Speculating themes in Earl Sweatshirt’s new record releasing tonight: Title, Expressionism, Track-list, Album Cover

Earl Sweatshirt just announced a musical Halloween surprise: a new album dropping tonight.

As I tweeted out earlier today, after listening and paying close attention to Earl Sweatshirt’s past work, Earl always reminds me of the following:

His last record Some Rap Songs was an emotive and jarring portrayal of his struggles with mental health, familial circumstance and the world at large. I was gripped by the turbulent and breviloquent record (only 24-minutes in length) last year and I look forward to Earl improving his glitchy poetry talents.

Table of Contents:

1. Titular significance

2. Arnold Schönberg and Expressionism

3. Track-list

4. Cover Art

 

1. Titular significance

The title for this surprise record is Feet of Clay. Feet of clay is an idiomatic expression which denotes weakness or character flaw especially in people with power, status and prominence. A well-known reference to the phrase “feet of clay” is found in the third stanza of 19th century English poet Lord Byron’s “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.” This is the third stanza of the 19-stanza composition:

“Thanks for that lesson—it will teach
To after-warriors more
Than high Philosophy can preach,
And vainly preach’d before.
That spell upon the minds of men
Breaks never to unite again,
That led them to adore
Those Pagod things of sabre sway,
With fronts of brass, and feet of clay.”

Since this published in 1814 containing archaic words such as “sabre,” “brass,” and “Pagod,” here is my quick contextualized translation of the stanza:

Thanks for the lesson Napoleon—it will teach
To the warriors after you
The futility of your ambitious Philosophy which you preached,
And vainly preached before.
That Philosophy has captured the minds of men
can never by united after destructing
This Philosophy led humans to adore
Those idealistic thoughts that soldiers carry
With faces of high military rank, and feet of clay.

Hopefully my translation explains the essence of poem: Byron observes the high ambitions of Napoleon lead to the destruction of his empire. I could write pages analyzing this 19-stanza poem, but as it pertains to the title of Earl’s upcoming album, Byron juxtaposes the “fronts of brass” (faces of high military rank) with “feet of clay.” This illustrates the blinding nature of high ambitions—if we focus too much on achieving power and status, we can lose sight of our own weaknesses and flaws (as aptly described by the metaphorical idiom “feet of clay”).

I don’t want to ramble too long about 18th century stuff but trust me, this will all come back full circle to Earl. For historical context regarding Byron’s poem, Napoleon was a famous French statesman infamous for his grand militaristic ambitions in Europe—which proved successful at first—but ultimately lead to his demise. Byron wrote this composition in April 1814, only days after learning that Napoleon had surrendered his empire to the Allies and agreed to exile on the island of Elba. This poem reflects on Napoleon’s weaknesses—his “feet of clay”—which he lost sight of because of his grand and overzealous desires to conquer Europe.

I was behooved to mention Napoleon and Byron’s poem about Napoleon with a bit of depth because Earl mysteriously described his album as the following:

FOC is a collection of observations and feelings recorded during the death throes of a crumbling empire.”

“Throes” is defined as “a hard or painful struggle” while the specific phrase “death throes” is defined as “the violent movements and noises that are sometimes made by a person who is about to die.” Indeed, Earl’s description directly ties with the Byron’s reflection of Napoleon’s “crumbling empire.”

2. Arnold Schönberg and Expressionism

This heading may seem starkly irrelevant, but it is tangentially pertinent to Earl and his work—besides, the nature of this post is speculative and conjectural opposed to a concrete lyrical analysis of an album. If Earl indeed did was inspired by the “feet of clay” of Napoleon depicted by Byron, he wouldn’t be the first musical artist to be so. The great Jewish Austrian-born composer and music theorist Arnold Schönberg once produced a 12-tone piece Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte in 1942—a musical setting in which Byron’s poem was recited. His idea was to mirror the rhythms and themes of Byron’s poem in a musical composition. As a side note, this sounds a bit like making Rap music since Rap’s usage of poetic expression is just as important as the instrumentation. The two must jive and compliment each other for the song to be effective and potent. Here is Schönberg’s famous piece:

