The first thing you see in Earl Sweatshirt’s “EAST” music video is Earl standing on a city beach, enjoying the sunset and holding a joint and a Corona. A giant superimposed moon darts haphazardly across his body. Earl’s friends grin and point at the camera and throw up middle fingers behind him. Randomly sized thumbnail videos culled from random points of the shoot pop up at random intervals and at random points on the screen.
The song’s beat, a jolly, drum-less interplay of breezy flute whirls and jolly jack-in-the-box accordion, sounds like the soundtrack to a Krusty Krab commercial. It’s pointed misdirection, tongue-in-cheek gaiety that Earl slaps on like a band-aid to conceal his emotional wounds. He reels, “hollow with glee,” in an eddy of grief, depression, and alcoholism. “Careen against the bars / My canteen was full of the poison I need / The trip as long as steep,” he raps, describing how he hit the bottle to cope with a breakup.
The “East” video encapsulates the tensions that animate Feet of Clay, Earl’s new 7-track, 15-minute EP. Throughout Feet Of Clay, Earl’s playfulness collides with the weariness of a much older man; his layered rapping style and increasing disinterest in form suffuse his cryptic meditations on memory and loss with the sense of great burden. He hints at but seldom reveals the true depths of the mournfulness and soul-searching he’s experienced since the 2018 death of his estranged father, the renowned South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, with whom he never got the chance to reconcile.
Earl’s choose-your-own-adventure raps belie the precision of his lyrics. His dense words-per-second ratio, as well as the fluid, associative logic that guides Feet of Clay, makes each song appear as a bottled capsule of unfiltered stream-of-consciousness that spills out of him like water from an Artesian well. It’s more likely that Earl takes great pains to arrange the syntax of every line, given the way his digressions can culminate in sudden moments of clarity. On “MTOMB,” an inscrutable line about carrots and celery gives way to a lucid memory from Earl’s childhood: “Crudites not gon’ cut it, cut it slight / Braids brought out my eyes / I saw a light, I was nine / Told my nigga Miles we might gon’ be aight.” Part of the thrill of Feet of Clay is in navigating its uneven terrain by clinging onto Earl’s every word for fear of getting lost. If Clay was any longer than Some Rap Songs, its 24-minute, 2018 spiritual predecessor, it might not work.
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Like Some Rap Songs, Feet of Clay is filled with untidily packaged tracks that feel like unfinished sketches. Earl begins the EP abruptly, with a line about Amar’e Stoudemire, and ends it by humming along to the sample’s acoustic bass line then ceding space for a minute-long instrumental outro. The closest thing on here to a hook is Mach-Hommy moaning things like “Send me the invoice for all that shit” for 90 seconds on the 5-minute closer “4N.” Earl structures his songs organically, building on murky, roughly chopped samples and sculpting filigree out of the geography of the syllables. As a result, Feet Of Clay comes to life on a granular level. A tiny masterpiece awaits around every corner, like the stretch on “Cookies” where Earl explains his impulse to put up emotional walls: “I need the tint / Just like my daddy skin, dark / I see your nigga, too bad he’s a mark.”
Odd Future (where Earl got his start) is now a distant memory. Between Some Rap Songs and Feet Of Clay, Earl has formed the makings of a new collective, one comprised of collaborators who have inherited and expanded upon his vision, like Charlotte’s Mavi, Newark’s Mach-Hommy, Oakland’s ovrkast., and artists from two New York-based collectives: Standing on the Corner (which includes Gio Escobar and Caleb Giles) and [sLUms] (which includes Mike, Navy Blue, Ade Hakim). Earl spends a significant portion of Feet Of Clay remembering all the opportunistic leeches he’s had to pry off of himself in the last decade, but what if he’s not really a loner auteur so much as the de facto leader of a new rap vanguard? On the last verse of the EP, he switches to first-person plural to rep his alliance with Mach-Hommy: “We know death, alright let’s go left… You really dead, but we still ahead.”