With thesaurus-opening flows and rewind-inducing triple entendres, Earl Sweatshirt’s songs will always yield new meanings – be it at first, second, or fiftieth listen. In case you haven’t been obsessively reading forums, interviews, magazine articles and twitter feeds compulsively for the last few years like I have, let me bring you up to speed: Earl Sweatshirt is a 19-year-old rapper and member of the polarising Odd Future rap collective from California. Probably best known for their loud, offensive, and polarising leader, Tyler, the Creator; and soulful hunk Frank Ocean, their cult following has meant Earl has become one of the biggest figures in underground rap since his EARL mixtape in 2010 – a clutch of tracks that is abrasive, offensive, and childish, but also fantastic. He, more than any other new young rapper, has had eyes and pressure on him as one of hip-hop’s saviours – a responsibility he never asked for and isn’t particularly comfortable with – especially upon returning from his Samoan reform-school exodus.
Doris is a response to both of these things: a kid coming to terms with the pressure and the fame he’s found in his own way, as well as an attempt to show that he’s grown out of his reliance on shock value but he’s still got all the talent he had, and more. So does this album live up to the insane hype? Let’s see.
All of the tracks on Doris are undeniably leaps and bounds beyond Earl’s previous output, and can be split quite evenly in two important ways. On songs like “Hive,” “Centurion,” “Sasquatch” and “Whoa,” we’re hearing the menacing, verbose Earl that both the audience and the rapper are familiar with; but to the credit of everyone on the album, the shock-value Earl and Tyler so heavily relied on in the early days is refreshingly absent. He has separated himself from both his contemporaries and his past self in the best way, and by not being seen to rely on ‘bitch’ and ‘faggot’ like he previously did, it’s easier to take him seriously (and might get him a few more fans). With other tracks, like “Burgundy,” “Sunday,” “Chum” and “Knight,” Earl breaks new ground lyrically, confessing the truths of his upbringing, facing his demons, and coming to terms with fame in his own way. While EARL made for a great character-analysis of a teenage heathen, Doris lets us see what Earl is really thinking – and what’s happened since he reappeared.
Features on the album are fantastic, with Vince Staples, Frank Ocean, Domo Genesis and Tyler, the Creator all dropping by to drop some of their best stuff yet, in a way that really adds to each song. The production on each and every track is crystal clear and rich where its predecessors were raw and simple. From the thumping, grinding “Hive” to the screwed doo-wop of “Knight” and spaghetti-western “Hoarse,” Earl is finally getting production that matches his style; and with producers like Pharrell, Alchemist and RZA it’s clear he already demands respect in the hip-hop world.
Like any record, this one has flaws, but there’s one that stands out: length. Yet this may be a blessing in and of itself – Doris is without filler, a lean album that doesn’t overstay its welcome and demands a quick relisten. By the time he fades out over “Knight”’s serene, soulful beat, I’m leaving feeling good about this kid’s future. This still isn’t his best, and I’m looking goddamn forward to it when he finds it.
All up, the album is great. It’s not another EARL, but it shouldn’t have been. It’s not Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, but it shouldn’t have been. Gone is all the “Kill People, Burn Shit, Fuck School,” replaced by a talented but flawed kid who’s been forced to grow up, if not all the way yet. It probably won’t be nominated for a Grammy, but this is the album Earl wanted to make, and it shows. Despite its shortcomings, this album is indisputably his, indisputably good, and I for one can’t wait to see what’s next.