Rap’s Modern Masterpiece: Earl Sweatshirt’s “Stapleton”


Tomorrow, Saturday February 22nd at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the once-elusive Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt takes the stage for his second of two New York shows. It’s hard to believe it’s already been four years since Odd Future first organically blew up via word (among other things) of mouth and the spread of their free music and eye-popping visuals leading to one of hip-hop’s most dedicated fanbases. But for all the attention given to their multimedia efforts and hilarious social antics, it seems easy for some to forget what absolute talents the entire crew are possesses. Case in point, Earl’s absolutely incredible 2010 masterpiece “Stapleton,” simply among the absolute best rap tracks recorded this decade.

See also: These Odd Future Shirts Should Not Be Banned From Schools!

“Stapleton” was the closing track on Earl’s debut album Earl. Released for free to coincide with the “Earl” video that saw the group appear on computer screens coast-to-coast, the project was, for many, the first addictive taste of the crew that inspired listeners to check further into what Odd Future had to offer. Thus, Earl was completed when the outfit were still largely unknown. The youngest of the crew, Earl’s performance was nothing short of an absolute rap prodigy. His flows, storytelling and turns-of-phrase were all off the charts and immediately placed him among the most technically proficient MCs in the world. Bear in mind, Earl did this at the age of 15. That’s why, when people disregard the more shocking aspects and darker humor of the record as being “sophomoric,” they fail to realize that Earl was the age of the average high school freshman at the time. Pigeonholing him in that manner is essentially conceding that he’s mature for his age.

But trying to impose some bizarre unspoken standard of morality onto Odd Future at this time, and especially Earl, was to miss the fact that these were teenagers making music about teenage shit, they just happened to do it in a freshly creative way at a hyper-proficient level. So while Earl‘s subject matter does contain a lot of sex, murder and mayhem, it’s done with the glee of a tween sneaking a high-octane Rated R movie out of a video rental store or the thrill of that first time using the internet to search for porn. Again, the reason Earl found such an audience is because these energies were transferred into making some incredible music.

That’s not to say that beneath the surface there isn’t some incredibly compelling sleight of hand going on. Enter “Stapleton.” The one track on Earl produced by BeatBoy, it boasts Sweatshirt’s dynamic construction of lyrics at its most nuanced. From a technical standpoint, the symmetry of the verses and inter-play of the rhyming syllables in-between is some of the most impressively layered lyricism ever found on a debut album.

The first verse begins “It’s Earl, Mr. Early Bird,” the second begins “It’s Earl, Mr. Lateshift.” Both conclude with the repetition of the final four lines and while the former shows Earl’s control of his fanbase, the latter shows that control’s effect. There’s also the sly references to clothing (“in hell with fuckin’ coats /
Probably wear more layers, there’s only one Sweatshirt,”
“Mr. Deerskin Moccasins,” “his grandfather sweatshirt, clockin’ all them cardigans”) all tying the free-association of images back to the Earl Sweatshirt motif.

But beyond the funny (“Furnish the flow until my pockets green, Kermit’s dick”), syllable stacking (“Ray say hey Earl’s a real charming racist / Your birthday day, have some KK cake bitch”) and overt hyper-masculine teenage intimidation, the third verse gives us the couplets:

Product of popped rubbers and pops that did not love us
So when I leave home keep my heart on the top cupboard
So I will not stutter when I’m shoutin’ “Fuck you, son
Wolf Gang ’bout it, we ain’t waitin’ ’til the moon come!”

In four bars, this could read as the Odd Future manifesto. The first visage of a generation brought up post-file-sharing where absolutely anything music related is immediately accessible, it captures funneling that teenage rebellion into something truly extraordinary. It would perhaps be projecting to say as much about “Stapleton” when it dropped four years ago, but in the time since then Earl is not only “Free” but has released a proper follow-up album, it stands as a masterpiece, one of the finest hours for a period of rap music’s changing of the guard.