Earl Sweatshirt is concerned about the children. “I’ve seen a three year old who didn’t really know how to speak but who fully knew how to use an iPad the other day,” the rapper whose official debut album, Doris, has just landed with a healthy splash said in a recent newyorker.com interview. “Like, how socially retarded kids are about to be … having the inability to communicate, because of all the shortcuts that there are.”
The man-kid whose given name is Thebe Neruda Kgositsile hardly has this problem himself. The son of a poet and a college professor, he’s a precocious master of rhyme structures and zinging metaphors, and Doris is earning him critical accolades akin to what chatterboxes like Elvis Costello earned in their celebrated youth. But anxiety is Earl’s métier; isolation sets the tone of his music, though he’s constantly collaborating and his rhymes consistently honor elders and challenge peers. A certain quality of separateness — maybe aloofness, maybe desolation — distinguishes Earl’s voice and lyrical vision. It connects him to older musical paradigms, especially the more mythical edges of the blues.
The romanticized version of the bluesman (not so the blueswoman) is a lonely embodiment of the fears that unsettle his place and time. So Earl speculates about the perils of social-media oriented devices, although Odd Future, his crew, gained its notoriety online and maintained his fame there after his first startlingly excellent appearances, while he spent time in a school for troubled teens. (He’s since extolled the benefits of that maternally mandated experience.) On Doris, whose rhymes conjure narratives though they’re grounded in boasts, Earl also dwells on dangers beyond the virtual world, simultaneously condemning and embracing them the way any good antihero would. He does and deals drugs, and drugs make him Walter White-level crazy; he fantasizes about the gangster life while mourning the ways in which poverty and racism have criminalized his neighborhoods. He dissects his notoriety within the fickle pop world as both a source of power and the root of his mounting depression. “Squad is full of lost souls, sergeant of all,” he laconically declares in “Sasquatch,” over a typically steamy, fetid beat. “Shimmy through the swamp, n——, follow me through the foxholes.” The urban combat zone the L.A. rapper navigates is clearly home to him.
Meanwhile, an older combatant has returned to share stories from the battlefields he’s identified and, musically at least, cultivated. “I am just a trigger on a finger on a trigger, doing everything I’m told to do,” murmurs Trent Reznor in “Copy of A,” one of the early singles issued from Hesitation Marks, the eighth studio album from Nine Inch Nails (available next Tuesday but streaming now). The song is classic NIN — itchy electronics multiplying in pathological patterns that come to fruition through the force of inflammatory guitars, setting up a story about jumbled identity and paranoia rapidly becoming justified. It’s an early touchstone on an album meant to bring Reznor’s definitions of shellshock back into the center of popular discourse. It’s an intriguing counterpart to Doris — confrontational where the other is sly, cathartic instead of recessive, reaching out to remedy anxiety instead of pulling inward or away.
Hesitation Marks has been called pop by old fans who think that the bright choruses of this song and others here (“Everything” caused one YouTube auteur to render Reznor on a unicorn) prove that Reznor, married Oscar-winning dad that he is, has irrevocably softened. Aided by veteran pop artistes like Adrian Belew and Lindsey Buckingham, as well as his meticulously assembled NIN team, Reznor is clearly aiming for accessibility with Hesitation Marks after nearly a decade of more esoteric experiments. The sound is bright and danceable — no shame in calling it influenced by New Wave — but it carries forward stories just as troubling as what Reznor gave fans on classics like The Downward Spiral. In fact, maybe because midlife happiness has made Reznor less preoccupied with his own pain, the scenes that unfold on Hesitation Marks have a more expansive quality that tie them very clearly to dystopias that, today, seem all too real.
So are Earl and Reznor on the same battleground, or at the same crossroads? Not precisely. Age separates them; so does race and class. Doris is politically relevant in the year of the Trayvon Martin case, while Hesitation Marks finds its subject in the debates surrounding Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks. In one dangerous/endangered space, a young man (one that fits certain social preconceptions: absent father, fondness for weed and hanging out on the street) asserts himself within a world where he might easily be branded a devil; he articulates his own humanity within the risky corners where he feels both validated and somewhat entrapped. In another, a character (pretty clearly not Reznor himself; unlike Earl, he never uses autobiographical detail, presenting his paranoid Everymen in fragments that feed his speculative fictions) imagines that he could possibly become a hero, but finds himself turned around and transformed by systems beyond one person’s control. Earl’s freedom fantasy has him “standing on a cop’s truck.” Reznor presents a world where the regulators are invisible: “Data trails like fingernails across the sky.”
These albums sound like the worries they favor. Doris moves slowly and close to the ground, in the wandering steps of boys out for nighttime ramble. There’s a deliberately unfocused quality in these songs, spreading like stickiness, or thick smoke. The rhythms constructed by Earl himself, or his producers (who include the Neptunes and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, earlier pioneers of hip-hop distancing effects) are sometimes diffuse, and sometimes static. Earl’s way of rapping complements this foggy atmosphere — not because it’s not precise, but because he always seems primarily concerned with one listener: the one inside his own head.
The loneliness that simmers through Doris belies the fact that this is entirely a group effort. Earl has a second on most tracks — fellow Odd Future members Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean and Domo Genesis, or other next-gen rappers like Mac Miller and Vince Staples. Despite their interplay, these sparring partners still come off as alone — just as each might be singled out in an encounter with an unexpected adversary (uniformed or not) on the street.
Despite a title that implies the ultimate isolation — Hesitation Marks are a sign of self-inflicted wounds, often indicating suicide — Reznor’s album feels much more like a group effort and statement. It’s a band album, even on the electronic tracks; you can feel the musicians’ interplay in the grooves. The subtlety with which Reznor and his fellow players build each track is characteristically NIN, but it’s also reflective of the soundtrack work that’s become a major focus for him; his music once felt like a series of collapses and heaves out of the rubble, but now Reznor’s always thinking about the bigger scene, the bigger story, and how each little knob turn might inform it. What’s pop about this album is also what’s cinematic about it. The lyrics are just fragments of dialogue, but as each element of sound builds upon each other to make the songs sweet, then menacing, then nerve-wracking, then hallucinatory, they’re made whole and vividly accessible.
On Hesitation Marks, Reznor is far away from the raw release he found in “Head Like a Hole” or “Closer” has been set aside. But the menace remains, and is all the more creeping because of the pretty shell NIN creates around it. This isn’t music for or about outsiders; it’s about not knowing if there is an outside. It’s classic science fiction updated for an era when everyday truth sometimes seems stranger than any alien invasion — just as Doris is a gangster’s tale for a time when nobody’s quite sure who the criminals are.
It’s the role of the self-appointed musical antihero to assume the unresolved conflicts of whatever time he (or rarely, she; there was Courtney Love in her prime) inhabits and craft stories and characters that bring them right up close to our ears. Reznor has become a pro at this; Earl Sweatshirt is the year’s most gifted new contender, giving Kanye West a spirited challenge only a few months after Yeezusbrought a whole different group of worries to life. Hate them or love them; think they’re too scary or not scary enough. These boys born of badness will always be with us, bringing new creeping fears to life.