Mar 23, 2015

A Comparison of New Music by Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt

It is an interesting time to be listening to hip hop music. For starters, Kendrick Lamar just released the critically acclaimed "To Pimp a Butterfly," which has not only been called the album of the year, but also is quickly being considered one of the genre's most important and timely records. The one catch is that the album is far from what anyone expecting a follow-up to "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City" would sound like with traditional beats replaced with free form jazz and tribal harmonies. Likewise, Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt just released his aptly titled "I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside." While the record is itself a self-reflection of familiar themes, these two albums feel like different sides to the same coin, and not just because both albums were prematurely released a week in advance of their dates.
It may seem hard to really compare the two records initially because Lamar is going for big statements. He has a running commentary on black identity in America with several songs divulging his placement as a role model and providing a more raw form of Public Enemy's mantra. He isn't fighting the power with brute force, but trying to understand himself as well as society. In the album's closing song "Mortal Man," he famously repurposes a 2Pac interview into a discussion of unity. For a record that is at times aggressive and sloppy, it packs a punch and leaves something profound. It makes music feel important in a genre known more for bravado than progress. 
It may be true that his previous record featured narratives about street violence in which he rapped as a first person character, but to judge him as another musician getting by on violence like Run the Jewels is to miss the point. He tells a complex story of how his hometown of Compton, CA influenced him and how he overcame the struggles. There are songs like "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" in which he pays tribute to those innocent parties who didn't make it out alive. It is likely why his 2012 album became a phenomenon and why his latest isn't all that shocking in terms of construct. Lamar is an artist obsessed with tactics that bands like The Who or Nine Inch Nails used in which songs create a story as well as creating individually striking songs. 
In this case, Lamar is a maximalist who wants you to recognize his difference. The album's title, a play on Lee Harper's "To Kill a Mockingbird," is referenced on the album as being about how success and poverty influences each other in conflicting manners. As charged as the album is, Lamar lets the listener decide their take on the culture. It is by its very nature more challenging and isn't immediately radio friendly. For all of the powerful moments in lyrics, there's a sensibility that this album is more directed at social commentary than ability to dance. That isn't a bad thing, though acquired tastes are likely to cause problems for those wanting to immediately like the album. Some tracks work immediately ("The Blacker the Berry," "King Kunta"), but others ask you to unpack the lyrics and think about them. The album is, for lack of better words, a black identity record down to its striking cover art of black men assaulting someone in front of the white house. It will be tricky for Lamar to expand his audience, but it still feels like an exhaustively impressive feat.
By comparison, Earl Sweatshirt is a minimalist. The two performers are six years apart from each other, though both have been cutting their teeth for awhile. The 21-year-old performer became popular after performing with Odd Future and forming an enigmatic presence following his shock-rap filled album "Earl," which opens with an unforgettably sexual and perverse fantasy that got the then teenager sent off to boarding school and caused other members to create a legend. His eventual follow-up with 2013 album "Doris" rang of a different tone while featuring enough of the same including cameos by Odd Future partners.
One of the odd things about Odd Future is watching them age. While Earl is the youngest member, majority of the group was in their teens when jumping to success. Main member Tyler the Creator gained the most success with "Yonkers" in which he mixed violent imagery with teen angst and a crazy video. He has since mellowed out, though maintains his occasional dive into comic material. By comparison, Kendrick was an artist who started off on his own and eventually won good graces by Dr. Dre. However, there's something rather fascinating about comparing these two records. Not because Earl is necessarily ambitious politically, but because both have a different approach to identity.
Despite its long title, "I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside" is actually antithetical to "To Pimp a Butterfly." Where Kendrick's album spans 80 minutes and features an exhaustive history of black culture through samples and references, Earl's album is almost a third shorter and features arguably the least distinguishable beats in his main three albums. This isn't a bad thing, as the murky style has helped to emphasize him as a vocalist. However, as even the song titles will suggest ("Grief," "Inside"), he is looking into himself in yet another dark album. Much like Kendrick, the album is stripped of familiarity and is instead an album focusing on identity.
In the case of Earl, the identity, much like "Doris," comes from an insular place. While still occasionally sadistic, he is more nuanced and in touch with his emotions this time around. Save for a few guest spots, the album feels like a 30 minute ventilation from Earl about his life. He explores why he behaves the way that he does and ends up providing a vision that helps to clarify him as an artist while not doing much in the way of accessibility. Earl's voice may sound richer, but he still has a lackadaisical vibe to everything that makes it an acquired taste. Considering the lack of definitive beats, the acquiring is harder this time around. For fans, it's good, but it does feel like it's becoming an isolating thing much like Childish Gambino where the personal is outweighing the quality.
To compare the two on accessibility level, it is rather easy to do so. In every sense, Lamar is treating the form as art while Earl is doing it as therapy. However, instead of making radical statements, Lamar personalizes the struggles with his ongoing commentary that includes a repeated mantra regarding his conflicted opinions about influence. If anything, it makes his work stronger and thus ends up making it as successful as it is. However, there's something to the less daunting in length of Earl's work. For starters, the brevity helps to keep it from feeling like a chore. Also, the abrupt ending may leave a dissatisfied feeling, but as Earl said on Twitter regarding this, he noted that "When you get done listening to it, listen to it again, that's why it's 30 minutes numbnuts." 
If nothing else, Earl's youth is made clear here if it wasn't in the album's title. In both cases, these are angry young men. However, it is more of a reflection of anger at differing points in life. For Earl, the 20's have just begun and he's escaping the teenage wasteland that has defined his career. Early 20's aren't particularly as definitive, but more of a transition to the older years. In the case of Lamar, his 20's are almost over and at 27, he needs to begin making a difference. He cannot wallow in his house all day. Earl's music reflects dedication and restraint that a 21-year-old, even as seasoned as Earl, cannot fully grasp. He still needs to come to terms with himself before he can write something as powerful as "How Much a Dollar Costs." After all, Earl is only five years removed from having appeared on a song called "epaR." It will take him awhile to get out of his juvenile tendencies.
So while it may not seem like these two records have all that much in common. In fact, the chances of "I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside" having a memorable legacy are slim. Still, it is an interesting challenge to not collaborate entirely with familiar faces. It is simply a stumbling block to his eventual magnum opus. So while he continues to be a promising artist, Earl has ways to go before we understand truly who he is. As for Lamar, he's waving his identity on a flag above everyone else. It may seem unfair to call one better than the other since they aren't going for similar ambitions. In truth, both are about identity in your 20's and reflect a compelling growth of character unlike any two recently released albums. So while it doesn't seem right to say that "To Pimp a Butteryfly" is maximalist to "I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside" being minimalist, it actually makes a lot more sense than you'd think. If nothing else, both reflect an exciting time in music.

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