When Earl Sweatshirt suddenly disappeared at the apex of Odd Future’s rapid rise to cultural dominance, some saw it as an early end to his potential. If the last few years have proved anything, it’s that in trying to avoid his path to into the rap world, his mother did Earl the biggest favor. During his obligatory stay at an African reformation school, Earl missed what was essentially his group’s implosion. Granted, the members are still careening about, with varying degrees of success, but ultimately, the massive amount of hype tossed their way by the indie community proved to be just that.
While young teens seemed to have latched onto the movement, for whatever bizarre reason, the majority of rap listeners tired of the OF sound rather quickly. If anything, the wiser members rapidly distanced themselves from the movement, Tyler building his own brand, Frank Ocean all but severing ties completely, and Domo Genesis recorded No Idols with The Alchemist.
While these members had to show grace in how they moved past their origins, Earl had his work done for him. Returning from his lengthy absence – the general mystery of which, if anything, had only increased interest in his character – he was easily able to toss away his prior murderous persona and begin building his own ‘confused teen in the rap game’ image.
As the culmination of that plan, Doris both works and doesn’t. Earl is clearly a new (young) man, far less interested in causing havoc and harm than providing a real sense of melody throughout his album, inviting in talent from Pharrell to RZA. As he himself has proudly stated, this is certainly not an album for the hipsters who, in 2010, whispered in dimly lit rooms that the kid found on Earl, ‘was, like, the only real rapper in years.’
However, while he’s certainly successfully moved past that moment, there’s still a question, when Doris spins to a stop, as to where exactly he’s gone. Beginning on “Pre” with an aggressive verse from guest SK La’ Flare, snarling about molly and money, the album opens with a clever contrast to Earl’s newfound relative restraint. Then, the next run of tracks focuses on the mixture of his rude commentary and more reflective side, building into “Sunday,” on which Earl truly eases into his truer self, bemoaning young life with lines such as, “And I don’t know why it’s difficult to admit that I miss you /…. / And if I hurt you I’m sorry, the music makes me dismissive.” He and guest Frank Ocean muse on quitting drugs, the differences of their sleep without smoking weed, and generally, meaningful matters.
This is directly followed by “Hive,” Earl cleverly opening with the rap blasphemy of, “Promise Heron I’ll put my fist up, after I get my dick sucked.” (That would be Gil Scott-Heron.) Then, guest Vince Staples comes in, dryly remarking, “Come around, we gun ’em down, bodies piled, Auschwitz.” Next is “Chum,” on which he laments his absent father, hitting home with, “I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest / When honestly I miss this nigga, like when I was six / And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it.” After this moment of clarity, he jumps into “Sasquatch” with Tyler, and given his guest’s reputation, there’s no need to discuss where the track goes.
Earl certainly intends these moments as intentional contradictions with the newfound aspects of his personality, but musically, they muddle the selling of his persona. Throughout the LP, just who Earl wants to be is quite unclear. Perhaps this is for the very reason that he himself is unsure of that answer. The listener is left as confused as Earl, regarding who it is they’re following and listening to. Many of the best rap records are monochromatically single-minded, but then the other half, embrace contradictions as a weapon, rage hiding insecurities, heartless satire shielding weakness, such as Earl’s hero, early period Slim Shady. On Earl, the young MC embraced these concepts, but now which wishes to show measured maturity. Admirable, be he seems uncertain as how to display this while still clinging to his clever brand of shock-rap, and doesn’t try to hide that confusion here. If anything, he flaunts as the primary focus of Doris. Whatever artistic merit that may embody, it doesn’t make for a particularly cohesive debut. That said, it does make for an enjoyable ride through a young MC deconstructing his own persona, and so long as the road to Earl finding his voice remains this entertaining, there’s more than enough reason to follow along.