This piece became so prominent in music history that a hexachord (a six-note series) was named after Schönberg’s composition: the “Ode-to-Napoleon” hexachord. Schönberg’s history is quite interesting and vaguely relates to Earl’s. He was born in a Jewish middle-class family in Vienna, Austria. In his twenties, Schoenberg made a living by orchestrating operettas, while creating his own works, such as the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) in 1889. He was part of the famous Second Viennese School where he played a key role in the artistic movement of expressionism. Expressionism is an artistic movement which originated in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its central idea is to “present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas.” Earl Sweatshirt does exactly this in his music: heavily distorts sounds, words and vocals to depict a conflicted, chaotic, and pensive environment in his albums. Take a listen to the distortion-heavy “Eclipse” from Earl’s last record Some Rap Songs:

Earl has produced a wide variety of work, but expressionism is a style he has carried over from his last three projects. His expressionistic music has the effect of immersing the listener in an alternative, abrasive reality which is Earl’s dark emotional state. The clashing and incongruous sounds in his work enable us to truly feel Earl’s struggles with substance abuse, his father’s death and finding his identity. Back to Schönberg, when Hitler took over in Germany, Schönberg lost his position at the Prussian Academy in Berlin. He fled to France, later spending some time in Spain. He then permanently emigrated to the United States in 1933 working as a musician and professor in New York and Boston before settling for music professorship at UCLA—the University of California, Los Angeles.

Interestingly, Earl Sweatshirt’s mother Cheryl I. Harris is an acclaimed Law professor at UCLA. Harris is the Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at UCLA School of Law where she teaches courses in Constitutional Law, Civil Rights, Employment Discrimination, Critical Race Theory and Race Conscious Remedies. Education and intellectualism certainly runs in Earl’s lineage; his father—the late and great Keorapetse Kgositsile—was a famous South African political activist and poet. In 2006, he was inaugurated as South Africa’s National Poet Laureate. In later posts, I’ll be attempting to do a comparative literary analysis of some of Kgositsile and Earl’s poetry.

3. Track-list

This is the released track-list for Earl’s album:

Feet of Clay:

01 74
02 EAST
03 MTOMB [prod. The Alchemist]
04 OD
05 EL TORO COMBO MEAL [ft. MAVI]
06 TISKTISK/COOKIES
07 4N [ft. Mach-Hommy]

It is difficult to decipher what exactly this all means without hearing the actual project, but here are a few quick thoughts:

The number “74” doesn’t appear to denote anything significant in Earl’s life (according to the internet) other than the year (1974) when the Negro American Literature Forum published their 8th volume in which Earl’s father Kgositsile was written about for his founding of the Black Arts Theatre in Harlem, New York. The title of the second track—“EAST”—is a direction and in literature, directions often symbolize something much larger than themselves. For example, in the “Wizard of Oz,” Elphaba is The Wicked Witch Of The West. However, she was born in the East. This is speculated to signify the West’s alternate fantasy world while East represents birth, purity, innocence etc. This aligns with the Bible as well: The Garden Of Eden was in the East and when Adam and Eve left Eden everything went downhill for them and all of humanity. Throughout cinema, literature and art, the East is commonly associated with spirituality, holiness and birth.

The third track is titled “MTOMB.” Of course a tomb is a large underground vault for burying the dead. Perhaps this track depicts depression, suicidal thoughts or the death of Earl’s father. This dark title aligns with the somber and ominous description Earl gave about this album being written “during the death throes of a crumbling empire.” The fourth track is titled “OD” which could mean a few different things. “OD” is an archaic euphemism for God, used in exclamations. “Od damn it all!” is a common phrase used in 17th century literature. However, a much more plausible interpretation of this two-letter word is taking an overdose of a drug. Substance abuse is a common theme that runs across Earl’s discography. “Azucar” is an apt illustration of this:

