The surprise announcement and subsequent release of Earl Sweatshirt’s Feet of Clay were sudden enough to leave no time for expectations to be developed. If you aren’t a fan of Earl Sweatshirt, the periphery around this EP, like the cover art — which could have been lifted directly from an early 2000s death metal album — as well as Earl’s statement that “FOC is a collection of observations and feelings recorded during the death throes of a crumbling empire” and the fact that it was released at midnight on Halloween, might turn you off from the get-go. It might even feel like cheating, using the context of the EP’s release to such an extent in order to prime your conception of the music before you even listen to a second of it.
But this is Earl Sweatshirt, not some second-rate horrorcore rapper fighting for attention on Bandcamp. Feet of Clay does not aim to frighten the listener through voyeuristic lyrical exhibitions of horror. Much more unsettlingly, this EP envelops the listener completely in a bleak and hopeless smog for its 15-minute runtime, with any small light that manages to penetrate through only serving to make the rest of its setting more dour in comparison.
“My canteen was full of the poison I need / The trip as long as steep / My innocence was lost in the East”
Abuse of alcohol and marijuana is presented bluntly in the lyrics, and the instrumentals are equally narcotic and hazy. The looping accordion underneath “EAST” remains almost completely untouched throughout the song’s two-minute runtime. The song sounds like a pirate’s funeral dirge, presided over by an irreverent pastor getting steadily angrier over time — the sonic equivalent of belligerent drunkenness. Even though it’s only two minutes long, it feels about twice that. Coming after the sleepy opener, it’s an especially jarring listen — it sounds like it would be more at home on a clipping. album than it is here. On the Madlib-esque middle three beats, or the I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside throwback grooves on the final stretch of the EP, the instrumentals remain lo-fi, matching Earl’s subdued flow. It’s an easy touchstone, as there isn’t much of the sort that listeners haven’t heard on past projects. But the sepia tone beats, especially on “MTOMB” and “EL TORO COMBO MEAL,” are consistently haunting yet beautiful enough that there’s no reason to want a change in style: Besides, it’s hard to imagine that there is a better type of instrumental for Earl to rap over.
Earl’s flow is slower on this EP than it has been in the past, and his vocals remain relatively low key throughout. At times he is pressing his mouth almost directly to the microphone, rapping in a blunt, aspirated monotone which belies his youth, giving him the commanding yet subdued presence of a man three times his age. Earl’s style of rapping is often compared to MF DOOM, but on this project, Earl uses a flow far less acrobatic and sprightly than the older DOOM’s. He presents his lines one after another, sometimes cramming as much as he can into a bar with little regard for rhythmic consistency. His lyrical content, which has rarely been as disconnected and surreal as it is here, fits this presentation perfectly. The barrage of depressed imagery, broken up with occasional references to sports teams and other pop culture paraphernalia, has the same air of nostalgia and longing that has characterized Earl’s best work since Doris. It’s an impressive feat, and the top lyrical form Earl was in on Some Rap Songs seems to have continued onto this project.
Perhaps the reason for this consistency is that the songs here all seem to be leftovers from SRS, and this project is the Amnesiac to Earl’s Kid A. If this is the case, it is commendable that even the songs that didn’t make the cut for the final album maintain a similarly high level of quality. If these songs are new, it’s an excellent sign for the future, signaling that Earl intends to continue forward in his engrossing and idiosyncratic style in the face of the increasing homogenization of mainstream hip hop music. But to hear this EP as a deliberative stand taken against his contemporaries would be entirely incorrect: In the end, as Earl himself would tell you, it’s just some more rap songs.
Richard Beezley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].