SICK! lacks any real sense of cohesion, making it an album that seems content with doing as little as possible.
Over the past half-decade, Earl Sweatshirt has been saying a lot with very little; or, more accurately, he’s communicated an abundance of personal beliefs and ideals by keeping things frugal. There’s really not much that’s particularly flashy about the Sweatshirt enterprise these days, just a lot of getting to the point and getting to it quickly. As he even puts it on “Titanic” — the closest thing to a banger to be found on his fourth studio album, the Covid-inspired SICK! — he’s going to “give it to you straight, no frills.” Indeed, “no frills” entertainment is what he continues to provide: There’s hardly any crazy boasts, the beats are short and disheveled, only one track has a full-fledged chorus (closer “Fire in the Hole”), and a grand total of zero contain anything close to a hook — there are two credited features (Zelooperz and Armand Hammer), but you’d be hard-pressed to consider those some “big name” gets. Earl’s delivery throughout could best be described as relentlessly sleepy, like if Ghostface took a ton of quaaludes before going into the booth (not assisted by the muffled vocal mixing) — though, flow aside, Earl continues to be an equally expressionistic storyteller, employing the same type of Supreme Clientele-era abstract non-sequiturs that disrupt any sense of linearity to his raps. There’s a subtle keenness to Earl’s pen game that’s never been laugh-out-loud funny, but has grown sharp, pointed, and angry through the years, articulated most cogently here on the pensive title track. His music, in turn, has become spartan to the point of complete insularity, shaggy-dog self-reliance taken to its logical conclusion.
But while this parochial approach suited Some Rap Song’s downward spiral progression — where the general terseness was mandatory given that album’s emotional trajectory — it creates a void at the center of the disjointed SICK!, which is elusive for its own sake most of the time. Lacking any real sense of cohesion, the project is forced to rely on each individual track’s strengths (if he didn’t already use it, calling this collection “some rap songs” would have been far more fitting), where, frankly, the line between lo-fi and low effort is now getting increasingly thin. Take “Tabula Rasa,” which keeps stopping and starting again for no discernable reason, where guests E L U C I D and billy woods certainly bring their A-game, but are left stranded against a sea of general indifference; it’s captivating in the moment, but lacks any purpose beyond fulfilling these basic aspirations. At a scant 10 tracks — including an interlude that’s structurally indistinguishable from most of the other “serious” songs — SICK! all too regularly gives off the impression that it’s content with doing as little as possible, where the minimalist tendencies of its central artist are starting to feel like defects instead of virtues. While there’s still certainly plenty of pleasures to be found with Earl’s raggedy inflections (the way he murmurs through “’03, momma rockin’ Liz Claiborne” is both endearing and amusing) and deft wordplay, the degree to which everything else around his music continues to produce diminishing returns positions him and his artistry at a distinct crossroads.
Published as part of Album Roundup — January 2022 | Part 2.