Azúcar is Spanish for sugar—a main ingredient in alcohol and something your body craves if you drink a lot. In this track, Earl waxes poetic about his depression and his usage of alcohol as a coping mechanism. Perhaps “OD” will continue building on this idea which Earl is certainly not proud of. The fifth track of this record is titled “EL TORO COMBO MEAL.” This is a strange title considering the ghostly, somber tone of everything else surrounding this record. This could be a reference to the restaurant “El Toro y La Luna” (4483 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA) in L.A, where Earl resides. Perhaps Earl finds comfort and satisfaction in eating at this lively, comfort-food Mexican joint. The second-last track of Feet of Clay is “TISKTISK/COOKIES.” Urban Dictionary defines “tisk tisk” as the following:

“The phrase ’tisk tisk’ is sometimes used when someone does something bad, frowned upon, or just plain stupid.”

Why “COOKIES” follows “TISKTISK” is virtually impossible to discern. Although, Earl did mention a “crumbling” empire in his description for the album and “tisk tisk” sort of reminds of the sound of cookies literally crumbling. The closing song features another cryptic and minimalistic title: “4N.” The only meaning we could discern from this title is its phonetic sound: “4N”/”four-n”/”four-in”/”foreign.” “4N” sounds like “foreign” which denotes newness, unfamiliarity and novelty. Mach-Hommy is listed as a feature which would make sense because he is of Haitian heritage. Also, Earl has his roots in South Africa because of his father so perhaps both rappers collaborate on this track and reflect on their past and roots outside of the West.

4. Cover Art

Earl-Sweatshirt.jpg

The mysterious cover depicts an ominous, sinister painting of a mountain goat laying in the forest at night. In the Bible, goats symbolize wickedness and corruption. “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats” illustrates this concept; God gives grace to the “sheep” who are people that serve God and devote their life to spirituality, service and charity while the “goats” are morally bankrupt who fail to see God in their lives and help others. Perhaps Earl compares the life he is living to that of a goat’s as depicted in the bible. In literature, forests are often portrayed as mysterious, enigmatic places. For example, in the 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore, Japanese author Haruki Murakami writes the following of forests:

“They have a physical power, their breath grazing any humans who might chance by, their gaze zeroing in on the intruder like they’ve spotted their prey. Like they have some dark, prehistoric, magical powers. Like deep-sea creatures rule the ocean depths, in the forest trees reign supreme. If it wanted to, the forest could reject me — or swallow me up whole. A healthy amount of fear and respect might be a good idea.”

Murakami personifies the forest as something forbidding, dark and menacing that could “swallow” the protagonist of the novel (Kafka Tamura). Also, note the red mushrooms on the right side of the painting which the goat appears to be gazing at. Psilocybin mushrooms—colloquially known as ‘shrooms’—are a type of fungi with psychedelic effects. Earl has rapped about using psychedelic drugs in the past, especially ‘shrooms.’ He even has a Rap song titled “SHROOMS” where he discusses the detrimental effects of psychedelic drugs in his life:

“The shroom make my eye tear up
The truth makes my sky clear up
The shroom make my eye tear up
The truth makes my sky clear up”

The red fungi depicted in the cover could very well allude to Earl’s discussion of substance abuse on Feet of Clay—a topic he reflects on in virtually all of his albums.

Earl’s announcement of his Feet of Clay record releasing tonight comes with many clues and Easter eggs. Knowing Earl’s profound expressionist ability to create art larger than life which often depicts his constantly disturbed mental state, Feet of Clay will certainly (and hopefully) not disappoint.

 

 

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Eric Linus Kaplan

I'm a writer for Warner Bros. Television. Currently writing for Young Sheldon. I'm known for "The Big Bang Theory", Futurama, Flight of the Conchords, and Malcom in the Middle. I published a book of philosophy called "Does Santa Exist: A Philosophical Investigation".  I am investigating comedy and philosophy, and sometimes doing some comedy, and some fantasy.

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