Concept for Concept: An Essay on Kendrick & Earl
By Sean Avery
A lot of people believe that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was the best rap album of 2015. Well, I disagree. I think TPAB was a great album, but not the best. And no, I don’t think it was Future’s DS2, or Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, or even their mega collaboration, What A Time To Be Alive. I could name other things that I assume will be people’s favorites, mayhaps Travis Scott’s Rodeo, Young Thug’s Slime Season or Slime Season 2, or more independent work like The Social Experiment’s Surf, Milo’s When the Flies Come (check out my review of his recent show in Madison here), maybe Busdriver’s Thumbs (obviously we’re talking just Hip-Hop here). I don’t think it’s any of those (surprise surprise), I think it’s something that went down as the most underrated album of 2015. I think it’s Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
Wait, hold up, Earl? The kid, literally the kid, who disappeared during the Odd Future explosion and returned with an abundance of weed raps? Yes, that Earl. Earl’s latest album, I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside, was supposed to be announced via a video for his single “Grief”. His label, Columbia Records, wanted to give him a traditional rollout, and botched his plans of an obscure and spontaneous release. Regardless, we got the album in a timely manner, on March 23rd, 2015, roughly a week after TPAB (Earl’s album also leaked before the release date). The album debuted 12th on the Billboard 200, and sold 30,000 copies the first week. Nothing spectacular. His first album, Doris, actually did much better. It was 5th on the Billboard and #1 on the US Rap Charts in 2013. Why do you favor an album that didn’t even sell better than the artist’s previous work? There are lots of reasons, of course. One is bias, I can relate to Earl more. But what I will argue here is execution. Both artists released concept albums, a studio album where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story, but Earl successfully deviated from his usual concepts and process while Kendrick delivered an album that doesn’t stand out from his past projects in process and concepts. Before I further unpack my explanation, let me also say this: I love TPAB. Love. However, I love Earl’s album more, if one can say that. By no means am I saying TPAB doesn’t deserve the accolades it has gotten and will receive (upon writing this, the Grammy’s have not happened yet, in which Kendrick is nominated for 11 Grammys, and Earl, none). I am one who always takes a second look at the underdog, because often times our eyes are fixed upon the star.
Earl did something that can only be done once: his album best captures a bout of depression by submerging the listener into a depressed psyche. Kendrick’s album did something well: he made survivor’s guilt accessible and understandable to an audience who otherwise may have never confronted it by telling a story. Let’s say Kendrick album is a story about depression, and Earl’s is depression. I’ll start my argument there. Have you heard Kendrick’s Section.80? Astonishing album. Probably his best work. In Section.80, Kendrick gives us a dose of the structured narrative that would define Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and echo throughout TPAB. Kendrick uses discussions by a fire with Compton youth about two Black girls, Tammy and Keisha, as the structure for the album. Each song fits somewhere into the narrative of the two girls, roughly. The campfire conversations come at the end of songs, and serve as the beginning of others, just like the poem segments in TPAB, “I remember you was conflicted”. What separates the two concepts is the execution. Where the S80 interludes give a concrete frame to abstract songs, TPAB does the opposite, using abstract interludes to string together concrete songs. Earl bypasses any sort of framing device altogether, and lets his album speak as one long story. We can think about Earl’s album as a gallery that is a painting, and Kendrick’s as a gallery of paintings. Play tracks 1-4 on IDLSIDGO. Then play the first four tracks of TPAB. You’ll hear what I’m saying. Earl’s album is set up as one long song, sonically everything is from the same palette if you will, thematically everything is smoke, isolation, and loss. Kendrick leans on the short spoken word segments to inform how the listener hears the next track, weaving each song together like episodes in a non-linear series. Kendrick cannot afford to maintain the same mood (or paint everything the same color) the way Earl does, because he can’t lose his listener’s attention. Kendrick must maintain a commercial fan base, and have a single like “Alright”, which can be played anywhere: in the car, at a party, on the way to class, hell, even during sex if you need to not be heard by your roommates. Earl’s single “Grief” on the other hand, could not be played at a party, and would ruin any promising sexual encounter. That’s because Earl doesn’t give a fuck if you like the music, he’s trying to communicate a feeling at all costs. There’s no links or interruptions in Earl’s album, it’s one long experience, which emulates actual depression. You might be saying, what’s your point Sean? You prefer expressionism over pop art (yes I understand those are two completely different era’s of art, that is my point, bare with me)? And to that I would say, not exactly, I prefer the artist that is doing whatever it is they are doing the best. TPAB conceptual doesn’t match or surpass Kendrick’s previous work, it falls short. The stories and narrative frames used in both S80 and GKMC were better executed than TPAB. Without his spoken word segments, there is no narrative frame, and even with them, the listener still has to make mental stretches to connect “King Kunta” to “Institutionalized” or “These Walls” to “u”. In terms of the narrative structures of both albums, TPAB doesn’t work for me as well as IDLSIDGO. Okay, okay, so maybe Earl executed an idea better than Kendrick, but earlier you said Earl’s album didn’t even sell as much as his first album! So how does it match or surpass his previous work? Well, I’m so glad you asked, person that I’m arguing with who is really myself, now we’re going to take a trip into Earl’s album work.
