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Earl Sweatshirt Is Underwater: Anti Capitalism In Underground Hip Hop

Sam Harding looks at the splintered aesthetics and murky narratives of capitalism in underground hip hop

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Image Credit: Columbia Records/ 2018

When Thebe Kgositsile released his third and final studio album at the end 2018, the cracks in his metanarrative began to splinter. Performing under the name Earl Sweatshirt, his rap trajectory had been defined at an early age by the solo mixtape he released as a member of LA rap collective Odd Future— an unholy EP of tracks stuffed with murder and internal rhyme schemes performed by a languid, 16 year-old Slim Shady, stirring controversy and worship in equal measure. By the time he returned from an enforced hiatus at boarding school, the outlines of his public persona had crystallised. And while his subsequent output, 2013’s Doris and 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, kept some of the gnashing syllables and debauchery, they also traded Eminem vibes for MF Doom and revealed a Herman Hesse-reading misanthrope reckoning with maturity and selfhood, a figure striving against the limitations and demands of the music industry as well as the playing out of his personal strifes in the public eye. And yet Some Rap Songs still took people by surprise. Ditching hooks for stanzas while hitting the brakes on his more mainstream collaborations, the growing tension between Thebe and the image of Earl Sweatshirt resulted in an album that alienated many in his fanbase and placed Earl at the forefront of the emerging sounds of the New York underground scene.

Radio signals struggle to pass through water even as they travel seamlessly through outer space, so while billionaire dads can bump the billboard top 40 in their Mars mansions, the submerged vibrations of abstract, lofi hip-hop play like the frequencies between the hit stations, picking up interference and textured voices while tuning into lush sound snippets from jazz and soul. Evoking the dusty sampling of Madlib, the revered underground producer whose vinyl habits unearth rare melodies to chop and loop into scuffed, off-kilter beats, this rap sub-genre preserves the smooth polish of piano and brass amidst a distorted sea of noise.

In the same way that the listener is compelled to adapt to a headier pressure beneath the surface of this tide, 21-year old MIKE raps like he is reckoning with the weight of the world. His delivery is an undertone, head bowed and trying to process the clarity of his observations through his faded mental. To make much headway, you gotta empty your mind and let it confront this subjectivity, or else traipse through the smoky grain of these beats. This style of rap often starts with a wandering “uh / uh / uh”, as if calibrating the testimonial flow, before launching into bars like “then to abyss / tell me that this life isn’t damned / I resist”.

Reclining further towards the insular and abstract is Medhane, who undergoes missions in his mind in the wake of lost time and smoked spliff, his production awash in a strong current that carries his words forth. But between the layers of glitchy production and the dense lyrics of this music, the artist often comes across as a figure drowning— where depression, anxiety and alcoholism are discussed in detail while never relenting in the continuous struggle to take a breath. Blinking past the blunt smoke and tears, further motifs of wounded bodies and souls emerge. “Ima show off / in a scar competition” says Mavi on Let the Sun Talk, turning a flex into hardened vulnerability. But you don’t have to squint your ears to hear how these rappers rhyme introspection with liberation, approaching conscious hip-hop from GenZ angles.

After exploring states of grace on Ensley, a gold-flecked lofi sprawl, Pink Siifu adopted an entirely different sound on 2020’s NEGRO, through which he projects his rage towards the scourge of police brutality. Guitars thrash around breathlessly distorted vocals, painting violent fantasies against violent oppressors while Siifu’s own existence comes across as a hallucinatory vision subject to systems of ownership and property as he murmurs “should have died / wouldn’t have to pay rent”. On Some Rap Songs, lines like “crackers piling in to rape the land / early morning wash my swollen hands” condense colonial history and modern gentrification into one image of weary living.

Communist philosopher Slavoj Zizek likes to explain how it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, an apocalyptic line of thinking that looms across the atmosphere of Earl’s latest release Feet of Clay. Free from his record deal, he describes the album as “recorded during the death throes of a crumbling empire”, positioning it at the fringes of commercialised music as he doubles down on the grimy sound he has embraced. This music is not “shiny or for sale” Earl explains, the unconventional sounds reflecting not only the independence of these artists from industry, but also a challenge to the way that music is consumed in the spell of late-stage capitalism.

The Black Mirror subplot of playlist algorithms designed to satisfy the anaesthetised cravings of our frazzled attention-spans may seem like an overstatement when it comes to our modern listening habits, but ain’t that the point? This music is the radical alternative to that apathy, spanning collaborations between Earl, MIKE, Medhane, Mavi and more, including the UK’s own Jadasea, and dealing in glimpses of clarity amidst the murky undercurrents of the 21st Century.

To end with, here’s a tweet from Chicago rapper Noname:

cause im anti-capitalist i guess i cant enjoy art anymore because it’s produced under capitalism. f***, that means i cant like food anymore because its also produced under capitalism. f*** f*** f***, that means i cant wear clothes anymore because thats also produced under capita-

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