In the biblical Book of Daniel, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a giant statue with a head of gold, silver chest and arms, bronze stomach and thighs, calves of iron and feet of iron and baked clay. When a stone strikes the statue, the sculpture, in all its greatness, collapses. The prophet Daniel, speaking to the king, interprets the dream as such: The statue symbolizes earthly kingdoms, including that of Nebuchadnezzar. Though these dominions may appear grand, he said, they are in fact temporal and subordinate to God’s kingdom, which is forever enduring and all-encompassing.
The title of Earl Sweatshirt’s latest project “Feet of Clay” references this biblical tale, and the album is a fitting rumination on life and death, trauma and healing and past and future. Released by surprise on Halloween night, the album contains seven tracks, clocking in at only 15 minutes in length. Sonically and thematically, “Feet of Clay” is rife with tension. None of the songs contain a traditional hook, and very few have a chorus; instead, the rapping comes packaged in verses and is delivered stream of consciousness style. Often, Earl’s flow seems to intentionally discord the musical backing, falling into patterns of monotony or awkwardly cleaving syllables over beats. Using abstract lyrics, Earl weaves together fragmentary images pertaining to the loss of his father, South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile (who passed away in early 2018), introspection and ultimately finding peace. The experimentation of this album is a provocative and welcome artistic endeavor.
Though most of the songs on “Feet of Clay” are short in runtime, Earl organizes them in the tracklist to maximize the impact of each. The album opens with the dark, moody “74,” though the broodiness is quickly counteracted by the second song “East,” whose production uses a cartoon-like accordion loop. Brilliantly, Earl foregrounds some of the album’s most macabre content over these goofy instrumentals, and they serve the perfect juxtaposition for the soft, luminous vocalizations on next track “MTOMB.” For this reason, when the fourth song “OD” starts, the cacophony of the production and the monotony of Earl’s rapping feel almost shocking, though, again, the abrasion is ultimately short lived, as the following track “El Toro Combo Meal” utilizes a delicate lo-fi beat. The penultimate “Tisk Tisk/Cookies” is seemingly two songs in one––the former more gritty and the latter brighter––and the beat switch that demarcates the two, occurring around the 30-second mark, enhances these contrasting sounds. Finally, coming after the short soundbites of the rest of the album’s songs, the warped and distorted “4N” feels disorientingly long at five minutes, taking up nearly one-third of the album’s runtime.
Thematically, death is omnipresent in “Feet of Clay,” even if included only as a passing thought. On “74,” Earl evokes images of birds of prey with the line “Sellin’ kids culture with death, circlin’ like carrion;” on “OD,” there’s the beautifully gruesome sentiment, “My memory really leaking blood/It’s congealing, stuck.” In other instances, Earl more specifically invokes the loss of his father––for instance, on “MTOMB” with the line “Piscean just like my father, still got bones to pick out/For now let’s salt the rims and pour a drink out.” Like Earl’s earlier discography, “Feet of Clay” makes references to the rapper’s complicated relationship with his dad, and Earl has additionally publicly stated that Kgositsile was largely absent from his life. Tragically, before the poet’s passing, the two never had a chance to fully reconcile.
Making sense of trauma––trauma that stems from an absent father during adolescence or trauma that stems from a sudden loss––is not easy. In a sort-of meta moment on “El Toro Combo Meal,” Earl raps about his process of compartmentalization and dissociation from difficult feelings, “I keep the tears out of my mind reach/I put my fears in a box like a prayer that you won’t read.” In other cases, Earl alludes to his struggles with substances, desponding on “East,” “Had a story careen against the bars/My canteen was full of the poison I need.”
Lyrically and structurally, “Feet of Clay” is a collage, an efflux of Earl’s innermost thoughts that are then patched together into musical vignettes. In many ways, the album seems to say that healing, too, is a nonlinear journey––it is the process of getting worse and getting better, of constructing narrative, of finding meaning in even the most futile moments. It’s a beautiful expression of vulnerability. In “MTOMB,” Earl recalls a moment from his childhood: “Braids brought out my eyes/I saw a light, I was nine/Told my n**ga Miles we might gon’ be aight.” Reflecting on this memory, Earl provides, in his typical poetic brevity, a faint, understated yet nonetheless powerful glimmer of hope: “Guess I was right.”