In August of this year, the same month that he released this new album with The Alchemist, Earl Sweatshirt celebrated the ten-year anniversary of his studio debut Doris with a series of live shows, one of which hosted a reunion of the collective that propelled him into fame: Odd Future. In that time span, his talent and honesty propelled him further into peace. The meet-up was a wholesome, fulfilling, and nostalgic moment for fans, despite the wildly different directions those careers went in individually. For Earl, that path unraveled his personal growth and grievances, exploring his highs and lows in the search for the truth behind his story. On VOIR DIRE, he seems closer to that goal than he’s ever been on wax, without compromising what makes him and the legendary producer such idiosyncratic and captivating figures in hip-hop.
Moreover, this new 11-track and near-28-minute-long LP was released under unconventional methods and with mysterious origins. For those unaware, it followed years of teases of a full collab project that was apparently on YouTube under a different name, according to The Alchemist. When a joint effort between him and Earl Sweatshirt finally dropped, it was on the NFT-centered site Gaia Music (where you can stream VOIR DIRE for free), with each track available for purchase with its artwork and yielding advertised rewards like T-shirts, FaceTime calls, and a smoke session. Needless to say, it’s a cryptic record in the streaming age: free, yet on the blockchain, and taking a bit more effort to tune in from fans. Nevertheless, it might be the most consistent, cohesive, and no-frills album that either has dropped in years.
Earl Sweatshirt’s Lyrical Excellence & Chemistry With The Alchemist
To achieve this, the Chicago-born and Santa Monica-raised MC and Uncle Al complement each other’s styles seamlessly. The latter’s cavernous, tight, dense, and always gorgeous sample flips are caves and pockets that the former explores meanderingly, but with conviction and an avalanche of exciting and dynamic flows. Earl Sweatshirt is one of the most expressive, emotionally impactful, and downright skillful lyricists today, and The Alchemist has been an excellent partner (and also leader) for his tales. Both shift between moods on VOIR DIRE, though, pushing each other to new corners. Al can be dramatic, soft, funky, grimy, or melancholic; Earl comes off as confident, downtrodden, nihilistic, triumphant, reflective, and wholly present in the moment, all at once.
On that last note, recalling every amazing bar on here without running VOIR DIRE from front to back is impossible. Whether it’s his sharp wordplay and references, his stark imagery, or his gut-wrenching phrasing, the 29-year-old comes off as wise beyond lifetimes. Tracks like “Geb” and “Mac Deuce” attest to his unmatched abilities in the game. But for every high, there’s a pained and brutally sincere examination of the journey there, like “Vin Skully” or “Dead Zone.” Also, newer topics in his discography emerge, like being a father on “27 Braids” (“She said I got a son on the way, made my bed so that’s where I’ma lay”) or somber reflections on violence in rap that took his collaborator and fellow Cali MC Drakeo The Ruler on “Free The Ruler” (“Streetcar called pride droppin’ n***as off in the morgue… It’s not normal, but I swear this s**t is regular”).
VOIR DIRE‘s Sonic Palettes & Structures
In order to condense these expressions in sonic form, The Alchemist makes the most out of what seems like a little. Sample loops evolve once Earl Sweatshirt’s verses end, the instrumentals fade in and out with new minimal details, and spoken word passages add to VOIR DIRE’s truth and story-driven themes. What often happens on this album is that a tear-jerking instrumental will contrast with boastful or hopeful lines, and vice versa. As such, they end up creating a nuanced and complex emotional image with each track, which makes itself more unique among the cast with each listen. Some highlights include the shimmering keys on “All The Small Things,” the infectious guitar lick on “Vin Skully” (one of many), the shrill and lo-fi strings on “100 High Street,” and the breezy woodwind melodies on- you guessed it, “My Brother, The Wind.”
Of course, the Tan Cressida rapper is no stranger to beats like these, especially from Uncle Al. For a while now, Earl Sweatshirt has been a master at the short but punch-packing one-verse hip-hop song formula, sometimes with a chorus. There’s as much emotion in the lyrics as there is in a given song’s sound. For example, “My Brother, The Wind” hits you with self-aware, regretful, but optimistic assessments like, “Etch-A-Sketch what I live, shiverin’, erasin’ what I did, opaque, be complacent as the wind.” In addition, there are the reflections on diamonds in the rough on “All The Small Things”: “New s**t consumed quick, it’s perishable, embed it with gold and it’s gon’ never get old.”
What’s New On This Album And What Doesn’t Work?
Still, there are plenty of left hooks, impressive innovations, and unearthed previous tendencies on VOIR DIRE, as familiar as this aesthetic territory is for both artists. One shining example is the shifting and malleable flows and rhythmic accents on “Sentry.” While Earl Sweatshirt gives the track a 4/4 feel, MIKE’s gripping feature verse brings the track to a 3/4 swing that can completely change how you conceptualize the song as you listen. It’s a small detail, but with an album at this level of craft, it’s those minute concoctions that make it so engaging. Another standout surprise is “Sirius Blac,” whose easy-going beat mixes its glittering joy with a chorus, verse, and delivery reminiscent of early Odd Future anthems that could’ve popped up on Doris, something Earl hasn’t fully tapped into in a long time.
However, that familiarity is what might land as lukewarm for fans who tune into VOIR DIRE. Earl and Al are simply doing what they do best, and what they’ve already condensed into masterworks. With that in mind, this album isn’t a revolution for either musician at first glance. It’s definitely a niche-scratching effort, but it yields some of the best material either has ever put out because of its simplicity, concise nature and for being probably the most tender thing either of them has ever released. Finally, if you complained about this NFT concept, the only true crime of two rap legends getting their bag through a free album and a new avenue that brings fans closer than streaming services ever could is that the web player on Gaia is glitchy, and that’s a fortunate thing to name as the project’s greatest flaw.
Earl & Uncle Al’s Best In Years
Overall, this long-awaited collab album is everything fans ask from this duo. Despite its brevity, it packs addictive instrumentals, so many rewind-warranting lyrics, and seemingly every theme under the sun into a powerfully all-killer and honest project. Family, genealogy, ego, regret, death, constancy, uncertainty, hope, perseverance, and much more fall under Earl’s magnifying glass, and the lens this time is much more calm, measured, accountable, and accepting of his path forward from past mistakes and struggles. It might not tread completely new ground, but it sums up the abstract lyricist’s past work with a beatsmith who’s been there for him every step of the way: I Don’t Like S**t‘s hunger and darkness, SRS‘ dejected solitude, mixed with Alfredo’s sheen and Return of the Mac’s hope. They champion their humanity, and through the specific vividness of their emotions, they create something universal, potent, and comforting.
Akin to the legal term behind its namesake, which determines a witness or juror’s ability to tell the truth, VOIR DIRE hammers on the veracity and authenticity behind each creative’s artistry. Like the spoken word passage on the closing track states, their mission is to make listeners understand them as individuals, for which The Alchemist provides some of his most crisp and heartfelt instrumentals in years that define his undefinable style. The result is a highly compelling exercise in providing context and clarity to Earl’s whole career: his demons, dreams, dominance, and determination — things he’s tackled since before Odd Future welcomed him. Thebe Neruda Kgositsile’s endured a lot, with his art updating his unfiltered perspective as the world’s student. Rather than dwelling on peaks and valleys, it feels like Earl’s finally found balance in his growth, and is grateful for the ride.