Earl Sweatshirt has spent the last decade weaving labyrinthine webs and retreating into them. While Earl’s early releases saw him stacking rhymes like Legos and writing like an appropriately fascinated child, his later work has flipped this script, with his bars unravelling but his writing become knottier. Feet of Clay, his latest release, continues this trend; the very first seconds of the album hide an oblique dismissal behind a plain “you’re like Amar’e Stoudemire with dreads”.
Sonically, however, Feet of Clay is pretty one-dimensional: shit is bleak out here. Mournful vocal samples, dusty keys, and understated drums back Earl’s vocals, which are in turn mixed so that they seem to settle into the beats like tired bones into an old sofa. Very little surfaces from the haze, save a few choice phrases and sound effects that materialise and then dissolve again. At its best, this haziness makes Feet of Clay pretty sublime: “MTOMB” is hypnotic, and the highlight (lowlight?) of the album is “EL TORO COMBO MEAL”, a gripping manifesto about struggle, self-worth, and nothingness. Guest rapper Mavi brings a desperate energy to the track while Earl doesn’t so much rap as land blows with his repetitive bars, and it’s hard to tell who injures more.
These same qualities, however, are what trip Feet of Clay up elsewhere. It’s actually not hard to pick out what Earl is saying on these songs—his blunt, unadorned delivery and purposeful enunciation have always made him an easy rapper to keep up with. Instead, songs like “74” move at such a snail’s pace and Earl does so little with his delivery that it becomes hard to care about him at all. This erasure of Earl’s world-beating talent is particularly egregious on “EAST”. The song absolutely sucks, which is pretty sad considering that some of Feet of Clay’s best writing is wasted on such a god-awful beat.
Ultimately, we get the sense that the uneven Feet of Clay is more for Earl than it is for us. There’s no telling if his career-spanning implosion will continue indefinitely or if hip hop’s prodigal son will perk up eventually, but his writing is fascinating and occasionally beautiful enough that it’s worth waiting to find out.