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New Earl Sweatshirt Single and What It Has to Do with Jazz

Marc Rosenfeld Antunes
Staff Writer
mra337@nyu.edu / @mcrantunes

It hasn’t been a secret that Nextbop has some appreciation for what the Odd Future group does musically. In 2011, I cited Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin as second best non-jazz album of the year. The most recent top albums of the year list cited an album by the collective as well as Frank Ocean’s most recent album. From a jazz perspective, the Odd Future collective is, in fact, very interesting: let’s see why.

Before we focus on an exciting new single, let’s back up a bit. What is jazz? To answer that question, we should know what delineates any one genre from the other. We might say it has to do with characteristic style, instrumentation, harmonies, rhythms, riffs and runs. This would help us to delineate a genre like “metal” from “reggae” just fine, at first impression. What if we try then to find such characteristic elements in jazz? Surely, though there are traditional instrumentations, etc., it doesn’t seem to be the case that these are necessary to what we call jazz. After all, jazz has seen musicians on a too diverse set of instruments (cf. Bela Fleck), makes use of wildly varied harmonies, rhythms, riffs, runs, and so on.

So rather than try to define it as a genre, let’s see what we have arrived at: It seems that jazz encompasses different styles of music, with different characteristic stylistic elements. What does that make of jazz? One thing we can say is that jazz musicians are relatively free in terms of how, or in what style, they want to musically express themselves, since jazz is not so constrained by questions of style. In this sense, we might think of jazz as music with few constraints.

One more thing: jazz is not a very mainstream music. Why is that? First of all, jazz makes no effort to put itself in the mainstream. Since jazz is stylistically free, it does not fit the stylistic demands that come with a place in the mainstream of music. So we can also say that the music is a music for a sake of something other than that of meeting certain standards or norms.

Now, back to Earl Sweatshirt. I’ve heard different sorts of criticisms been made towards the Odd Future group. One is that the music produced is bare. Indeed, the music is not very pretty. It’s ugly and not pleasing aesthetically. In that sense this music does not meet any sorts of standards anyone typically holds when judging music. In fact, it seems like Odd Future’s music represents a break from the stylistic demands in hip-hop today (maybe this is why the group has become so revolutionary in the world of hip-hop). Around the time Odd Future started becoming popular, hip-hop hadn’t seen anything like it in a while. Rappers kept things smooth, cool and clean. Odd Future, on the other hand, often lyrically deals with matters so filthy, it would not be appropriate for me to list them here. To add to that, the beats behind the flow are often over-simple and unkempt. The point is that Odd Future’s music is a music that does not attempt to meet stylistic demands and allows itself to express musically freely.

For this reason, as appreciators of an art form that encompasses much of what is done in hip hop, we can be excited about Earl Sweatshirt’s debut solo album Doris, for which an exciting second single, "Whoa" just recently dropped. This single epitomizes Sweatshirt’s dirty, grimy attitude, and his freedom of expression when it comes to not caring about social norms or musical/stylistic standards to be met. You might say that Sweatshirt is jazzy in just that sense: he is relatively without constraint and free in musical choice and expression.

Have a listen.

The difficult thing here is this. I have not said what jazz is, nor do I pretend to know the answer to that. I merely have an indication as to what jazz might be thought of as, based on what it seems it is not (that is, a clearly delineated style of music). Maybe we can call it an approach to making music? If so: what do I mean when I say Earl Sweatshirt’s music could be considered to be jazzy music? The answer is evident-- Earl Sweatshirt’s music reflects just that jazzy music-making approach, an approach that expresses musically based on relatively few standards, norms and expectations.

Let me add a qualification to this. Clearly, if any passer-by were to listen to this single, he or she would realize that this music is clearly not what is pre-theoretically known to us as jazz. Earlier, I mentioned that there are styles, instrumentations, etc. traditionally known as jazz. This here is hip-hop music, with not much of such stylistic evidence of jazz. But here’s my point: for a piece of music to be jazzy, or to be made with a jazz approach, it does not need what might traditionally be thought of as a jazz style. Jazz goes much further than that, as I’m trying to outline. It becomes clear what any musician can learn from Odd Future and its jazzy approach: if you’re not trying to meet norms and expectations, you’ll end up creating something a lot more creative, original and freely musically expressive than you might have done otherwise.

Marc Antunes is a student, writer, and critic. Follow him on Twitter.