opinion by DREW MALMUTH
Talking about his new album, Earl Sweatshirt said that he will probably lose some fans because he doesn’t rap as much about rape. Thankfully, he sees this as a good thing. But what is amazing is that he even considers fans of his most vile material to be a demographic worth taking the time to discuss. Have we really come to the point where “innovative” underground hip-hop artists need to budget for a drop in sales because they eschew lines like: “Three seconds it takes for her to turn blue/ With my hands around her throat, her arms stopped moving/ Pulse stops too, in the back, look confused.” Arguably, the answer is no. Most of the younger hip-hop aficionados that revel in Earl’s complex cadence and dense references do so in spite of his morally deplorable asides not because of them. Indeed, most of the premier modern lyricists (Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Kendrick, etc.) seem to think that saying idiotic things is part of their allure. It’s more that those lines are tolerated as long as the pockets of introspection and references to obscure 90s television remain firmly intact. In beginning to understand that, Earl made Doris, an album that is not at all shocking and all the better for it.
For those that have been following Earl’s output since his return from Samoa (where he attended a reform camp at the behest of his mother), the contours of Doris have already been sketched out. “Chum” was released in November of last year and there has since been a relatively steady stream of material – “Burgundy”, “Hive”, “Guild”, “20 Wave Caps”, “Sunday”, and “Molasses” were all previewed in the lead up to the album. Absorbing these songs randomly and on their own terms turns out to be an appropriate preparation for listening to Doris. The album has a loose feeling of continuity (especially after repeat listens) but it is generally a spastic, involved listening experience. It moves in fits and starts. Some tracks are easily digestible while the majority weave dense and reference-heavy lyrics into beats that seem to shift under your feet. Like almost every other Odd Future member, Earl is still negotiating his capricious tendencies with a more consistent, reliable style. Doris displays some of those growing pains, but it also delivers a uniquely impressive collection of vicious beats and lyrics that make Magna Carta…Holy Grail sound like Marky Mark.
Doris opens with “Pre” and a verse from SK La’ Flare (Franks Ocean’s cousin), making it the first of six tracks that feature Earl rapping after his guest. For a major label debut there are a surprising number of instances when the spotlight focuses on a featured artist or a verse from an Odd Future confederate distills and even contradicts Earl’s approach to the song. On “Pre,” for example, Earl’s verse defines the track and the opening is ultimately an afterthought; but should that even be necessary to point out that given that it is, after all, his album? In the same way, more people will talk about Frank Ocean’s verse on “Sunday” than the promisingly grimy beats Earl produced himself (“523” and “Uncle Al”).
Still, maybe Earl wanted it that way, and, to be sure, when he wants the attention he can snatch it back with a few twisted bars. Pharell’s beat on “Burgundy” perfectly skews a celebratory melody by chopping it into an off-kilter rhythm. But the song’s lyrical content is what makes it so successful. With his apathetic mumble, Earl bemoans the lack of time he’s spent with his family: “Grandma’s passing/ But I’m too busy tryna get this fuckin’ album cracking to see her/ So I apologize in advance if anything should happen/ And my priorities fuck up, I know it, I’m afraid I’m going to blow it.” This introspection is especially interesting given the title of the song, likely a reference to the burgundy carpet that Tyler, the Creator and Vince Staples reference on “Couch” and “epaR,” respectively. Tyler stabs Earl on this carpet and it is the site of a brutal rape in Vince’s verse. Earl is now turning that image into something more constructive, rapping about his insecurities and frustrations. And then throwing in magisterial Gone With the Wind references.
The album’s best verses are evidence that Earl my deserve the DOOM comparisons that people so flippantly throw around. His wordplay isn’t quite as dense or as strangely obscure, but Earl’s sinister tone, his ability to fillet his lines into dizzying rhyme structures, his knack with clever, one-off similes – all put him on a DOOM-like path to cultish devotion. “Chum” is not only strong thematically, it’s a demonstration of how alliteration and internal rhymes can make a verse sound weighty and potent. Earl says: “Momma was often offering peace offerings/ Think, wheeze cough, scoffing, and he’s off again.” The words grip on to one another, like rubber being pulled slowly off of hot cement. Some dark storytelling shows up on “Sasquatch” and “Centurion,” and “20 Wave Caps” left me wondering whether Ferragamo really makes do-rags. In general, Earl’s verses are convoluted, immature, thoughtful, and always worth poring over.
Earl has taken the time to cull beats that are noticeably distinct but also appropriate for Doris‘ sound. According to his befuddled manager, he actively rejected tracks that had the potential for radio play. That makes Doris sound like a more obscure affair than it is, but it’s accurate in that the productions rarely stray from a sparse, eery template. Tracks like “Hive,” with that bass line that seems to ooze from a sewer drain, are designed more for those smoking blunts in abandoned playgrounds than for those eating tapas in rooftop lounges. The tone is downright sinister on “Centurion” (with a fantastically creepy beat from Christian Rich) and the show-stopping “Hoarse,” a collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD. There are no elaborate song structures or even many discernible shifts between verse and chorus. It’s what RZA would call basement rap and, appropriately, Robert Diggs turns in a beat (“Molasses”) that would have been right at home on an early GZA album. Earl clearly has an ear for beats that suit his material and one can only hope that he continues to ignore his manager.
Doris clears up a couple of things about Thebe Neruda Kgositsile. First, it establishes the kind of person and musician that he is in a way that was sorely needed after the bevy of myths (mostly perpetrated by Odd Future) that accompanied his time in Samoa. He is neither the savior of hip-hop nor a helpless victim of his evil mother; he’s a young guy with family problems that happens to write pretty good rhymes. Second, the album suggests that if Earl Sweatshirt continues rapping, his future material will likely flesh out the stories that make his life so interesting and ignore the cheap sensationalism that made him successful in the first place. It’s no guarantee that he won’t squander his considerable talent, but it’s a good place to start. [B+]
Listen to Doris at Odd Future’s Tumblr.