Earl Sweatshirt, the chained-up monster in the basement of the Odd Future crew, has the strongest back in music. There’s no other way one could explain how he’s managed to survive carrying the planet-sized mound of hype surrounding his debut album, Doris. There hasn’t been this much anticipation surrounding an album since Kanye had everyone wondering just what the hell he’d do after releasing his electro record and telling Taylor Swift to wait a second.
Props where props are due, a rapper less in charge of his psychic and creative faculties would have acquiesced to the Marianas Trench-like pressure and crumbled. Earl has not only persevered, he’s managed to create a very respectable and highly listenable piece of work in the process. It’s not the five mic classic everyone was anticipating with sweaty-palms and nervous poise, but so far nothing from the Odd Future camp really has been.
In Doris, rhymes are strategically blended with on-point punchlines, metaphors, similes, Earl’s trademark alliteration, in-jokes, references, call-outs and self-referencing meta, then tightly rolled like a masterfully assembled blunt. Earl deftly traverses through the skate park of the English language, popping every trick he knows without ever betraying an air of showboating, nor wallowing in purposeless fill-in-the-blank rhyming. There’s a sharp intelligence that resides behind every line.
Watch: Earl Sweatshirt feat. Tyler, The Creator – WHOA
The bulk of the instrumental work was self-produced by Earl himself, under the moniker randomblackguy. His beats are mostly hash-laced, repetitive, woozy dirges that revolve like a bullet in slow-motion. Doris also features beat contributions from RZA, The Neptunes, Tyler, The Creator, BadBadNotGood and verses supplied by Tyler, OF alum Domo Genesis, Mac Miller and most notably Frank Ocean, who steals the show on Sunday, displaying the considerable rhyme muscle he first flexed on Oldie.
Besides keeping the dweebs at Rap Genius busy with lines like “Stone cold, hardly fucking with these niggas, nigga listen / The description doesn’t fit, if not a synonym of menace, then forget it”, there’s a palpable isolation and melancholy throughout the album’s 15 tracks. Most readers will have already heard Chum, the piano-centred lament over Earl’s absentee father. But Doris plumbs the recesses a little deeper, delivering prescient insights that are lightyears away from 2010’s EARL, encapsulated in maze-like rhymes:
“Eating like the kids when you take ‘em off Ritalin / Throwing temper tantrums at the window of your whip again / Sweeping up the glass to use it as a garnish over / Tracks damaged like the leg he limping to the barn with, chickenshits”
Watch: Earl Sweatshirt – Chum
But unfortunately, the pathos is the only thing really linking these songs together. Each cut on Doris is a fantastic rap song in and of itself, but a collection of songs does not an album make. The scrappy assembly of YouTube killers and tucked-away gems, go-nowhere instrumental interludes and short capsule tracks has Doris sounding more like a high-quality mixtape than a full-fledged album.
But it’s a very, very high quality mixtape slash album. The individual tracks don’t contribute to anything bigger than the sum of their parts, but it’s a sum that’s incalculable to most young rappers in the game. You’ll find yourself returning to Doris again and again to unravel the Rube Goldberg-like verbal traps that Earl has set. His lyrics bring a whole new meaning to the term “rhyme scheme.” Doris is an artefact of increasing returns.
Plus, no one will ever be this good at talking about weed, so no one else will ever again have to. Find something new to talk about, potheads. It’s over, Earl Sweatshirt just won weed.
Watch: Earl Sweatshirt feat. Vince Staples & Casey Veggies – Hive