Earl Sweatshirt - Doris

Posted August 21, 2013

After years of waiting, fans of Odd Future and original lyricism can finally listen to Earl Sweatshirt's 15-track debut album, Doris, via Columbia/Tan Cressida. Including Booth-featured songs "Chum," "Whoa," "Hive" and "Burgundy", Doris offers a look into one of hip-hop's youngest and most creative minds.

Joining Earl on the album are his Odd Future compatriots Frank Ocean, Domo Genesis and Tyler the Creator along with Mac Miller, Casey Veggies and more. Production credits include Christian Rich, The Neptunes, Randomblackdude, RZA and others.

Doris Album Review

Like many, I got my first exposure to Earl Sweatshirt via the AJ Rojas-directed visuals for "Earl". Depicting the 17-year-old emcee and his Odd Future colleagues mixing up and imbibing a literal drug cocktail with results worthy of a David Cronenberg flick, the clip initially left me confused and slightly nauseated. In retrospect, though, it perfectly encapsulated everything a new listener needed to know about Earl: he was a frighteningly smart, parentally unsupervised suburban kid with a ghoulish, yet absurd sense of humor and the kind of impulsive streak that comes with being teenage and very bored. The bite-sized digital album to which the record was attached was a natural outgrowth of that persona, offering a sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious tour of the adolescent mind that produced it.

We all know the rest of the story—or, if you don't, you can Wikipedia it. Suffice it to say, Earl isn't the same person he was in 2010. The first indication of this going into major-label debut Doris is his voice—the deadpan delivery showcased in his early work has deepened into a world-weary rasp—but nearly every aspect of the set points to an artist in the process of maturation. Lyrically and technically, he's more confident than ever before, reeling off improbable series of polysyllabic rhymes on “Gorgeous” and toying with assonance as he invites us to “follow [him] through the foxhole” on “Sasquatch.” The fractured syntax he busts out on second single “Whoa!” verges on experimentation for the sake of experimentation but, after briefly scrutinizing the lyric sheet, I was intoning the title right along with the dazed voices on the chorus.

Along with the formal evolution, the subject matter of Earl's rhymes has shifted—and here the results are more mixed. To his credit, he's outgrown bragging about violence against women. The album's high/low water mark of misogyny, not too surprisingly, comes courtesy of Wolf Gang ringleader Tyler The Creator, who gleefully assumes the mantle of “whore beater” and ponders how many One Direction fans would fit in the trunk of his van in his (nonetheless wildly entertaining) guest contribution to the aforementioned “Sasquatch.” In place of kidnapping and slicing up high-school crushes, we find Earl “pop[ping] artillery” at a variety of faceless foes on joints like album opener “Pre” and hard-nosed Vince Staples collab “Centurion.” The problem is that, while Earl's skin-crawling rape fantasies made sense as the outward projection of adolescent male loneliness and self-loathing, the gunplay feels largely disconnected from Earl's persona.

And speaking of violence, wasn't this the rapper who was, “sent to Earth to poke Catholics in the ass with saws / and knock blunt ashes into their caskets and laugh it off”? Unfortunately for those who, like me, prefer Earl at his most bugged-out, Doris's Earl is disappointingly restrained, opting for abstract wordplay rather than shattering tension with ridiculous one-liners.

Earl proves most engaging when he eases off the verbal gamesmanship and lets his guard down. Lead single “Chum” remains a highlight, and his address to an estranged girlfriend on “Sunday” is one of the project's most memorable moments: “It seems all my dreams got dimmer when I stopped smoking pot. / My nightmares got more vivid when I stopped smoking pot / Loving you's a little different, I don't like you a lot.” Moonlighting as a guest rapper, Frank Ocean has trouble catching the latter cut's vibe—he blames it on jet lag—but exhibits enough charisma to make up for a rather awkward flow.

Sonically, Doris is very much an Odd Future album, with all the cloudy, atonal synths and offbeat drum patterns that implies. Earl contributes to the production of six tracks under the alias randomblackdude; the plaintive, yet ominous “523” makes the biggest impression, though it doesn't have quite enough momentum to justify its inclusion as an instrumental, while “Guild,” a syrupy Mac Miller collab centered around a wobbly bell loop, fails to get off the ground. The Neptunes and RZA turn in beats worthy of their reputations on “Burgundy” and “Molasses,” but the most dynamic outside production comes courtesy of two lesser names; on closing tracks “Hoarse” and “Knight,” BadBadNotGood and Christian Rich each push the boundaries of Earl's sound in different directions, the former incorporating some jangling guitar riffs reminiscent of a Spaghetti-Western standoff and the latter establishing a throwback vibe with a sample of The Magictones' “I've Changed.”

As I wrote above, Doris showcases an artist in the process of maturation. Rather than dragging out a schtick that threatened to devolve into tasteless self-parody, Earl's wisely chosen to make an album that reflects where he's at in life, and where he's at is in flux. Lacking the dynamic between repulsive brutality and oddball humor that made Earl so uncomfortably riveting, Doris is both tonally fragmented and occasionally monotonous: an ocean of griminess broken up by earnest confessional rhymes. The bars are uniformly impressive and the beats, by and large, do knock, but I get the sense that Earl Sweatshirt the grown-ass rapper has yet to fully take shape. Think of Doris as an appetizer for the (hopefully) dope meal to come.

DJBooth Rating - 3 Spins

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Posted August 21, 2013
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