Half of this review was written before Doris even dropped. The mythologizing of Earl Sweatshirt began in earnest in mid-2010 when the rapper was in absentia: banished to an Island of Lost Children (turns out it was an alternative school for boys in Samoa, penance for a misguided adolescence) after one vicious turn at a solo mixtape (Earl) and a grip of sharp verses on his Odd Future cohorts’ gratuitous grindhouse of albums.
While he was gone, Earl’s reputation as a troubled teen and preternatural pedigree for rapping really well became grist for the online set, both intellectual (see: Kelefa Sanneh’s feature in The New Yorker) and foolhardy (see: every time a blunted 16-year-old called out “FREE EARL!” on Twitter). If it weren’t for the subsequent confirmation of Earl’s real-life travails, you might have mistaken the whole thing for a nifty troll named Shenanigans: a well-placed theatrical set piece meant to spin a great yarn while simultaneously generating buzz.
But trolling implies a backpack full of empty testimony, and this particular story had legs. And now, with the release of Earl’s proper debut album, Doris, we can finally behold the conclusion to this Great American Rap Tragedy. With Earl’s mom playing the villain (she sent him away to Samoa in the first place), Tyler, The Creator as the dutiful wingman, and the Internet reprising its role as the dispassionate laundromat owner offering only a perpetual spin cycle, all that remains is for our reluctant hero to emerge redeemed, bearing, at minimum, a shiny artifice with which to emblemize his anguish.
Doris, however, is not shiny. And it’s not merely artifice. It’s actually a languorous, profane, poetic, often brilliant piece of art house rap. It’s also riddled with the artist’s anxiety and functions as a stand-in for every presumption we made about Earl while he was away but never had the opportunity to confirm. We suspected he might be the best rapper of the OF bunch and, to the degree that it’s possible, the crew’s resident intellectual (which makes sense, considering both of his parents are). It’s likely Earl won’t be the one to order cockroaches as an appetizer. He won’t lose his watch crowdsurfing. He probably raps better standing still. Doris makes it fairly clear that any potential Earl Sweatshirt legend will not be defined by the antics occurring outside the margins of his notebook, that his dusty psyche will write the narrative.
This album finds Earl pushing back against the expectation machine, seemingly reluctant to even re-appropriate his time in Samoa into artistic fodder. Instead of dropping a triumphant radio single announcing his return, we get deliberate tracks like “Chum”, a gloomy testament to the MC’s wayward youth, and “Hive” (featuring Vince Staples and Casey Veggies), a paranoid sketch of a crime-ridden Los Angeles where ambivalence and moral ambiguity cast shadows over the sunny optimism we generally project on the region. The mood on Doris is significantly pitched down from recent Odd Future albums like Tyler’s Wolf and the collaborative The OF Tape Vol. 2. The beats are slowed down and hypnotic. “20 Wave Caps” (with Domo Genesis) is all tense, stretched-out organ loops, and the druggy “Guild” (featuring Mac Miller) bubbles and churns like a dormant volcano. A lot here is reminiscent of a Madlib-produced album: roaming subtle keys, dormant low-end, beats etched out of the penumbra. It’s easy to imagine Earl doing a full-on collaboration with someone like RZA (who shows up on “Molasses”) or Alchemist, whose samples-dipped-in-acid vibe is channeled expertly on the interlude “Uncle Al” (produced by Randomblackdude, Earl’s behind-the-boards pseudonym).
Doris’ kinetic energy is all generated by Earl’s raps. Some verses are cathartic (“Chum”) and many are violent (“Centurion”), but all are great exercises in celebrating the pliability of the English language. When Earl was released the rapper was just 16 years old, and he sounded like an odd toddler coming into first contact with the heady joys of diction. On Doris he’s taken to wielding fluency and phrase like a spiked Louisville Slugger. Tracks like “Whoa”, a requisite OF middle finger joint featuring Tyler, The Creator, can be truly beautiful, poetic bludgeonings.
Among his Odd Future peers, though, Earl most closely resembles Frank Ocean. Both are pensive, watchful boy geniuses. “Sunday” features the budding R&B singer, here rapping, and it’s one of the album’s best tracks: a patient meander through love life’s trickier moments. Rapping on time defers to gauzy meditation on waning relationships: Earl laments a girlfriend’s last visit, while Frank departs his beloved in chase of paper outside of Los Angeles. (He also pauses briefly to put the steel in Chris Brown’s face, a bonafide win for the Breezy detractors, at least on wax.) These two may not yet have a firm grip on their emotions, but they’re both better at expressing themselves than many people 20 years their senior. Doris is flush with this type of inward gazing and it makes for the album’s best moments. “Burgundy” opens with Earl confessing his emotional absence during the death of his grandmother (for whom the album is named) and “Knight” finds the rapper alongside Domo Genesis trying to relieve their shared burden of growing up fatherless.
Doris is plagued by a few missteps here and there. There are too many guest features, including the completely unnecessary SK La’Flare (cousin of Frank Ocean) on the album opener “Pre” which is itself a bit of a throwaway track. The record also finds its release in the midst of a balmy summer, both in New York and LA, the two cultural perches from which it will face the greatest judgement, and Doris feels like a characteristically winter album.
But that’s nitpicking. The hip-hop culture machine has been telling us it’s Earl’s time for a while now. Generally when that happens we’re doomed to something of a relative disappointment and Doris is the rare piece of cultural footage that usurps that. In a recent Los Angeles Times article Earl insisted that he wanted to begin forming his musical identity with this album. In a traditionally shortsighted industry, here we have an artist playing the long game, and that’s refreshing. That it also spells lastingness for the most buzzed-about rap crew of recent memory is also significant. Perhaps the youth is not wasted after all.
4 out of 5
You can purchase Doris on Amazon.