Against the Epic?

I had a lovely breakfast with a (at the time) PhD candidate on the day of her successful dissertation defense. Describing her life in Montana, she told me that so many people in the college town where she lived were “epic.” That seemed like a particularly apt word for folks who lived in state known for its mountains and big sky. 

Later that morning, I put in Earl Sweatshirt’s new EP, Feet of Clay. The entire EP runs to just over 15 minutes. It mostly consists of Sweatshirt’s characteristic stream of rhymes lyrics over a looped sample and beat. There are few breaks and no choruses. The entire EP is mercifully devoid of pretense and, despite it’s Biblical title, grandeur. It’s the opposite of the epic. 

Mami Wata, shawty blew the fish out
Piscean just like my father, still got bones to pick out
For now let’s salt the rims and pour a drink out

Taking nothing from the sincerity of the EP’s lyrics. Like his previous album Some Rap Songs, which stretches over the luxurious 24 minute mark, Sweatshirt reflects on the loss of his father, his own coming of age, and the challenges of success.

I put my fears in a box like a prayer that you won’t read
Spirited Away the whole thing
Peerin’ away, I won’t leave
See you starin’ into old beefs

This circumscribed scope sets it apart from so much of the recent output in the hip hop scene. Sweatshirt’s biblical allusion does not appear to symbolize some kind of monumental conversion that might warrant an entire album as in Kanye West’s contemporary Jesus is KingFeet of Clay’s lyrics are compelling:

Depending how I play my cards
The wind whispered to me, “Ain’t it hard?”
I wait to be the light shimmering from a star
Cognitive dissonance shattered and the necessary venom restored
As if it matters if you think it matters anymore

But they are not going to be taught in private college art history classes. They don’t explicitly challenge patrimony, racism, or capitalism. At 15 minutes, Sweatshirt’s EP doesn’t push you to consider existential themes along the lines of Kamasi Washington’s 3-hours masterpiece Heaven and Earth. It’s not a concept album, a statement, or a gimmick. To circle back: it’s not epic.

This semester, in a small graduate seminar, we concluded the semester by reading John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: a rough journey (2014), Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (2014), and numerous texts that refer to Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain (2009), Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (2011), or various other works that seek to narrative history on a monumental scale. These works are exciting, to be sure, and their scope and scale are intoxicating particularly to those of us who often spend our lives worrying about the distribution of broken ceramic sherds or history at the level of the decade or century. Moreover, their willingness to engage in big issues from climate change, to race, capitalism, colonialism, and violence, presses us to understand the immense scale of various oppressive regimes and systems. 

At the same time, these works are strangle distant from our daily experiences. It is possible, of course, to understand how choices we make contribute to deep history and patterns of injustice, inequality, and pain, but epic scale of these processes often can lead to a compromised sense of agency. On the one hand, maybe this is the goal. By revealing the vastness of our problems, we distribute the responsibility from our own shoulders as denizens of the 21st century and, instead, share the burden with our past. Our inability to escape our present allows us to live in a tragic moment. 

On the other hand, revealing how past decisions have shaped the present tempts us to be more deliberate while still reminding us that whatever our choices will inevitably have negative consequences for those who will invariably see the world in ways much different from our own.

Earl Sweatshirt’s EP, on the other hand, offers us 15 minutes of the explicitly non-epic. Seemingly scaled to the human attention span, it offers relief in the realm of the momentary and the personal. This doesn’t mean that it’s not deep, that it’s not meaningful, and that it’s not significant. In fact, Sweatshirt’s lyrics are on point, the production is tight, and the EP is rich with wordplay, sincerity, and history. By casting aside epic pretensions for even just for 15 minutes, it reminds us that the contemporary world, circumscribed by our own horizons, does exist even if it’s not all there is to the world.

 

Afterword: The entire concept of the EP in the digital age is great. There’s no reason for the EP to exist today, of course. It originally referred to a kind of vinyl pressing that was shorter than the LP and usually spun at 45 rpm and were 7-inches rather than 33-1/3 for 10-inch LPs. This conscious reference to an analogue past complements the every-day scope of Feet of Clay and strips from it some of the monumental hype that an LP requires. 

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