Earl Sweatshirt, rap’s professor emeritus of dread, has inspired a whole subgenre of rusted, wavy, micro rap songs best absorbed on headphones with a hoodie pulled over. That Earl would become one of the many formidable artists to record a joint project with Alchemist, an old-ways crate digger adored by traditionalists, once seemed as unlikely as Ice Cube teaming up with the Bomb Squad to make 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. But since 2019, Alchemist has been teasing his social media followers with claims that an album with Earl existed on YouTube under a fake name, just waiting to be discovered. Whether the beautifully crafted VOIR DIRE bears any resemblance to that project is unclear; it arrived via the unusual portal of the streaming website Gala Music, with NFT purchase options and animated artwork for each song. Accordingly, each cut feels individual, self-contained, and free from overarching themes or framework. As with most Alchemist sets, there’s no bloat, on either his uniformly excellent, laser-crafted beats or in the project’s tight 27-minute runtime.
In recent years, Alchemist has pivoted from some of the more concrete street-rap arrangements he served hardened vocalists like Prodigy, to fully indulging his eclectic ear for source material. On VOIR DIRE, samples are snatched, scrubbed, and transformed into dreamy ear candy. Opener “100 High Street” drops you right into a luxuriant string section that evokes images of sweeping island vistas. Alchemist continues to brighten the corners of Earl’s murky world with languid guitars, jazzy keys, smooth sophistipop, and vinyl-skipping vocal loops. But his sound is not so illuminating that Earl can’t find shadows.
Earl no longer hits his consonants with the rhythmic precision of his 16-year-old self—few have ever been that good that young. As he approaches 30, he lets his thickening voice meander outside the confines of a traditional rap bar. His flow whirls like it’s descending into a sinkhole, offering a gripping contrast to Alchemist’s sharp, repetitive beats. Rhyme schemes throughout VOIR DIRE are tenuous; choruses are either notional—like the lengthy repeated verse on “Vin Scully”—or nonexistent.
While Earl doesn’t spit bars in tight pockets here, his flows never feel sloppy or thoughtless. This is due in part to the gripping writing. Earl retains his taste for abstract wordplay and visceral metaphors: “Had a couple things on my chest/That’s where the demons would sit,” he raps gravely on “Sentry,” which features one of his most loyal stylistic acolytes, MIKE. On “Vin Scully,” Earl recalls “the ghost inside the crib” and his tactic to fight back these psychological demons: “Hosin’ down the problem with gin and tonic/How to stay afloat in a bottomless pit/The trick is to stop fallin’.”
Sometimes there’s a sense that the Alchemist’s cozy positivity is getting through to Earl. He echoes his stunning decade-old confessional “Chum” on the nostalgic soul of “All the Small Things” by looking backwards (“Feed the fam at 16, I wasn’t no seasoned chef”) while expressing a rare taste for life: “Cherish every moment, let it go/The cherry on top, the weight offa my heavy soul.” It’s like hearing his mood brighten in real time.
Although the structure of VOIR DIRE is freewheeling, it comes with a legitimate finale. Over a sample of pretty, fluttering vocal harmonies, “Free the Ruler” appears to be dedicated to Earl’s one-time collaborator Drakeo the Ruler, killed in a backstage stabbing in December 2021, a little over a year after being released from prison. The tragedy of Drakeo makes those old “Free Earl” shouts of yore seem kind of trivial, and maybe Earl feels that too. It’s not apparent when the song was recorded and the only obvious reference to Drakeo is the uttering of the song title on the final bar, but regardless, after a verse of Earl counting blessings and offering encouragement to those who need it, it’s a profound way to sign off.
It’s a little disappointing that Alchemist doesn’t push Earl even further out of his comfort zone. There isn’t that lift-your-head-in-surprise moment, like the first time you heard Earl rap over the prickly electronica of the Black Noi$e-produced “2010,” or the ethereal murk of his recent team-up with Clams Casino and Evilgiane, “Making the Band (Danity Kane).” But the chemistry between Earl and Alchemist comes from how naturally their styles blend together, as if VOIR DIRE is some kind of prophecy being fulfilled by the universe. It’s a record that was meant to be: simple, elegant, and always true.