Earl’s first album, Doris, was a maximalist masterpiece. From the beats to the rhymes, Earl was doing everything to the max. In fact, that was a highlight of Doris, the sheer amount of shit happening. On “Burgundy”, a single from the album, the intro is like, Vince Staples talks over a piano, a synth, drums, and something else I can’t identify. The album contains no real structure, it’s kind of just a bunch of songs Earl thought were super cool organized on one album. I’m not even sure why he named it Doris; in Greek mythology, Doris is an Oceanid, a sea nymph who is one of 3,000 daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. Did Earl intentional name his album after a minor sea goddess? Maybe. Why? BECAUSE HE’S DOING TOO MUCH! You get my point? Earl just wanted to do something he had never done before, because he thought it was awesome! In this way, Doris is exactly like I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside; on both albums Earl is following his heart regardless of what is happening in the Hip-Hop world. I found the following statement from Earl about Doris on his Twitter account, “I’m just trying to make pretty music. Everyone whose favorite song off Earl was “Epar” or whatever might be pretty bummed. Everyone with 666 or KTA or some sort of stupid hashtag like ‘hey look im crazy’ in their bio might be pretty bummed too. I anticipate a loss of fans. I also anticipate gaining some… I fucking love how it sounds. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that you can hear the progression. I hope I lose you as a fan if you only fuck with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15”. So Earl pretty much confirmed a lot of what I’ve been saying about this progression and intent as an artist. Between his two albums, he made the leap from maximalist to minimalist, even though “Hive ft. Vince Staples & Casey Veggies”, single from Doris, contained a heavy bassline and not much else, the project as a whole had far more instrumentation and intricate rapping than IDLSIDGO. To further reference “Hive”, take a look at the hook as text, “’87 roof top, Bronson/ Whipping hoopties tryna boost raw chronic/ (Brutus in that booth, double scoop, hock vomit up)/ (Sub rocking, thud knocking niggas teeth loose)/ Bruh, I don’t fuck with no cop/ (Rolling with that flow swamp)/ Catch me over stove top/ (Rapping to that coke rock)/ (Passionless in old Jive clothing, with them doors wide open)/ (Dim the floor lights, focused)/ Like it’s nothing, cause it’s nothing, bitch”. Do you understand what you just read? I’m not asking you to be a smart mouth, I’m asking genuinely, because I’ve poured over this hook and even though I’ve decoded it (I left out my close readings for the sake of time), I’m not sure why it’s all there. Again, he’s being extra. But take what you just read and compare it to this, the hook of “Grief”, “Good grief, I been reaping what I sowed/ Nigga, I ain’t been outside in a minute/ I been living what I wrote/ And all I see is snakes in the eyes of these niggas/ Momma taught me how to read ’em when I look/ Miss me at the precinct getting booked/ Fishy niggas stick to eating off of hooks/ Say you eating, but we see you getting cooked, nigga”. Here Earl doesn’t create puzzles with the language, he presents them straight and direct. Although “Grief” is not entirely stripped of punchlines and references, I bet you have a better understanding of what’s happening in the hook of “Grief” than “Hive”, Earl is communicating clearer on “Grief”. If you listen to “Hive” and “Grief”, you’ll hear that “Hive” has a clear end of the first verse and beginning of the hook, signalled by a vocal sample, audio effects, and keys, where as on “Grief” it sounds like the first line of the first verse “I don’t act hard, I’m a hard act to follow nigga” (my favorite line in the whole song by the way) is a part of the hook.
