#20: The Carters – Everything Is Love
In the summer of 2006 I had been married for nine months, was living in the St. Catharines equivalent to the hood, and was contemplating a move to Toronto.
In the summer of 2006 Vince Staples was 13, living in Long Beach, and being introduced to a series of heady firsts: first love, first time with drugs, first exposure to gangbanging. Summertime ’06 is the story of that summer, replete with mentions of moving drugs, falling in love, having to deal with the death of friends, and feelings of being out of control and suicidal. As a document of growing up black in Greater Los Angeles, it rivals good kid m.A.A.d. city, although it lacks that album’s dense lyricism and grander sense of purpose. It’s an honest surprise coming from Vince Staples, who first came into my consciousness via “Epar” on Earl Sweatshirt’s self-titled debut EP. His mixtapes have always been solid although fairly uneventful; his real strength only began to glimmer on the features he had on Doris, Earl Sweatshirt’s first full-length. For a guy who at the age of 18 had yet to think of himself as ever being a rapper, Vince Staples is possessed of a good flow and a coherent sense of himself in service to the album as a whole.
He’s aided by the production of course, in this case a three-way meeting of the minds between No I.D., DJ Dahi, and the inimitable Clams Casino. They eschew fashionable trap beats in favour of filtered, flayed, fucked-up sampling and synth work. Clams Casino is especially in fine form: “Norf Norf”, “Summertime”, and “Surf” are perfect examples of his drugged-out, crawling style of beat, and Staples sounds suitably pensive and moody on top of them. No I.D. – Kanye West’s mentor and one-time in-house producer – creates a lot of the rest of the album, and tracks like “Lemme Know”, “Jump Off The Roof”, and “3230” are among the best beats he’s ever produced. “Jump Off The Roof” should be singled out all on its own; Staples rides the beat effortlessly and makes losing your mind and contemplating suicide seem like the best idea ever conceived.
I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories, and on Summertime ’06 both the storyteller and the medium come together in a way that comes along very rarely. Staples brings street-level imagery but does it in such a way that it never feels forced or cliche. It’s foremost an admission of having lived what he says, and a look back on his whirlwind gangsta adolescence with the immediate nostalgia of being twentysomething and the wide-eyed shock of a survivor. The production team teases out these images and feelings with the deft touch of mastery, adding gravitas to what could easily have been overblown and annoyingly over-the-top. Easily one of the best albums of the year, and one of the best hip hop albums of the decade.
Earl Sweatshirt – the son of South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile – has come a fairly long way from when he jerked off to videos of Asher Roth eating apple sauce at the age of 16. Those were of course the heady days of L.A.’s skater-rap collective Odd Future, when Tyler, the Creator still packed an emotional punch and Frank Ocean was just the group’s hook man. Since then, he was ushered off to a boarding school halfway across the planet by his worried mother, UC law professor Cheryl Harris, was the subject of a wide-reaching internet meme (“Free Earl!”), came back and released one of the best hip hop albums of 2013, Doris.
Two years later the scene is different. Tyler fell off, and Frank Ocean has become a breakout star in his own right after channel ORANGE conquered airwaves across the globe. Earl dropped the fact that he had a new album coming out in our laps about a week and a half before it actually happened, giving up the weird, slow-pitched single “Grief” as a sample. “Grief” is divisive in its oddity: down-pitched drums, draggy samples that resemble witch house instrumentals, and lines about drinking and drugs that are more “coping with depression” than they are “partying every night”.
There is a line in “Grief” that I find more interesting than the rest: “Step into the shadows, we could talk addiction”. Keorapetse Kgositsile published a poem in 2002 entitled “Random Notes To My Son”, and the first part reads “Beware, my son, words / that carry the loudnesses / of blind desire also carry / the slime of illusion / dripping like pus from the slave’s battered back / e.g. they speak of black power whose eyes / will not threaten the quick whitening of their own intent / What days will you inherit? / What shadows inhabit your silence?” For Earl, the silence lies between the lurching, chopped-up beats on this album, and the shadows are legion: the rigours of touring, the rootless, homeless feelings he has now, the steady toll of liquor, drugs, and casual sex, the death of his grandmother in 2013, the feeling of distance he has now from his former Odd Future compatriots. His verse on “Mantra” says a lot: “You know you famous when the niggas that surround you switch / And if they hated in a passive tense / And now they hound your dick / And you ain’t ask for this / Now you surrounded with a gaggle of a hundred fucking thousand kids / Who you can’t get mad at when they want to pound a pic / ‘Cause they the reason that the traffic on the browser quick / And they the reason that the paper in your trouser’s thick”. His lost feeling comes up on “Faucet” when he says “I don’t know whose house to call home lately / I hope my phone breaks, let it ring”. “Inside” talks about how he missed the first big wave of Odd Future’s popularity: “Got a tape? Catch a wave, now you in the industry ocean, missing out on your boat / I been figuring out my own fish, home gets distant”. It’s a lonely, paranoid sort of existence, although in the end, on the last lines of “Wool”, he talks about the $50 bills falling out of his pocket like baby teeth and makes disparaging comments about not caring about what the “loser niggas” are doing.
Earl handles all the production here as well, aside from some very limited work from fellow OF alum Left Brain. It’s all very rough and lo-fi, as though the beats were hand-crafted in a dank hotel room somewhere on the road. This is a compliment, of course; too often people feel that hip hop production has to be slick, and there is a loss of authenticity along that route. These beats are real – cut-up, stained with whatever drinks were spilled on them, smelling like used latex and day-old ganja. They’re beats that are lived-in, used and abused, and they fit the shadows that Earl has taken to inhabiting perfectly.
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is a grimey, depressive album that sounds like the courtyard of a trashed motel after the lights go out. After the high-concept jazz-funk of To Pimp A Butterfly and the balls-out maximalist experimentalism of The Powers That B, it’s actually really refreshing.