Photo via Ryosuke Tanzawa
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Ross Olson will cry tears of joy when the Angels are sold.
In the weeks leading up to the release of SICK!, Earl Sweatshirt’s fourth official LP which arrived last January, fans clamored in online spaces for a central talking point. Sweatshirt’s unconventional live shows are notable for the revolving door of unreleased material that frequently appears on setlists, a practice that has become synonymous with his live imprint. Carefully crafted spreadsheets and overzealous fan-created Reddit threads document the history of previewed songs and their first creation, while YouTube channels and Soundcloud pages house them in hour-long playlists. The most popular tracks – often the ones with the highest quality, either from live streams or fan videos – rack up hundreds of thousands of plays.
The tracks regularly circulate online and may have instilled a naïve sense of hope among fans that their favorite extracts will appear as finalized versions on SICK! Only the songs almost never see the light of day. Sample issues are likely hampering their timeline, but as far as we can tell, they’re collecting dust on a primary hard drive in The Alchemist’s Santa Monica studio. Internet theorists would suggest, perhaps not wrongly, that many of the preview songs include the hidden album the Alchemist alluded to last year. Fan anger isn’t completely without merit, however. The sheer volume and quality of material previewed over the past five years could cater for multiple full projects, while the various styles align with the closest chronological physical release. The industrial churning of “Death Whistles” for example would feel out of place on the overly claustrophobic I don’t like shit, I don’t go outwhile “Shrooms” draws dizzying psychedelia from some rap songs.
It would be trite to point out that artists regularly preview new music during live sets. It creates social media buzz for upcoming releases and gauges fan reaction to new material. An era of regular leaks has watered down the thrill of hearing a record live before its eventual release, but knowing the lyrics to a song that’s strictly for live performance creates a unique bond with the artist. In an interview with rolling stone Late last year, Sweatshirt described his vindication of that mindset and the unparalleled feeling of seeing fans connecting with them at shows.
“These songs could have come out and people could be like, ‘Man, the mix on that is meh. I don’t like high frequencies,” or whatever, and it zaps the magic — as opposed to, “I only hear this song live at shows. This nigga is next to me, about to cry and make the song. You create magic.
Sweatshirt’s perspective adds further justification to the discussion. It’s not hard to imagine internet fanatics bickering endlessly over the most granular details if the official recordings surfaced, and the tracks would likely live on in constant comparison to the concert versions. Accepting the songs’ live-only status proves more rewarding than infuriating. It’s a fun guessing game for diehards to figure out which tunes might play at a given show, and attending one adds a rewarding familiarity to the concert experience. I decided to round up a handful of the best unreleased songs Sweatshirt has performed over the years.
Sweatshirt performed “Black Emperor” at Tyler, Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw festival in 2019, and the audio taken from the live stream has amassed over 250,000 plays on YouTube and Soundcloud. The record transforms soul collective Wee’s 1971 track “Find Me, Love Me” into a Technicolor stroll around the surface of the sun. The sample’s swirling keys and rising vocal loop tug at our senses, restoring a nourishing warmth to our awareness. Earl fans in 2011 dressed in Golf Wang and inhaling vape who gathered around the Flog stage were undoubtedly in shock at the premiere of “Emperor”. The sweatshirt matches the beat vibe with an equally tenacious flow, covering a wide range of topics from snakeskin wallets to a crying Michael Jordan meme. The track gives credence to Sweatshirt’s logic about unreleased material. It would be nearly impossible to replicate the track’s abundant jubilation on wax, and “Black Emperor” marks one of Sweatshirt’s most compelling live moments.
The gagetdy keyboard loop that underpins “Freddie Krueger” could interpret the demented allure of a shoddy carnival ride. Sweatshirt’s vocal performance is both conversational and commanding, addressing his struggles with untimely fame and the expectations raised by his Odd Future tenure. “You know I blew up before I grew up. You’re smart, I guess you know what pressure does, huh?” In a time when rappers rely heavily on audio backing tracks to achieve live performances, Sweatshirt is an unsurprising anomaly. No bars are skipped, gliding flows are executed with precision, and the occasional syllable is stretched for dramatic effect. Sweatshirt’s lyrics – and the way he delivers them – have the uncanny ability to make you want to shout them aimlessly at the sky, hoping someone will listen. The way he painfully croaks the closing bars sums up this dynamic in evocative terms. “Giant swords on my heart of lion, it’s time to practice.”
