by Stephen Kearse
The American music industry is both an institution and a process. For better and certainly for worse, it takes raw materials - musicians, ideas, dreams, talent, ambition - and forges them into music. Along the way, a lot of money is spent and sometimes made back, but a lot of those raw materials are exhausted to depletion. Despite his deal with Sony, Earl Sweatshirt has always been peripheral to the music industry as an institution. Yet he’s been right in the center of the music industry as a process. Frequent tours, frequent recordings, frequent obligations and infrequent contact with his family and friends have left him sick, underweight and anti-social.
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is Earl’s response to these circumstances. There is no narrative arc like on Doris, where Earl directly confronts and comes to terms with his exile, his fans, his friends, his skills and his anxieties. Here, Earl confronts his feelings and allows them to unravel without resolution. On “Faucet” he’s upset with himself for not calling his mother more. On “Mantra” he brashly details the end of a relationship, trailing off at the end of his verse because there is no happy ending. On “Grown Ups” and “Grief” he rages at the treacherous snakes that have slid in and out of his life, the former slyly suggesting that his father, who he’s recently reconnected with, might also be one of those serpents.
What holds the album together is the fact that despite Earl’s willingness to explore his personal demons, he’s still a very opaque rapper. The pictures he paints are scattershot, intimate portraits on an invisible spectrum, autobiography as secrecy. This has always been one of his skills - and presumably one of his preferences - but here it hits harder because despite his lyrical opacity, he bares his emotions through his instrumentals and his newly flexible vocal range.
Earl’s voice has undergone an amazing transformation since his few years back from exile. No longer confined to the low, bottom-scraping register of his Earl days or the sluggish just-rolled-out-of-bed range of Doris, Earl’s voice now bobs up and down. Album-opener “Huey” features a nasally performance that has a not-so-faint scent of tears. Lines like “I spent the day just drinking and missing my grandmother” seem to be delivered with his entire mouth, summoning all of his emotional weight. “Tryna pay my mama rent, figure that’s just what I owe her,” Earl raps on “Off Top,” inflecting his voice upward as if he’s asking a question, challenging himself.
"The pictures he paints are scattershot, intimate portraits on an invisible spectrum, autobiography as secrecy."
Even when Earl does decide to rap at his typical register, he still exudes emotion. When he raps, “Keep your circle closed, let them niggas front in the cul-de-sacs” on “Inside,” the album’s conceptual center, his voice suddenly drops to emphasize his bitterness. It’s as deadpan as ever, but despite the cleverness of the line, there’s not really any snark. This is deadpan as raw bitterness and scorn, not indifference or irony.
The instrumentals are just as dense. Multiple songs end with ambiguous outros that feature wobbly synths and dull bass that abruptly dissolve into nothingness. Yet, the road to those bleak endings isn’t obvious. “Grief” is a sludgy waltz through incredibly slow percussion, crackly bass and dulled synths. It’s easy to describe as “sad” but the snares hit with a shrill, snappy click, bringing out the all the stages of grief, and not in that goofy, limited order that we’re taught in school.
Earl ended Doris by rapping “young, black and jaded, vision hazy, strolling through the night,” which served as a neat summary of himself and his music at the time. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside doesn’t wrap up so nicely. Here, Earl’s last line, delivered with palpable scorn, is “Give a fuck bout all these moves all these loser niggas making now.” This might seem like typical underground rapper base-rallying, i.e., “fuck the mainstream.” But unlike most underground rappers, who are forced into their caves, slavering for even the smallest gleam of light, Earl seems to have consciously sought his solace.
The music industry and his own bullshit wore him down, so Earl decided to just go home and chill. There’s not much of a story there, but there is plenty of promise. The music industry may have streamlined the intensive process of making music, but Earl Sweatshirt has found a way to sustain it, keeping the raw materials intact. The result isn’t the most polished album, but polish is for things that we’re scared to look at directly. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside gives us a direct look at Earl Sweatshirt, and even though we can’t see inside him (sorry not sorry, Rap Geniuses), we can finally see him, flaws and all.