ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 9/19/13
Recently revisiting EARL, the 2010 album that had Earl Sweatshirt compared to lyrical legends like Nas and Eminem, I honestly couldn’t recognize the high-pitched 16-year-old rapping about rape and killing cops. The rap on that album is still great and the praise it garnered is still warranted, but the kid on those tracks stands in stark contrast against the man that Earl has become. On “Home,” the first post-Samoa verse we heard from Earl, he sounded halfway between that pipsqueak starting point and his current syrup-mixed-with-gravel tone, and “Oldie,” the ten minute highlight from last year’s The OF Tape Vol. 2, saw him nearly all the way there. Last summer we heard Earl collab with Flying Lotus on the weeded-out “Between Friends” with his voice obscured and pitched, and he appeared on Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” as we hear him now on Doris — wheezy and ruthlessly cold. Thebe Kgositsile is a different rapper now, and for the most part a better one.
In the intermittent verses dropped by Earl between his debut and this sophomore effort, the rapper was clearly honing in on his lyrical approach — further obsessing over internal rhymes and dense, complex flows — while turning his subject matter away from the cartoonish violence and misogyny that had once defined both him and Tyler. It’s in these flows that Doris triumphs, living up to at least one aspect of the three year long hype-train that’s preceded it. His delivery throughout these fifteen tracks is on point, and he works in enough metaphors and subtle jokes to make for a semester’s worth of stoned dorm nights on Rap Genius (“Right here, right ear got a pesto blunt”). The quality and proficiency of Earl’s rapping are hard to overstate, and he doesn’t falter or hesitate throughout the course of the entire album. You’d be hard pressed to find a specific bar where he truly sounds lazy, and when he does it’s a surface level affectation.
And Earl’s lyricism isn’t just good in terms of basic rap standards; it’s also incredible writing. He manages to convey a great deal of emotion in his words, despite a vocal style that many might find flat and apathetic. You empathize with him when he wants you to — like when he fights back tears on the incredibly depressing and incredibly incredible “Chum” (“Probably been twelve years since my father left / left me fatherless”). “Sunday” finds Earl entirely vulnerable as he opens up to a girlfriend about his weed dependencies and character flaws, and it’s hard not to be drawn in by his openness. He’s a sympathetic character even when less focused on personal matters — like on “Hive,” where he splits his verses between documenting his decaying Los Angeles (“Breaking news: death’s less important when the Lakers lose”) and embracing the kind of disenfranchised ignorance that initially made Odd Future unique. Earl is an incredibly personable rapper, and listening to his music feels like listening to a friend — even despite the distance he attempts to establish from everyone else, manifested in the pitch-shifted voices of fandom, doubt and dissent that echo across the album. Earl is able to tap into the same kind of emotional connection to one’s listeners that makes an artist like Kid CuDi appealing to so many kids (without being, you know, fucking terrible). When Earl is self-loathing, so are we, and when he just wants to light a car on fire, we do too.
The problem with Earl’s obsessive focus on lyrical approach is that it seems like not much attention was paid to many other aspects of the album — namely evolving the production he uses, which is best described as spotty. Some beats are great and introduce compelling ideas, like the mounting noir-cowboy beat that BADBADNOTGOOD deliver on “Hoarse” and the mid-song shift to Portishead-style spy jazz that “Centurion” takes. Other beats are uninspired and revisit old ideas that various OF artists have already beaten to death. Sometimes these beats fittingly underlay Earl’s impeccable raps, while other times they distract from the music as a whole, but overall the scattershot production renders the album jarringly incohesive and with little logical flow between tracks. “Guild” (produced by Earl under his Randomblackdude alias) is pretty painful, both in its repetitive nature and its sonic quality. Conversely, “Hive” (produced by Earl and Matt Martians) is perfectly minimal, relying on a limited set of sounds to set the atmosphere for Earl and Vince Staples’ killer verses. “Chum” isn’t a bad beat in and of itself, but admittedly sounds pretty identical to the old EARL highlight, “Luper.” Tyler’s contribution of “Whoa” comes close to being simply tired and juvenile, but hearkens back to “that old fuckin’ 2010 shit” and ends up being fittingly nostalgic. Maybe it’s unfair to criticize Earl for an aspect of his music that would’ve sounded fine a few years ago, but in 2013’s landscape of progressive hip-hop experimentalism - Yeezus, Acid Rap, Trap Lord, Watching Movies With The Sound Off, what we’ve heard from Danny Brown’s forthcoming Old — Doris can sound a little flat and derivative.
The vocal features end up being pretty hit or miss. Perplexingly, SK La’ Flare (who?) opens up the album with a mainly uninteresting verse, aside from an amusing line about “Rothschild money.” Domo Genesis on “20 Wave Caps” is characteristically forgettable (“Damn Doms it don’t even sound like you trying” — yeah, it really doesn’t), and is slightly stronger on the closer. Mac Miller delivers a sloppy verse on “Guild” that clearly should not have made the album, setting a new record for laziness with “I hope that Basedgod hears my prayers” (Really, dude?). Vince Staples is the clear star, delivering a great verse on “Centurion” and an earth-shattering one on ‘Hive’ — a verse that outdoes his previous high-water mark on EARL’s ‘epaR’, and will hopefully direct more people towards a free download of his Stolen Youth album from earlier this summer. Tyler is strong overall, with a turn on “Sasquatch” that’s pretty great up until he falls back into his old look-how-much-I-don’t-give-a-fuckery with “Chris and Rihanna fuckin’ again so there’s still hope / Oh shit I went there”, and back-and-forths with Earl on “Whoa” that are reminiscent of old EarlWolf classics like “Assmilk,” “Couch” and “Orange Juice.” RZA is listed as a feature on “Molasses,” which he also produced, but doesn’t offer more than a hook which, in fairness, goes pretty hard. Frank Ocean is solid on “Sunday,” especially for a non-rapper, as he gives shit to the always deserving target that is Chris Brown (“I mean he called me a faggot / I was just calling his bluff / I mean how anal am I gonna be when I’m aiming my gun”).
Doris is either a good or a great album, albeit not amazing. It’s incohesive and light on hooks, but features some undeniably triumphant moments. In a way, it suffers from a similar problem to Tyler’sGoblin: we’d already heard most of the best tracks on the album long before the actual release. Luckily, Earl keeps things brief enough so that Doris doesn’t get lost up it’s own ass like Goblin did. While it’s certainly underwhelming when measured against the hype built up around it, Doris is still probably the best OF release since Bastard. In both its successes and its failures, it singularly defines the OF movement as a whole. Maybe the problem lies in expecting Earl to live up to what he’s already achieved, instead of allowing him to lay the foundation for something even greater in the future.