Earl Sweatshirt and Quelle Chris use the contrast and inconsistencies in their psyche to create music that digs at what it truly means to be human. On their most recent solo albums, the two MC’s undertake a tandem journey to understand their own minds and how self-perception shapes the imperfect realities of being alive.
Earl Sweatshirt, Quelle Chris, and the Oscillating Mind
Every one of us experiences oscillation. To compare our journeys to a rollercoaster at a theme park seems derivative, yet it is a metaphor that reveals itself to be increasingly potent and accurate as one begins to reflect on their life. Our perception of ourselves and our world bounces frequently across sizeable amplitudes as we live our lives. Somewhere between the heights of hope and the depths of despair, our human experience is defined.
The concept of oscillation has been painted throughout art history. So, as an artist, how do you express this without boring the audience? How do you morph it into something that really connects with them on a personal level rather than it falling into the abyss of failed attempts by artists to engage their listeners? Earl Sweatshirt and Quelle Chris have perfected the demonstration of oscillation, and the understanding that the brightest parts of themselves will always be countered with darker sections of their minds.
Some Rap Songs displays all Shades of Earl Sweatshirt’s psyche
In November 2018, hip-hop witnessed the return of one of its most sincere and gifted talents. Earl Sweatshirt, after a 3-year hiatus, released his third studio album Some Rap Songs, the follow up to his 2015 effort, I Don’t Like Sh*t, I Don’t Go Outside. While Earl had previously worked with production in the wheelhouse of dark, synth based, aggressive instrumentals, a result of his involvement with Odd Future, on SRS he opted for a glitchy, looped sample-based soundscape.
IDLSIDGO is an album from the depths of depression. Earl was reaching into the darkest, dust-brimmed corners of his consciousness and pulling out thoughts people would not dare vocalise outside of an email to their therapist. For 30 minutes, the listener is subjected to the world created by Earl’s demons, and it’s bleak.
Some Rap Songs is different. As someone who has openly been battling mental illness for some time, Earl expresses his fair share of lows on the album, but these are always balanced by a healthy amount of clarity and self-reflection. The lead single, “Nowhere2go”, finds Earl lost inside a whirlwind of sound as his flow seems to struggle to find footing. He raps, “I think I spent most of my life depressed / only thing on my mind was death / didn’t know if my time was next / tryna refine this sh*t” while unexpected vocal samples and an off-kilter drum pattern fight to drown his voice out.
We see Earl in a state of depression, unable to find space or time to refine his thoughts. He’s lost and feels as if there is nowhere to go.
In the album’s next song, “December 24th,” Earl rapidly pivots from his stance on the previous song––finding reasons as to why he feels the way he does, rather than letting his demons drag him down further into that abyss. Earl strides over a cut-and-dry yet ominous piano loop with power and purpose in his voice––aware of everything and everyone around him, especially himself.
How the Creases on Earl’s Brain found Peace
Earl’s mental pendulum is on display for all to see. Earl thanks everyone, especially the black women, who helped carry him over the years on “Azucar.” Cushioned by an instrumental comprised of light strings and a soulful vocal sample, lines like “see the ghost of where I was lonesome as I was” allow us to consider that Earl may finally have a complete view of who he is. When asked about his status as a “surviving child star,” in November of 2018, Earl explained: “I’m still out here updating and like, you have to interact with these updates… that’s why I get so like worked up and anxious.” With knowledge of the roots of his anxiety, Earl can push forward towards acceptance and relative peace.
Unfortunately, he seems to fall back into the troughs of his oscillation on “Eclipse,” where Earl is tangled in the looped instrumental, considering shutting himself off from the world, asking the listener to “say goodbye to my openness.” Yet, this appears to be another low Earl embraces on the very next track, “Veins,” where he speaks one of the most powerful lines on Some Rap Songs:
Peace to every crease on your brain”
Earl knows he cannot erase the effects of his demons. He is aware that his dark past cannot be overwritten and that the future may be loaded with dark moments of its own. But he will make peace with every event that does damage to his mental.
“Peanut” is a discontinuous, heart-wrenching track where Earl details his experience with the death of his father and uncle. He utters “depression, this is not a phase,” insinuating that the peace Earl made on “Veins” has vanished; the deaths of Earl’s father and uncle have taken a wrecking ball to his psyche, marring the end of SRS with darkness.
However there can be other implications. Conversely, the line can be understood as just another event Earl is ready to make peace with. While it may be a large crease on his brain, this sentiment is a reminder that time will heal it. And still others have interpreted the line as implying Earl has made peace with the fact he may feel this way forever. He may live his life darting between hopefulness and hopelessness, being built up just to have his world knocked down––stuck in a loop, just like many of the instrumentals on the album. Some Rap Songs introduces a new representation of oscillation, leaving the listener inspired to move forward, or worried Earl will never escape the problems he has with himself.
Quelle Chris oscillates violently throughout Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often
“I f**ks with myself, might bring myself some flowers, I’m in love with myself” are the remarks of Quelle Chris, at the top end of his 2017 LP, Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often (BYIG). An underground hip-hop mainstay, Quelle expertly floats between pain numbing jubilance and mind-numbing stagnation throughout the album. The above quote is pulled from “Buddies,” where Quelle expresses self-love in an over the top, hilarious fashion. With a free-form refrain of “I might just jump back and kiss myself,” Quelle sets up the idea of “you” from the album title — the version of himself who he loves and does not mind being alone with.
