Earl Sweatshirt – Doris

earl sweatshirt doris album coverEarl Sweatshirt – Doris
Tan Cressida/Columbia: 2013

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.

25 thoughts on “Earl Sweatshirt – Doris

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  1. RachRockinOut|

    So stoked about this album. Any word on his live shows? Got tix to his Minneapolis stop on the 14th and hoping for a great night

  2. As a white male, I am going to approach this subject delicately because I am arguably the biggest cultural tourist I know and am quite enamored with all forms of rap music. But Earl lives in the weird transitional pre-post-racism, internet-fueled world that I do, so _my_ reactions are based on a kinship with Earl’s personal issues, which extends to why I am transfixed by his musings on fame and otherwise.

    I understand the issue with playing up these particular rap statements while downplaying, or outright ignoring, a lot of dominant rap trends (unless approved faces like A$AP crew tells us otherwise), but should that discount the talent we really believe we are responding to? Earl’s flow is a direct aesthetic link to what he is trying to say, and I love that. This album is great, from “Pre” through. (That the guest features initially dominate the record reveals itself on repeat listens to be a great foil to Earl’s slurred approach. His lyrics are on point, and so too are his hits.)

  3. Jeffry Damage|

    Good album, but it was so hyped that it was destined to be underwhelming, and lo and behold, it’s extremely so.

  4. fosterakahunter|

    For me, a lot of rap music from the Golden Eras/90s is something I gravitate back to after numbing my ears with these recent offerings. There are many exceptions to the rule, don’t get me wrong, but, I find much of the rap music to be mixtape status throwaways.

  5. fosterakahunter|

    The point, I suppose, is a backlash against cultural tourists/hipster-set poseurs trying to tell us what’s good about an artform we created, as though they’re some sort of authority. And the fact that the projects they decide to make much fanfare about are really just overly emo, shoegazing walks in the park. This sh@t would not have washed during the Golden Era, and it shouldn’t now. Saying that, I believe that Earl can rhyme, he just relies on the same boring tone throughout his LP; no dynamics whatsoever.

  6. Give us an example of something that “stays with you over time.”

  7. I agree that most of the feature verses are strong (especially Vince Staples’). I just think there are too many. Tyler did his thing but we only needed him once. Earl’s bars are enough to keep this thing floating for me.

  8. You make such good points.

  9. And what exactly is your point?

  10. Good read. Though the mood on the album is brooding and menacing, something typically not suited for the summer, the OF mantra has often been using an “anti” approach. Could be what they were aiming for.

  11. fosterakahunter|

    I suppose, but that’s what people told me about Lamar’s major label offering, and I have not touched that thing in probably six months. These new dudes are making rap music non-exciting, less of something that stays with you over time.

  12. fosterakahunter|

    Which makes this review moot.

  13. fosterakahunter|

    Oh, I couldn’t tell that by his name, or that I’ve read his previous articles. You completely missed the point I was making, tard. Maybe I should have been more specific and said that non-Blacks will love this album. Better? At least it’s better than Tyler’s LP from earlier in the year.

  14. senorwoohoo|

    Too bad Chul’s not white. Nice try, troll

  15. Well in all fairness music should grow on you over time. I mean sure a great piece of music will hit you like the force of a bullet on your first listen, but with anything music most times takes time to age and mature, or in other words as you listen to a song more you gain new insight into what is being said and the rhythm of the musical piece. I understand what you were trying to say and you make a good point (a point i totally agree with actually) because musicians should be held to a higher degree of scrutiny for their art if it’s to be considered serious or noteworthy, but as i said like a fine wine some music takes time to reveal its true nature/lesson/beauty (or what have you) to be considered noteworthy

  16. fosterakahunter|

    Why are we made to tolerate music that will grow on us anymore?

  17. fosterakahunter|

    I predicted almost a month ago that white people would love this album. Right again.

  18. Hey, I have an idea: skip past the shit you don’t wanna read.

  19. Bafe Bothers|

    my only complaint was that he started off the album with a feature. It kind of immediately bummed me out a little. That kind stuff makes an album sound more like a mix tape to me. What do I know tho..

  20. TALK ABOUT THE MUSIC. we already know about all the baggage. this review is 3 paragraphs too long, and the actual music writing is very damn good. Pre is tight, Guild is garbage, Sunday is cool.

  21. Going into the album, i thought what you guys said in this review in that there were too many features, many of them being lesser rappers than Earl. After listening a few times, however, it became clear that all the features actually did good for the album. I felt that most featured verses were very good and that they helped break up Earl’s monotoned flow, which I do like but which I also recognize would be paralyzing after 45 minutes straight.

  22. fuck 40oz van|

    nah “pre” is tight, idk what yall talking about.

  23. I feel pre was unnecessary as well but i also feel i could see it growing on me overtime. Reading this interview i was afraid you were going to give the album a 5 just based on hype but thankfully you gave a score that is grounded yet deserving. I can see this record 1 day being revered as a classic right now though i just see it being a great rap record with only a few missteps. Personally i’m curious as to if Earl is going to correct his “mistakes” on this album with his next album “Gnosses” (if thats spelled correct.) Now in the meantime i will get back to enjoying this flawed gem of a record

  24. The first track is lame, or at least the first half of it is.

    I get that its Franks cousin, but not why he splits the first verse of the record.

  25. Pre’s so banal and unnecessary I think I like it.

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