Even in the song structure of the singles, “Grief” is more minimal than “Hive”, shrinking the space between the hooks and the verses. Not to mention the verses themselves are less scattered and more focused on “Grief”. In “Grief” Earl is stuck inside his house, by both choice and inebriation, painting a picture of the debauchery and hedonism he and his friends partake in on a daily basis, “Step into the shadows, we could talk addiction/ When it’s harmful where you going and the part of you that know it/ Don’t give a fuck/ pardon me for going into details/ 3-7-6 was a brothel”. “Hive” is all over the place, it starts with a Gil Scot Heron reference, later there’s a Kraken reference (the Kraken is a mythical sea monster; Earl seems to really like myth, but one thing an English degree taught me is that there’s no better way to be extra than to reference myth), “Crack ceramic and slap a hand out of cash account/ Stamp and shouting, thrashing/ These niggas done let the Kraken out/ Crack-a-lacking, like snap, crackle, popping your ammo off/ Hide your face, and throw your flannels off, Sweatshirt, nigga”. There is no real topic at hand, other than how good he is at rapping. Lastly, “Hive” has two featured artists, while “Grief” has none. We’ve only really seen one other rapper successful (which is debatable) go from being a hardcore maximalist to a dedicated minimalist between albums, and that’s Kanye West, who Earl admires. Also, did you notice how Doris is a maximalist album, yet has a short title, while I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is a minimalist album with a long title? That’s kinda tight.
Kendrick doesn’t make such a leap between his albums. TPAB and GKMC are cousins for sure, and if you disagree, I would take a listen to them again and you’ll hear the same themes being told in different stories with different characters. Also, Kendrick was touring with a live band for S80 and GKMC, so the band he’s amassed for TPAB is consistent with his previous work. The difference is, his band on TPAB is dope. Super dope. Before, they were just good. Anna Wise of Sonnymoon, Thundercat, Bilal, production by Dr. Dre and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, Boi-1da, Flying Lotus, Terrace Martin, Pharrell Williams, Knxwledge, and Sounwave; Kendrick achieves something that Earl did not, and that’s excellence. I played both albums when beginning to write this, and I almost stopped building my argument just off the strength of how perfect TPAB sounds. He’s got some of the best in the studio with him, and I’m convinced Earl has his boys, or he’s by himself. For what Earl was attempting to do, exclusivity what was necessary. Earl produced and wrote all ten tracks on his album. For some rappers, that’s tight, and for others, they really should have gotten some help with something, but for this album, it’s exactly what it needed. “All art is a collaborative process” is a motto I learned from the Hip-Hop & Urban Arts scholarship program, First Wave. Over time and I’ve appreciated the truth in that; Earl has collaborators on the project, Vince, Dash, Wiki, so it’s not like he’s a one-man show. But something about the lone artist, stripping everything away until there is only themselves, is seductive, awesome, and terrifying. Kendrick’s long list of powerhouses doesn’t impress me the way that Earl’s process does. Listening to Earl, I know where the songs came from. Listening to Kendrick, I know who the songs were created by. Not to mention that I’m bothered by the way TPAB is heralded for its use of jazz and funk, as if D’Angelo’s Black Messiah or Chance and the Social Experiment’s Surf, or even Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange don’t exist. Kendrick is not leading a trend as much as he is continuing a trend. We have heard and will continue to hear rappers reintegrating other various forms of Black music into their own sound.
As I close out this essay (is that what this is?) I’ll add that I can’t listen to IDLSIDGO everyday. It’s just way too depressing. I listened to it for two weeks straight (maybe three) and then had to take it off my iPhone. I was starting to feel down. That’s a testament to the power of music; if it captures an emotion or idea well enough, it can impart that upon the listener. Kendrick’s album and Earl’s album are similar in that way; I feel like they are big fans of each other. Both decided to make an album (although vastly different albums) about the trials and tribulations of fame, depression, and addiction (and for Kendrick, self-love, although one can argue that the act of making IDLSIDGO was also self-love for Earl), and both have a way of imprinting their feelings upon the listener that lasts long after the song. TPAB is amazing! The way “Grief” makes me angry, “Alright” gives me hope! I did backflips when I first heard it! But I can’t accept TPAB as the best album of 2015, because I heard Sweatshirt do something unduplicatable. I was speaking to my friend about Earl vs. Kendrick, and he brought up Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo, and how it functions similarly to IDLSIDGO in that it captures a moment in depression. I agreed, because a lot of albums do, but how many of them are intended to be one song, so much that the album opens with the sound of a cassette being put in a tape deck? How many of them come from an artist who just on the last album, was trying to do as much as possible, and is now reducing everything down to as small as possible? ? How many of them have neither producing credits or writing credits outside of samples and features? I believe that Earl’s album only happens once; Kendrick can assemble another team for another album, and recycle another framing device, Earl Sweatshirt made IDLSIDGO once. And that is special, ya’ll.
Outside of being a contributing writer for the Black Voice, Sean Avery is a poet and rapper. His work has been featured on Buzzfeed and Blavity, and published in Wisconsin People & Ideas as well as Illumination, the Undergraduate Journal of Humanities. He is an English Creative Writing major at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and his work embraces both his imagination and his journey towards defining his own Black masculinity.