With the line between albums, EPs, mixtapes, and compilations more blurred than ever, it seems fitting to reflect on two projects that may fall into their own category: Earl Sweatshirt’s Solace and Lil Ugly Mane’s Uneven Compromise. While two-part songs in hip-hop have become somewhat common practice, the format adopted by these two artists with these projects is pretty special, especially within hip-hop.

You may be thinking, “well, these are just EPs”, and there’s nothing wrong with calling them that. If they had to be classified, calling them EPs is probably fair. However, these artists’ projects are in a format that acts as a single long song. There’s something to be said about this structure. Listeners must listen to the entire project at once because it’s just one track, and thus hear the entire artistic statement. Singular sections of the project can’t be conveniently accessed. This doesn’t impair either project though as, upon hearing them, most can agree that it only makes sense to listen to them in full. 

The single-track structure results in laser-focused, concise projects, and with that, two of the best hip-hop EPs ever (if we’re indeed going with EPs). The frameworks of these projects don’t stray far from each other. Both include a couple of verses, with instrumental portions and interludes, along with similar run times. Moreover, these projects are fully self-produced, which is a feat in and of itself, adding to their artistic power. Despite their similarities, however, Solace and Uneven Compromise are sonically and topically distinct. 

Solace is a bleak, almost hopeless sonic representation of Earl Sweatshirt during a transitional low point in his life. Left in the description of the video uploaded to YouTube, paired with bright pink cover art, reads music from when i hit the bottom and found something.”  

Coming fresh off the isolated and claustrophobic I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside from 2015, Solace was another chapter in Earl’s grim story. Solace isn’t the breakout debut album Doris from 2013, nor is it the cutthroat, optimistic Some Rap Songs that Earl dropped half a decade later. Solace is the in-between. This is the darkness and emptiness he grew from.

Lo-fi symbol crashes and moody guitar melodies kick off Solace and immediately introduce us to a lost Earl Sweatshirt. Earl claims to be literally “wasting away”, with a restricted mental capacity as if he was imprisoned, where he can’t seem to make sense of what’s going on around — or within — him. A somewhat cheerful piano melody following this morphs into a chilling one, and brings us a broken Earl that mirrors this production. Vocally, he’s muttering his way through the instrumental, talking about being lonely for what seems like forever, and even contemplating giving up. Earl is consumed by darkness at this point, and nails this feeling of loss and isolation. 

Earl’s last verse begins with him reminiscing on his late grandmother as a source of stress and struggle, over nothing more than a hollow synth.  Despite the awful state Earl has found himself in, this last verse ends up being a sense of clarity for him, as he’s able to identify the sources of his pain. He raps “to tell the truth, I miss my partner dem / to tell the truth, you can’t be loud when you the wrongest, fam / to tell the truth, I’m at a loss of friends.” Earl feels alone, missing his friends, and he admits that some of this is due to mistakes that he made. He displays a level of self-awareness that allows him to identify why he is suffering, which proves vital for recovery.

This isn’t the end for Earl though, and he acknowledges this in the following line: “well time waits for no man, and death waits with cold hands.” He’s aware that life sucks right now, and he’s going to take his time to deal with it, recognizing that nothing will change until he makes an adjustment. The world keeps spinning regardless of what happens in one’s personal life. He knows death is inevitable, and it’s his responsibility to react and recover from his despair. 

There’s something to be said for creating art in our most vulnerable and broken state, and putting out that work for all to hear. There’s power in realizing that finding this dark place will eventually help you find the light, and have hope for the future. That’s what keeps Solace from being an entirely hopeless project. This principle of creating something, aware that it is a representation of a low point in the emotional roller coaster that is life, brings hope.

Lil Ugly Mane’s Uneven Compromise is a slightly more involved and convoluted listen than Solace, yet it’s fascinating in its own right because of its depth, along the project’s eclectic sounds.

Listeners are ambushed at the thirty-four second mark with Memphis-influenced horrorcore production, and thus given a peek once again into the twisted world of Lil Ugly Mane. The disturbing imagery of his first verse, much of which won’t be new to anyone familiar with his music up until this point, functions as a somewhat cloudy evaluation of his current state.  

The second verse unfolds in the project’s third act. It is a lengthy, vivid verse that narrates a character running into an old friend, with story-telling as good as it gets. Weaved within this are impeccable rhyme schemes and a personable but firm cadence, engaging listeners on top of impeccable jazz-infused production. He talks of sharing a cigarette while this friend catches him up on life, and he learns that he isn’t doing well, to say the least. The friend asks for a handout after running out of drugs to sell, and then explains that he cheated on his wife and ruined his family life. He longs for the days when he was living extravagantly, as he details, and shows that he is quite far from that. Following this, the narrator notices signs of heroin addiction on the friend’s arm, which he can empathize with, and the friend promises he’ll stop, but the narrator doubts this promise, knowing the friend’s precarious position.

The protagonist later encounters the friend’s aunt, who he claimed he would be staying with, but she disputes this, and says that he needs to report him to authorities because he is the prime suspect in the murder of his children. This revelation throws our main character for a loop, confused about how this is possible, thinking that he just had a genuine interaction with an old friend. With this news brings a more melodic section of the track that proclaims, “your homeboys change sometimes, the thoughts rearrange in the brain sometimes.” He wanted to see the best in his friend, as he raps, “I always try to see my people better than they are,” but he realized that he couldn’t because he didn’t know him well enough, and this instinct of looking for the good in everyone can result in shocking realities.

Uneven Compromise thematically consists of considering circumstances through a lens other than your own, getting a grip on life, and focusing on yourself in the best way possible. This isn’t being selfish. Rather it’s putting yourself before others that you can’t trust. At the end of the day, we can only be sure of ourselves, an idea that Lil Ugly Mane embraces here.

It’s not that Solace and Uneven Compromise couldn’t have been longer, but everything that needed to be said, was said in just about ten minutes. This brevity is what makes these projects so remarkable. Listeners today are bombarded by projects laden with unnecessary material. Whether caused by a lack of inspiration, or a label pushing an artist to release more material into the world to boost streams, it harms the craft. Sometimes less is more, and filler that either doesn’t thematically fit with the ideas of a project, or just isn’t of the same quality as the rest, is frustrating to hear, and it happens too often today.

Uneven Compromise directly addresses this idea on its second section. Four samples fit together like a puzzle and end up announcing a message that reads: “labels, labels / feel no guilt / takin’ your money / the reason, the reason that my people say they tired of rap.” Here, Lil Ugly Mane rebels against something that we’ve seen taint art time and time again. Not only does this project already represent this idea of putting the art first because of its ability to push boundaries and go beyond the status-quo, but it makes sure to make explicitly clear one of the project’s goals: to never sell out.

Solace and Uneven Compromise put the art first, in the best way possible. These two artists don’t care about anything else, and they’re keeping it alive. These projects are standouts from the decade, and although they are just a mere ten-minutes, they serve as a testament to the talent of individuals like Earl Sweatshirt and Lil Ugly Mane, proving that these are the artists that will be influencing for decades to come.