) acts as hypeman on the trippy, oscillating track, which may be the most produced and technical track on the album – though not to its detriment.

Finally, “Fire in the Hole” lets the rapper take a breath, and meditate on the tracks he’s put together. A Latin-inspired guitar loop fades, gently and slowly, into a tuned-down piano instrumental, playing Earl out and ending “SICK!” on a quiet, contemplative note.

“SICK!” is Earl’s best – hands down – and it accomplishes so much in its short runtime. The production is almost hauntological, hinting at memories and ambitions long forgotten, and Earl edges and sidesteps around larger truths and ideas, allowing the listener to fill in the gaps. “SICK!” doesn’t spell anything out for you, but allows you to insert and examine your own neuroses, problems, fears, and issues, as Earl plays therapist and patient simultaneously. It’s the perfect album for a COVID era – everyone is afraid and tired, and waiting for things to end. Even the title suggests a pandemic-influenced aesthetic.

“SICK!” is the kind of album you need to hear over and over again, to let the subtleties of Earl’s wordplay sink in. Or, alternatively, let the production wash over you like a rainbow oil slick, and dissolve in Earl’s latest offering.

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