Album Review: Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
Doris didn’t fall out of the sky. Since the release of “Home,” Earl Sweatshirt‘s first official song since being spirited away during the heyday of Odd Future‘s exciting ascent , Doris has been anxiously anticipated, almost annoyingly so. Part of the anxiety was the lack of an apparent lens through which to anticipate exactly how the album would sound. Earl‘s voice was deeper, his flow had become more dense and his content was no longer shockingly appalling . Moreover, despite Earl‘s presence on stages, on notable features and in a very limited number of interviews, Earl didn’t seem to be actively directing how we should receive him. Unsurprisingly, because patience and understanding are no longer acceptable forms of behavior, this anxiety gradually morphed into doubt and ridicule. People began to claim that Earl had no future. Earl eventually responded to this ridicule, sardonically mocking his detractors.
This nigga earl fell off bruh. This nigga boof.
— Earl Sweatshirt (@earlxsweat) July 21, 2012
This response was then followed by an explicit declaration a month later.
I hope i lose you as a fan if you only fuck with me cause i rapped about raping girls when i was 15.
— Earl Sweatshirt (@earlxsweat) August 12, 2012
In this tweet, Earl essentially provides a lens through which to view his new music: “I am not Earl.” Months later, the world received “Chum” another explicit declaration about the direction of his music. Then, as the months rolled by, these declarations increased, reaching us via performances, verses, music videos and “confessions.” There’s no need to intricately detail the ways in which Earl led us down the road to Doris, or to pretend that the journey and the music are equivalent, but one stop along the road is particularly useful for understanding exactly what Doris is (and what it does).
This special moment came less than a week ago, via Williams Street in Atlanta, Georgia, home of Adult Swim. Backed by Thundercat‘s careful bass and sandwiched between Captain Murphy (Flying Lotus) and Viktor Vaughn (MF DOOM), Earl is right at home. And it’s not because these three are the “3 Kings” of dark humor and internal rhymes or because DOOM is one of Earl’s biggest influences. Earl fits in here because, like DOOM and Captain Murphy, the line between his alter-ego (Earl Sweatshirt) and himself (Thebe) is blurred, possibly nonexistent. Thus, his explorations of villainy take an interesting turn. He is literally between villains: his mischievous, relationship, damaging self and his witty rap persona, both of which are guilty of regrettable actions. When he removes his mask (sweatshirt?) at the end of the day, there’s another one underneath, ad infinitum.
Doris takes this perpetual oscillation and gives it life, burying the listener between this ongoing inner battle via blindsides from both directions. The album begins with “Pre,” a song that has a vintage Odd Future sound (dark, scratchy, echoing synths), yet features none of its members (besides Earl). Earl and unexpected feature artist SK La’ Flare make dark boasts involving pickaxes and other sharp objects while producer Michael Uzowuru envelops us in evil. Then, on “Burgundy” this macabre momentum is stifled as Earl juxtaposes damning thoughts about his poor prioritizing with an enlivening and cheerful Neptunes beat. Notably, Vince Staples snidely mimics Earl‘s fans, who prioritize new music over Earl‘s well-being. This switch-up between Earl the rapper and Thebe the person occurs again between “20 Wave Caps” and “Sunday.” On these tracks, similar to the organ driving the two songs’ instrumentals, Earl himself anchors the tracks despite their different directions.
The oscillation becomes less pronounced as Doris continues, but that seems to be the point. As Earl and Thebe melt into each other, another protagonist emerges: randomblackdude. randomblackdude is ostensibly Earl‘s producer alias, but “RBD” is more than just another moniker. “RBD” has production credits for nearly half the album and manages to maintain the album’s atmosphere even in the absence of vocals (See “523″). Furthermore, as a name, “randomblackdude“ perfectly captures Earl’s life: he is an unexpectedly talented guy who attempts to be treated normally by nominally downplaying his talents all while showcasing them. That’s a whopper of a sentence and a whopper of a situation, but throughout Doris Earl treads this ground with sly aplomb, mining words and sounds for unseen treasures while casually delivering these gems with a calculated air of indifference. In other words, Earl is excited by wordplay and sound experimentation, but he doesn’t feel forced to embody this excitement himself; he leaves his creations to their own devices, content with their meticulous design.
For some listeners, this lackadaisical, hands off approach is stultifying; it indicates a lack of passion. They ask how they’re supposed to engage with a work that has, “I’ll fuck the freckles off your face, bitch” (“Molasses”) as its most memorable hook. They wonder how to get excited by the music of an artist who looks ambivalent about being on Jimmy Fallon, playing with living legends, The Roots. They look to the sky and wonder where the hell this album came from.
This album comes from the mind of a villain with no interest in either heroics or villainy. His motive is simply to tell his story and his means is through guttural, word-warping, ear-pinching rap music. The result is variably oblique, opaque, offensive and off-putting, but on the whole, it’s enriching. This is what music can be when we let the villains remain at large.