Avi(ew) on Music: “I Don’t Go Outside”

Avi Varghese

More stories from Avi Varghese

After Californian rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s notoriously out-of-control adolescence, the most unexpected element of his latest release, “I Don’t Like S—, I Don’t Go Outside,” is how much control he exerts over his music. As a teen, he suffered from unchecked fame, producing lyrics that were truly vulgar videos of himself quaffing drug-and-booze cocktails. But after spending time out of the spotlight, he has matured as an individual and grown in his artistry.

“I Don’t Go Outside” chronicles a month-long period of his life: the death of his grandmother, a painful breakup and a return to the substance abuse that plagued his teen years. Made in and around this period, the album deals with themes of depression, introversion and possible misanthropy. In contrast to his previous work, Sweatshirt has honed in on an aesthetic that complements his central themes. On his previous album, “Doris,” producers provided rhythmically pleasing beats that sometimes felt out of sync with Sweatshirt’s dark lyrical content. On “I Don’t Go Outside,” Sweatshirt produced 9 out of the 10 tracks himself, resulting in dense instrumentals that connote claustrophobia, dark spaces and the sensation of being underwater. Token verses by famous names that dragged down “Doris” have been replaced by more focused verses from close friends like Vince Staples.

The most notable demonstration of focus and control is in the crafting of Sweatshirt’s lyrics. Renowned for his intricate and detailed rhyming technique, Sweatshirt has returned with a razor-sharp focus on the meaning behind his words. On his single “Grief,” stretched vocal samples loom over compressed drums as he works a favorite motif: the unreliable narrator. “Focused on my chatter, ain’t as frantic as my thoughts/Lately I been panicking a lot/Feeling like I’m stranded in a mob, scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop,” he says, with increasing tightness. Then, suddenly, a reassurance: “Never getting out of hand/Steady handling my job/Time damaging my ties,” his voice releasing in tension, riding the beat. Immediately afterward, he launches a verbally abusive tirade against other rappers. Through subtleties in Sweatshirt’s rap “flow” and his lyrics, a seemingly typical crusade against rival rappers reveals the negative effects of his substance abuse, made sharper by retrospect. Similar techniques appear on “Mantra,” in which a drunken diatribe against his former girlfriend morphs into introspection about his failures to maintain relationships.

Sweatshirt has spent much of his solo career searching for a voice of his own — one that uses rap to attack deeper themes with precision. With “I Don’t Go Outside,” we find that maybe all he needed was to find his own path.