The shape of underground hip-hop has been changing over the last several years, moving towards a less percussive, more psychedelic sound. The charge is being led by producers who are finding their way across the landscape of emcees, both popular and lesser known. Many of these cutting-edge underground producers have been assembled to provide the backdrop to Odd Future prodigy Earl Sweatshirt’s latest release SICK!, which works hard to create a distinctive mood while pushing the eclectic sounds of modern underground hip-hop into the mainstream. Featuring production credits by Navy Blue, Black Noi$e, and The Alchemist. who was responsible for some of last year’s most critically acclaimed hip-hop joints including Armand Hammer Haram and Boldy James Bo Jackson, Earl gathered a venerable who’s who of the current best producers in hip-hop.
So, how do you describe the sound on SICK!? Elevator music on acid? A museum soundtrack that got caught in an interdimensional black hole? Compared to the overproduced glam rap of the early 2000s, the beat and hook heavy vibe of drill, and the resurgence of boom-bap and jazz-rap, underground hip-hop is fairly minimalist in its approach to beat creation. Oftentimes featuring sparse drums with phased instrumentals that may or may not cue the rapper for their bars, it’s completely different than trap, drill, or anything else you might find in the mainstream. Which makes it unsettling for some, but for others wanting to take repeat dives into the music itself, it becomes an interesting and exploratory journey.
“Titanic,” the third single dropped and easily the track that could bridge the album for those who mostly listen to radio rap, doesn’t even enter the album until second to last. Instead, the album launches with The Alchemist produced “Old Friends”, who did not hold back in creating an unnerving, hallucinogenic atmosphere for Earl to kick things off with.
Earl’s rhymes are consistent and solid throughout SICK!, consisting mostly of bars and very few hooks (which is another common feature of underground hip-hop). So, while there not many earworms to associate with individual tracks, there is lots of space for the emcee to explore and breathe, dropping memorable rhymes, punches, and couplets.
On “Titanic”, Earl makes some pointed MF DOOM references, Besides the great shout out to an incredible artist lost too soon (rest in peace), Earl’s style shares a lot of similarities with DOOM, oftentimes purposefully rapping off beat (slightly), which DOOM was well known for doing.
SICK! includes guest spots by some heavies including Bruiser Brigade’s own Zeloopers and Armand Hammer, the hip-hop duo consisting of Elucid and Billy Woods. Elucid comes out the gate punching hard on Tabula Rasa: “Listen, let’s not conflate, I give what I take it’s the hunt, there is the chase. Some talk like they never got punched in the face.”
Most of the tracks are short, under 2 minutes, ending before you hardly realize they began, which begs for a quick repeat and closer look for everything missed. There isn’t much buildup before Earl or the guest drops in, calling for attention right away. And the album itself is barely over the length of an EP, clocking in at just 24 minutes. SICK! is light, tight, and crisp.
At 27 years old, Earl Sweatshirt has been in the game longer than many of his contemporaries and has a number of great releases under his belt. And if he continues down this more experimental, artistic path, is sure to continue to put out solid work for a long time to come. Be sure to follow Earl on Soundcloud, Instagram, and stream SICK! on your favorite platform.