The subsequent song finds Quelle Chris wishing he could be “you” more often. “Popeye” is a sombre realisation of the stop-start nature of life. Quelle reflects on his goals and his failed attempts at reaching them, while balancing his gratitude for life and his inability to seize the entirety of its potential. The lines “kickin’ the can but never eats the spinach, seems I never reach the goal but always meet the finish, though I know my heart goes (pump pump)” highlight Quelle’s inability to see past his failures, but also his capacity to accept the life he has. The dichotomy between “Buddies” and “Popeye” is set up to be a theme throughout the entire project –– oscillating from the peak of your confidence, to accepting you will never be as great as you want to be, at the frequency of a gamma ray.
As BYIG progresses, the highs vary between blind self-confidence and wholesome self-awareness, while the lows lean towards self-deprecation. Quelle seems to shift his entire persona, track-by-track. On “In Case I Lose Myself In The Crowd,” Quelle lays down words of reassurance as something he can come back to, to remind himself that no matter what flaws he may be obsessed with, those flaws make him who he is.
The sunrise ain’t always sunny, I ain’t foolin’ myself, I’ve been down, still I’m proud, I am full of myself”
He demonstrates his understanding of the continually shifting nature of life, a moment of clarity similar to “Veins” from Earl’s Some Rap Songs. This is Quelle’s “peace to every crease on your brain.” Mirroring SRS further, Quelle proceeds to regress into old habits on songs like “Dumb For Brains” and “The Prestige,” disregarding what he realized on “In Case I Lose Myself In The Crowd.” Quelle masterfully expresses the velocity at which short-sightedness can arise after a period where the bigger picture was so clear. Our minds allow for problems to pile up, giving them more credence than they actually deserve, causing our mental shores to develop into a tsunami of our demons.
“I’m That Ni#%a” and “Birthdaze” usher in the most ridiculous moments of elation and the greyest moments of deflation on Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often. The former sees Quelle indulge in the typical rapper lifestyle, making use of an absurd sense of humour. He opens the track with an offer to the listener, “somebody wipe me down, and if you’re lucky I might let you keep the towel.” The bizarre braggadocio only increases in magnitude as the track continues. Quelle claims that “the P.O.T.U.S wants to shake my hand, I’m like chill don’t be stan, let’s make weekend plans.” He paints the image of a man with the world at his feet, high off his own fame, creating a new version of himself around whom the universe revolves. This complacency comes back to bite him as the track wears on and begins to detail the rejection Quelle faces. First, from a member of his hometown, who expresses his distaste for the big headed star Quelle Chris has become. Then, from the record industry, as Quelle embarrassedly admits he was “played.”
Quelle Chris finds Solid Ground in the aftermath of Crushing Loss
Quelle, seemingly in orbit, was riding the high of celebrity before plummeting back to reality having been played by the record industry and rejected by his home. The purgatory he lands in is the album’s 12thsong, “Birthdaze.” Amongst blaring, triumphant horns, Quelle flatly delivers some of the most depressing lines on BYIG. The track begins with him murmuring “sh*t been on my mind all week, and I’m weak.” Harkening back to the ideas realised in “Popeye,” Quelle experiences a fall from a much larger height, but with the same symptoms. He has struggled to free himself of the storm of his thoughts, permitting the black cloud that follows him to grow to the point where he is rendered powerless, despite the powerful instrumental he exists inside.
Contrasting that horn-laden beat, Quelle experiences the loss of strength, the loss of purpose (“find me a purpose for now, learn the reasons for then”), the loss of passion for his craft (“they say ‘boy, you got a gift’ I say ‘well, here, you take it’”), and the loss of his will to see the next day (“if it’s a race to the end then why come in first place”).
The discrepancies between the songs grow more aggressive in the latter stages of Being You Is Great, finding resolution on the final song (before an “encore” which houses the appropriately named “Pendulum Swing”), “It’s Great To Be”.
The title of the song is telling. Quelle sees everything he experiences is a part of being, and the times he is down will always make the serotonin-inducing moments even sweeter. This song is the realisation that resisting a slump after a period of bliss is futile. We saw him mourn his failed goals on “Popeye,” lose his passion for life itself on “Birthdaze” and yet, he is ultimately able to find a measure of peace. Something that oscillates is never in one space for too long, and if given enough time, it will always find its way back to the top of its amplitude.
Earl and Quelle Accept their Flaws and, in doing so, Accept Themselves
With Some Rap Songs, Earl takes a serious, almost coded tone to describe his journeys across the jostling highs and lows of life , while Quelle’s BYIG tackles the theme more directly, with a greater sense of humour. Despite these differences, their albums arrive at the same point: making peace with their flaws, accepting their humanity. It is with this sentiment that every soul who listens to these albums can find a piece of themselves in the arcs of Earl and Quelle.
We have this idea that there’s one way to live life perfectly, that every goal we imagine will realise itself as an exact physical manifestation of what was in our heads. Earl and Quelle go on the same quest and discover peace not in perfection – but in accepting their own humanity. Both experience victories, both find themselves in the darkest pits of their minds and both eventually find their way to acceptance. Acceptance that peace of mind cannot be achieved without struggle. Acceptance that, whether they feel exalted or deflated, they will not feel like that forever. Acceptance of their human imperfections. Once this place is reached, every crease on our brain can find peace, and we can be “you” more often.
No two people experience things the same way. Earl and Quelle find amity with themselves through their own methods with their own outlooks, the same way you and I will. While many adapt their experiences to ensure they are consumable by a wider audience, Earl Sweatshirt and Quelle Chris boldly put a vulnerable picture on display for all to see. A picture where the peaks and troughs of oscillation are in harmonious balance.