‘Doris’ 5 Years Later: Everybody Cares About How Earl Sweatshirt Feels

‘Doris’ is an out of body experience for difficult emotions and hard to swallow pills.

“Don't nobody care about how you feel, we want raps, n***a.” —Vince Staples, “Burgundy”

The question is the purpose with Earl Sweatshirt. Heralded the brusk wordsmith and lyrical stalwart of Odd Future, Earl found his audience somewhere between impulsive rage and impulsive sadness. The energy on his 2010 debut mixtape Earl was grotesque and childish, drowning in all the ugly ways we raise young men to deal with their emotions. Three years later, though, with the release of Doris, Earl Sweatshirt used 15 tracks to ask himself a heady question: Do feelings matter? Five years later, with Doris as one of many springboards, the answer is obvious. Hip-hop cares about your feelings and your raps, Earl.

On Doris, following an extended stay at a reform school, Earl Sweatshirt led with self-awareness. When you enter into an industry lauded as a prodigy, humility may all but fly out the window. Not for Earl, who used the time between Earl and Doris to, if he were writing this, grow the fuck up. “I'm an adult,” he told GQ in 2013. “I can't be fucking talking about raping people and shit. That shit's crazy. As an adult, if you want to talk about rape, there's certain shit that comes along with it.”

“Before, I didn’t have a strong sense of identity,” Earl told FADER a few months out from Doris’ release. “I’m finally saying some shit.” There’s the sum of what makes Doris watershed: Earl Sweatshirt was finally acting with broad intent, not impulse. The album was a realization of potential, and it created a space for young Black men to process their feelings in productive ways. It laid the foundation for the very same triumphs Chicago’s Juice WRLD achieves with his croons.

The process of emotion on Doris is sophisticated in that it weaponizes humor where once we weaponized the body. “On the Odd Future Tumblr, where the album was posted ahead of its official label release, the cursor is rendered as a crying face,” remarked Guardian writer Hermione Hoby. “Move your mouse around and it sprays tears, an awkwardly hilarious flourish.” Read as: laughter is cathartic, is relief.

Hilarious, yes, but also a flavor of satire that says more about the human condition in a handful of pixels than some artists can communicate in discographies’ worth of material. The cursor succeeds with the same brilliance and deprecating meditation as Vince Staples’ introduction on “Burgundy.” Where angst and anger are intense emotions—yet to be refined—humor is the best way to shout without hurting your throat. If we were being reductive, we could say that Doris could boast the subtitle: “I have feelings, and they matter!”

In many ways, then, the record has aged into a twisted series of positive affirmations. Rather than label himself worthy of love and happiness, Doris is Earl's affirmation for emotional range. All shades of sadness and coping make an appearance on Doris, and in giving himself permission to write through his feelings in earnest, Earl gives listeners that very same permission, whatever be their outlets.

With that, we know the centerpiece of Doris, perhaps of Earl Sweatshirt’s career to date, is “Chum.” Released as a single almost a year before Doris dropped, “Chum” was the humanizing return of Earl Sweatshirt. Where we once understood him to be a caricature of how the system fails young men, and how these men go on to fail themselves, “Chum” was the blueprint for Earl's maturity and ascendence. The writing was crisp and visceral. His imagery (“Get up off the pavement, brush the dirt up off my psyche”) quickly became the pinnacle of sad-rap-writing, if we want to get derivative.

Really, what made Doris so arresting was Earl's fastidious commitment to internality. At the time, there was a considerable risk here—doing for self over fanfare is something legacy artists struggle with to this day. Yes, as Staples jokes on the introduction to “Burgundy,” fans were prodding Earl Sweatshirt to get back to the music and get away from himself, but it was by embracing and plumbing himself that allowed Earl to craft his written opus. Earl Sweatshirt fans may not have known they wanted Doris, but it was a universally necessary record all the same.

“It takes me a long time to write, and I trust myself, so I write very sparsely, so when I do, I know it's good, you know what I mean?” Earl told Esquire. “Rather than writing a whole bunch and having to sort out what's good and what's not.” If we equate quality here with a desire to move with purpose, what Earl is getting at is the presence and respect for a ubiquitous weight. Doris strikes a balance of owing nothing to no one, and owing everything to Earl Sweatshirt by way of honesty and openness.

When it comes to his newfound mind-to-soul-to-pen-to-paper connection, Earl even admits to a possible overcommitment, telling Pitchfork: “What was crazy about Doris is that I would be fully in myself when I was writing a lot of that shit, but then immediately jump out when I was done, so it was almost like me performing someone else's songs.”

In 2015, Earl lamented his delivery on Doris, but his self-critique is more a symptom of imposter syndrome than a worthy breakdown of the album’s flaws. As an artist and a young man, when you’ve chosen to face your ugliest self day-in and day-out for your craft, there is bound to be a rousing of fear. At the least, this is why half of Doris (“Hive,” “Whoa,” “Hoarse”) plays as a lyrical exercise. Perhaps Earl Sweatshirt sounds detached on the album, perhaps not, but we cannot deny that to this day he has written one of hip-hop’s most harrowing and progressive self-excavations. If anything, this dissonance and fear is merely a testament to the truth and impact of the album. Doris is an out of body experience for the emotions that most plague us.

Perhaps most surprising about Doris is that while it laments, it engages us and does not invite us to stew. When Vince Staples jeers that fans just want the raps, the conclusion of the joke is: fans need the raps. We need reprise from agony by way of long-winded wordplay, where, in life, wordplay is a petty distraction and, in song, it is syllable stacking of the highest order. There is movement across the record that years later is all the more appreciated. While plenty of doldrum-set albums tap into our desire to sprawl out on the floor and soak in woe, Doris has something kinetic underscoring its themes.

The emotions on Doris lumber about in the same way as the production, but on the whole, the record feels productive in the way it might feel productive to come to terms with grief hours after a loss. That is, you feel the loss and you feel a better future occupying the same space, and there is room for both sensations. In that way, the album is procedural and it is also kind. There is an admittance of darkness, but the necessity of darkness is light. At the least, we have laughter.

Though Doris led us to Earl Sweatshirt’s paranoid I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, there is no written rule that the album could not also lead listeners to that necessary light. Five years on, then, and with the release of I Don’t Like Shit, we care how Earl Sweatshirt feels. Earl Sweatshirt, too, cares about his feelings. There’s a fresh weight to his every word, and the raps grow to serve a larger purpose: this is how to sublimate, how to process, and how to heal productively. And, damn, it all still sounds so good.

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