Earl Sweatshirt Is Leading a New Breed of Conscious Rap

Earl Sweatshirt makes it outside.
Earl Sweatshirt makes it outside.
Brick Stowell

After decades of sociopolitical rhetoric, conscious rappers like Chuck D and Talib Kweli still spit about the injustices crippling our country. From police brutality to capitalism and miseducation, these old-school dudes hold no punches and confront the system head on.

But there's a new breed of rapper repackaging conscious hip-hop. Theirs is brooding and subjective — less revolutionary pitchfork than psychoanalytic free association. They've made it acceptable — even cool — to be emotional, to admit feelings like depression and anxiety. In a complete 180 for the genre, these artists question confidence and often flaunt insecurities.

These rappers' psyches are the results of social constraints that are outcomes of an environment molded by economic and political conditions. In a sense, they give a more precise and more particular perspective to the ramifications of social, political, and economic tumult.

The 21-year-old Earl Sweatshirt and other artists like 22-year-old Vince Staples (who has pulled out of the Grand Central show he was once on the ticket of) help fuel this movement with their internalized verses. Both rappers hail from Los Angeles County, and both disrupted the hip-hop scene with debut and sophomore albums that emanated intelligence, self-reflection, and awareness.

The rich and expressive studio debut, Doris, established Earl's complex mindset and rhyme schemes as he battled with himself and with memories of his grandmother and father. The track "Burgundy" reveals the thoughts of a young man with a conscience, dreams, and insecurities entangled: "Grandma's passing/But I'm too busy trying to get this fucking album cracking to see her/So I apologize in advance if anything should happen/And my priorities fucked up, I know it, I'm afraid I'm going to blow it/And when them expectations raising because daddy was a poet, right?"

And you don't need to read beyond the title of Earl's DIY album, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside to recognize the brooding artist again. The title acknowledges Earl's introspective demeanor and writing habits. On Doris, he refers to these as "desolate testaments." On IDLSIDGO, he returns to thoughts of family almost immediately in the opening track, "Huey," as he admits, "I spent the day drinking and missing my grandmother..." With these reflections, Earl reveals the tumult of success in the face of doubts and expectations.

In 2014, Vince Staples’ 24-minute debut EP Hell Can Wait introduced a young man as conscious as he was conflicted. The album artwork depicted a cartoon kid witnessing a house burn down – the lyrical content was equally as incendiary to his environment.

This summer’s album, Summertime ’06, saw Vince continue to critique himself and his origins. Plenty of rappers rant on social media, but when Vince announced his sophomore album, he accompanied the Instagram pic with a 200-word, diaristic post describing his adolescent loss of innocence in emotional detail, ending with, "This might not make sense but that's because none of it does, we're stuck. Love tore us all apart...”

Meanwhile in an interview on NPR’s Microphone Check, Vince claimed that was he part of the problem – and thus he was the problem – and that the album was his attempt to reveal himself, to recognize and fix the problem directly: "There cannot be a solution till the problem is addressed, and that's the point I'm at right now." 

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Vince embodies and confronts these thoughts in the gangster-love song “Summertime," in which he attempts authentic love. His emotions “Hope you understand, they never taught me how to be man/Only how to be a shooter, I only need time to prove it…” And later, "My feelings told me love is real/But feelings known to get you killed."

This new breed of conscious millennials considers issues like police brutality through the effects it has on the individuals who suffer them. Economic woes are understood by understanding those who grapple with them. These aren't Nas' book of rhymes in which we perceive the streets through the eyes of a resident. These are lyrical diaries in which we see into the psyche of the boys and men whose day to day are mired by their environment.

Earl Sweatshirt With Remy Banks. 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 2, at Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-377-2277; grandcentralmiami.com. Tickets cost $30 to $60 plus fees via ticketweb.com. All Ages.

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