Earl Sweatshirt is My Favorite Short Story Writer: On Feet of Clay

Steven Louis waxes poetic on the Los Angeles-bred wordsmith's impressionist tales "posted up live from burning Rome."
By    November 6, 2019

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Steven Louis thinks Deadspin was a good website.

No need to go too long on it: everything is rotting, burning and very very bad. We are bumbling through The Darkest Timeline. The planet has been sucked dry, the cops have helicopters, corporations are people, and Henry Kissinger still draws air. Our near-certain dystopian future was a political project, and if you look anything like me, you’re at bare minimum complicit in its creation. “Stuck in TrumpLand, watchin’ subtlety decaying,” Earl Sweatshirt rapped on “Veins” last year. Our present moment is somehow more stupid than it is fascist. Always listen to Earl, not just because he makes incredible music but because he is always right.

Earl has been right all along. He’s been exploring and mocking dystopia all decade, throwing the drugs in the blender and telling “The Adults in the Room” to go kill themselves, back when we all thought Joe Biden was chill. A perverse, exploitative (and super white) gaze hawked his time in therapy at Samoa’s Coral Reef Academy. He was 17 years old, hailed as an anti-pop hero at the bleeding edge of cultural evolution. The man responded by saying I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.

Earl grew up and evolved in the face of all that brazen dumbness. He then experienced the sudden deaths of his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and his close friend/collaborator Mac Miller. The artist has since responded by shortening his works, while still projecting bigger and more weighty thoughts, like the most compelling short stories do. He trusted the listener to get with the antagony and to not get too comfortable. 2018’s Some Rap Songs was an unraveling of self in 15 haunting, scattering acts, conducted in under 25 minutes. It was creative regeneration, an elegiac and deeply distorted portrait of loss and trauma.

He’s renewed the experiment with his latest collection of shorts (seven songs in 15 minutes) titled Feet of Clay, a reference to Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar. As Earl explained it to Apple Music, “the feet of clay were at the bottom of an idol that the king of Babylon had a dream about. And the statue was supposed to represent all the empires of the world, like chronologically. We find ourselves right now going onto that joint. We at the feet of clay right now. It’s a crumbling empire. Which felt very fitting. We posted up live from burning Rome.” 

Feet of Clay plays out in fragments, with occasional rays of empathy peeking through the macabre and the minutiae. It’s also a hell of a flex: the prodigious rapper has been able to out-rap everyone for years, and it’s like he’s more interested in rapping from different points of human consciousness. It’s dark, yes, but it’s also wickedly funny. The very first bar, on the woozy intro track “74,” finds Earl shouting out late-career Amar’e Stoudemire. “Miss me with the glib remarks, switch hitter keep the innings long,” he says.

He muses, sometimes syncopated and sometimes deliberately off-beat. He fills various glasses with poison, he shadowboxes as his memory leaks blood. He reads, he watches a lot of League Pass, he tries to kill time and evil in equal measure. He knows his enemy. He laments a loss of innocence, touches on the legacy of his father and his family, and admits that he’s scared for the people around him. 

“I wait to be the light shimmering from a star/cognitive dissonance shattered/and the necessary venom restored/as if it matters if you think it matters anymore/cause shit be happening with quick results,” Earl raps over a creepy, looping accordion on “East.” It hints at a better future and then immediately deconstructs it, a gutting experience in fewer than four bars. The world is caving in, and after Earl considers trying to find some meaning in it all, he chooses to say fuck it and dig in the crates. Feet of Clay hits as an exercise in attention-deficit nihilism, but it’s also brave as a showcase for talented, underexposed musicians.

“4N” is ceded to Mach-Hommy, the shadowy New Jersey rapper that Earl has been hailing as his favorite for quite some time. The only other feature belongs to Mavi, a 20-year-old who is scoring critical acclaim while studying neuroscience at Howard University. He kicks off the warm, warped soul of “El Toro Combo Meal” with breathless DOOM-esque wordplay, before a shapeless Earl echoes on about self-determination, Spirited Away and the Ben Wallace/Chauncey Billups Pistons. Other songs feature additional programming from Los Angeles’ Swarvy, Dallas’ Liv.E and Oakland’s ovrkast.

The project’s back-end is especially hypnotic. The second half of “Tisk Tisk/Cookies” feels like it goes on forever, almost trapping its listener. It’s a feeling that recalls dancing alone in a dark room, cooking inside on a beautiful day. And before we’re settled in to whatever we think is happening, the bass molds and swirls us into “4N,” in which Mach-Hommy requests an invoice with smoothness previously unknown to American accounting. “4N” grooves on for nearly five minutes, which feels like five eternities when prorated.

There’s no clean ending, there’s nothing left to say. Earl Sweatshirt is an artist intimate enough to draw you in to his view, and bold enough to keep you there without knowing what the hell is going on. Feet of Clay is psychedelic and emotionally-searing, and I still don’t know what it means all together. Nothing means anything anymore, so it’s not important. On Feet of Clay, Earl is a miniaturist, getting everything off his mind before the putrid air gets to us all. He seems to believe in the value of words, of language, and chooses to pen short stories instead of dense novels. The results are more intricate, devastating but exciting, and it feels like fractured response to a profoundly strange time. Rome is on fire, why waste a breath?

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