Earl is rapping on actual beats this time. But despite being more accessible, SICK! isn’t as ‘infectious’ as I’d hoped.
Earl’s music has been getting progressively weirder and more obscure over the years. 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside (which I prematurely gave three stars instead of four) saw the rapper/producer embracing a more lo-fi production style and more cryptic lyrics. 2018’s Some Rap Songs was even more lo-fi and cryptic – it also saw Earl adopting a more mumbled off-beat delivery along with juddery almost-dysrhythmic beats. I had to let both albums marinate to fully appreciate the poetry and atmosphere. However, Earl’s 2019 EP Feet of Clay proved too challenging to get into, sounding less like controlled chaos and more like a pure mess.
SICK! is a much more straightforward hip hop album. It may not be accessible by ‘commercial’ standards – there are still no hooks and Earl’s poetry is as dense as ever. However, you can actually bob your head to these beats and you can make out every word Earl is rapping this time (even if you still have to use Genius to work out how each word fits together).
As his previous albums have shown, you can never form a verdict on an Earl album straight away. They take a couple spins to digest and then you can work out whether you actually enjoy the music or not. SICK! is the first Earl album in years that I’ve enjoyed instantly. From the twinkling pianos of ‘Tabula Rosa’ to the clicking and popping percussion of ‘Titanic’, the production is much less challenging, while still being fun and varied (no generic trap beats). Earl also sounds more energetic – while his delivery is still uniquely drowsy and morose on tracks like ‘Sick!’, he sounds surprisingly bubbly on tracks like ‘2010’.
Unfortunately, a lot of the magic wears off on repeat listens. I kinda miss the experimental edge that Some Rap Songs had – Earl felt like he was truly in his own lane there, whereas on this album it feels like he’s almost trying to imitate the style of Billy Woods or Elucid (who both appear on this album). The lyrics also haven’t been as exciting to decode this time around. There’s some witty wordplay about the pandemic (e.g. ‘asymptomatic, but I get sick of the delays’) and I thought the line about his net worth was clever: ‘five Os on me like the Olympics’. However, a lot of it feels random and doesn't really link to any overall theme.
Earl does sound like he's in a much better place mentally on this album, which is one big plus. The flows and beats are also refreshingly rhythmic compared to the skronk on Feet of Clay. It's still a very decent hip hop album in the grand scheme of things. Personally though, I’d have preferred a stronger lyrical concept and a few weirder moments to provide a more lasting impact.