A perpetual darkness hangs over “Homebound” like a sinister layer of fog. Sweatshirt cuts through it with a piercing lyrical performance that is both desolate and dexterous. Maybe a throwaway to the islander I don’t like shit, I don’t go out from 2015, “Homebound” strikes a chord for its vulnerability. On a subdued and muddy piano loop from producer iblss, Sweatshirt oscillates between sinister imagery and abject loneliness. “The tough times when I need a touch, need a crutch, need a hug. Harsh lines on the easel, blood. Trading studio veneer for the brutality of the live set is a force on “Homebound,” and the startling sadness that fills the air is tangibly paralyzing even if you weren’t present.Sweatshirt, a well-documented descendant of scholars, closes the trail by comparing his mind to that of the Br’er Rabbit, who lured and shorn the devious Br’er Fox in Uncle Remus’ folk tale “The shiny black tar, time – you can’t redeem it. Please don’t throw me in the dirt.” Heather I got his ass I’m back home and gotta laugh It wouldn’t be the last time Sweatshirt referenced the Br’er Rabbit or the treacherous upbringing he faced in heather. On “Old Friend”, the intro track of SICK!Sweatshirt notes how he “came out of the thicket smiling”.
Recurring images of death permeated much of Sweatshirt’s creative output in the late 2010s. “Whole World”, a 2019 bonus cut feet of clay, recalls the solemn gait of a pallbearer during a rainy funeral service, while “December 24” represents ashes carried away by the wind. “Hat Trick,” a track created at a concert in Detroit in 2017 and leaked online two years later, follows a similarly dark formula. “The land is my territory, but the hearse is like a magnet,” Sweatshirt croons during a break in the instrumental. The track samples “This Love Pt.” by Bobby Oroza. 1”, and the languid organs and furtive guitar melodies evoke the illusion that something is hiding behind. “Hat Trick” reflects the nihilistic thoughts that arise when mortality is realized, and the heartbreaking anguish of living means little in a larger sense. “When the storm is vicious, spend the day blowing, drinking, tryna reap the harm, but it doesn’t make a difference,” Sweatshirt thinks as the instrumental fades away.
The climbing instrument of “Head Heavy” recalls the fiery spirit of adventure of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless”. An exultant keyboard melody rises and reaches plateaus, evoking the triumph of surviving a particularly unlikely battle. For much of the past half-decade, Sweatshirt has seemed worn and sometimes apathetic about features and its own hardware, but “Head Heavy” is invigorating. The path to self-realization is more accessible here; he maturely acknowledges past transgressions, cuts snakes from the grass of his eye socket, and understands that calculated risk is essential to unlocking life’s greatest offerings. The uplifting outlook for the performance was particularly encouraging after Sweatshirt canceled a European tour in late 2018 following the deaths of his father and uncle earlier that year. Sweatshirt finds his way to catharsis with his gift for writing. “Only if you are strong, you resist. Fumbling my pen/stroke to fit the globe into my lens. “Head Heavy” is commendable for the personal growth that reluctantly follows deep struggle.
Sweatshirt teased “Fire in the Hole” at the Hollywood Bowl last summer, and the official version later appeared as the closing track of SICK!, marking a rare break in its philosophy towards unreleased material. A live band reimagined Black Noi$e’s warped production for Bowl greatness, with a walking piano section replacing the track’s mournful guitar loop. Live drums bolstered the track’s otherwise minimal percussion, and the set erupted in a sprawling free jazz expedition in the outro. Besides his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel live in 2015 with BADBADNOTGOOD, Sweatshirt has few traceable performances with a live band. I attended the performance at the Bowl, and the chemistry didn’t feel forced, with the tranquil flows of Sweatshirt sitting gracefully above the soft tones of the instrumentation. Themes of mending emotional wounds and maintaining emotional resilience spilled over the speaker system, reducing the Bowl’s physically imposing nature to an intimate, confessional projection.