Updated: Aug 19, 2020
In 2018, Thebe Neruda Kgositsile (a.k.a Earl Sweatshirt) released his highly anticipated third studio album coming three years after I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside and a full five years after his break out project, Doris. It's fair to say that until the release of Some Rap Songs in November 2018 Earl had somewhat of a controversial reputation as a very visible figure of Odd Future, for infamously punching a fan on stage and for his very public familial tensions. Fame at an early age can be hugely destructive and Earl, along with his Odd Future colleagues, had to navigate that minefield very publicly. However, it didn't help that a few of Earl's songs alluded to violence against women and somewhat tainted his discography with hugely impressive tracks such as 'Chum', 'Sunday' (feat. Frank Ocean) and 'Hive' (feat. Vince Staples and Casey Veggies). All of that changed dramatically when Earl gave us his new project that sonically, lyrically and, in form, diverged hugely from most of what he had worked on before. From as early as the singles, 'Nowhere2go' and 'The Mint', fans were treated to a very new sound that Earl had not fully explored on previous projects. The mixes were dirty; the songs were short; Earl was even more languid and free form than usual; something very different was going on here. When the full album dropped we were given something quite special and intensely moving. Some Rap Songs is a harrowing and healing journey through Earl's spirals into depression and grief. The form, the short songs, the muddy mix all contribute to our understanding of the content of the lyrics; Some Rap Songs takes you places that few albums have the emotional depth or musical palette to accomplish and for that it has been rightly praised. Nevertheless, what Earl gave us, whilst haunting and brilliant, was not necessarily unique. With Some Rap Songs and the follow up EP Feet of Clay Earl situated himself within the wider movement of artist who indulge in the low fidelity sound, grungey instrumentals and play with conventions of rhythm. Most of this unofficial collective collaborate with each other and have all profoundly influenced the sound of a burgeoning movement.
'I got a lot to lose/ trust just ain't enough'
MIKE was clearly a huge influence in the sound Earl crafted for Some Rap Songs and although he has been making low fi Hip Hop for many years, MIKE really perfected his sound with the album, Tears of Joy released in 2019. There are many parallels with Earl's project in the ways it deals with grief in short bursts, verses that resemble fleeting thoughts and undulating emotions. Perhaps its just my headphones but you get a sense on this project that MIKE is singing against rather than on the instrumentals. He doesn't come across as being buried in the mix but you get the sense he is fighting to be heard above the noise on songs such as 'Going Truuuu'. But MIKE doesn't come all the way- there is a requirement on the part of the listener to pay close attention to his words. On 'Take Crowns' there is no opportunity to be lulled into melody or rhythm. You are forced to take notice of every word. There is a strange sense of 'space' on this project; many of the instrumentals feel like there is a layer of film running over them; they are inaccessible or just out of reach. Gr8tful 2k19 is a good example of such a song that holds back on something just a bit intangible. The emotional peak of the album comes on my personal favourite song, 'Suffocate'. Without resorting to a Mac Miller-esque analysis, the beat and the vocal performance really does feel like its submerged under water, coming up for air every now and then to give the track this intensely corporeal feel. By the time the sampled speech comes in at the end you get the sense that there has been some sort of rebirth and we are ascending into something beyond. Tears of Joy is a touching elegy that rewards any patient listener.
Wap Konn Jòj by Mach Hommy has always felt like an incomplete project, one that shows promise but ultimately falls short of something that could have been quite special. Like much of Mach-Hommy's discography, the album is 'a reckoning'- you get the feeling Mach is the musical reincarnation of Franz Fanon- with a title and cover that looks as if Toussaint L'Ouverture has arisen from the dead to exact his revenge. The album is very much within the low fi tradition. Mach-Hommy's voice sits somewhere between 'clipping' audio and an electric sound that matches his passion and sharp language. There are times on this project where you can even hear Mach's breathing and the faint buzz of studio static. Put together and you have an album that wears its grit like a badge. There's a lot to love about it. The jazz samples are just incredible and provide much of the emotional weight of the songs. The opening sax wail on Chiney Brush; the drums and eerie electric piano on Eedeot Bwoy; the faint vocals on Mozambique Drill; they're all just so damn good.
But equally there's a lot to be left wanting. Much of Mach-Hommy's lyricism is sub par on this project as he gets out-rapped by many of the features present including Quelle Chris, Tha God Fahim, Earl Sweatshirt and Your Old Droog. The songs feel incomplete, they are sketches of ideas that have not been fully formulated and it is that which makes the album fall just short of brilliance.
'Had to knock the lining out her ribs to let some love in there'
To complete the triumvirate of 'Ms' we have the youngest of the three- MAVI. The 20 year old MC's project, Let the Sun Talk is hugely impressive, with an articulate blend of jazz, soul and other traditional cornerstones of Hip Hop. If there's anything to take from this project it's that MAVI believes love and art comes from the debris of pain- 'I got puddled pride and troubled eyes cause I'm an artist'. Like many young artists, MAVI wants to be heard, to tell his story on his own terms and that's exactly what he does on songs such as 'Self Love' where he describes his substance abuse and the tension it places on family relationships. It's a particularly tender song with the Sonia Ross sample acting as the guiding subtext for much of the tension in the verse- 'Just because I love you.'
There are times where MAVI might show more focus in his writing. For example, on the very same song where he delves into ideas around depression, therapy and substance abuse, he rather abruptly declares his support for the MeToo movement and whilst clearly an issue close to his heart, it might have warranted its own separate song to adequately deal with the topic of gender equality and male sexual violence. Nevertheless it shows MAVI is not one to shy away. On 'II' he presents the listener with a sampled conversation that appears to be an interesting allegorical conversation critiquing the intersection between capitalism and race, followed by the more explicit 'Ghost (in a shell)' which has clear anti establishment sentiments.
Let the Sun Talk is an impressive debut for MAVI and it neatly situates himself in the wider group of artists who have truly mastered the low fi aesthetic. Earl Sweatshirt deserves the praise and the credit for bravely bringing this sound to his wide reaching audience but this should not detract from the artists who have influenced and have been influenced by Some Rap Songs. There are plenty of other musicians that are in this conversation- Quelle Chris and Open Mike Eagle to name a couple- and they should not be obscured in the shadow of more mainstream artists. Low fi Hip Hop been around and is being taken in new and exciting direction by these crop of talented rappers.