Earl Sweatshirt, ‘Doris’ – Album Review
The story leading up to Earl Sweatshirt’s debut album, ‘Doris,’ sounds something like an aborted movie storyline. A 16-year-old showcases ridiculously prodigious talent on his debut mixtape, but gets sent to a Samoan retreat after substance abuse issues and writing obscene songs.
He inadvertently starts a movement calling for his return because he’s just that lyrically skilled. Then, soon enough, he comes back and lays one of the best verses of the year (‘Oldie’) and subsequently starts working on his debut album.
It’s funny to think how much hysterics, critical analysis and blog attention this all caused because the teenager at the center of it all — Earl Sweatshirt — seems to be the most stable, calmest factor in this storyline. He did his time, and after a pneumonia scare, he finally dropped ‘Doris.’
‘Chum,’ the Tyler, the Creator-assisted ‘Whoa’ and ‘Hive’ featuring Vince Staples and Casey Veggies were singles released before the LP debuts and they all received a solid amount of critical acclaim. Plus, a debut album from a talented kid like Earl and which features production from the likes of RZA, Pharrell and BADBADNOTGOOD felt too good to fail. And it is.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about ‘Doris’ is how distant Earl sounds throughout it, as if he’s totally ignorant toward the hype. From this distance, he’s contorting words and rhymes schemes to his pleasure and throws them at the listener like darts. In contrast, the features sound particularly invested in this project — including Domo Genesis and Mac Miller.
‘Doris’ is cold and grimy — with rays of light in some spots — but it’s never uninviting. Nothing this skillfully done can be.
1. ‘Pre’ Feat. SK La’ Flare
SK La’ Flare, a West Coast rapper and Frank Ocean’s cousin, released some material last year, but he hasn’t really been the center of attention. Well, now he is as he spits a serviceable couple of bars over these grimy synths. When Earl Sweatshirt spits his verse right after, two things become clear: he’s cool enough to let an affiliate get shine but is confident enough to know there’s no way La’ Flare is outshining him. “I’m a problem to n—-s / Pop artillery, the carbonates with him,” Earl raps. “Starving to hit ‘em, spar with a n—-.” It’s his show.
The haze of the opening gives way to a shiny Pharrell-produced track. The horns and rock-inspired synth feel like a grand opening of sorts. Earl momentarily drops his hardened mentality to reopen a wound at the beginning of his verse: “Grandma’s passing / But I’m too busy tryna get this f—in’ album cracking to see her / So I apologize in advance if anything should happen.” As he finishes the song with a quickened, chest-bumping set of bars, that second line feels more like a Gladiator “Are you not entertained?” type of moment.
3. ‘20 Wave Caps’ Feat. Domo Genesis
Back in 2010, Domo Genesis was a capable rapper but seemed too stoned to put too much energy into his performances. Nowadays, he seems hungry, like in his guest spot on ‘Rusty’ off Tyler, the Creator’s ‘Wolf’ album earlier this year. Thankfully, his aggressive streak continues here as he performs with solid control over his flow. His appearance is assisted greatly by Samiyam’s production — one of the best on ‘Doris.’
4. ‘Sunday’ Feat. Frank Ocean
One of the best cuts on ‘Doris,’ and it might just be better than Frank Ocean and Earl’s outstanding prior collaboration on ‘Super Rich Kids,’ off ‘Channel Orange.’ Earl mulls over the conflict of his fame and his relationships, while Ocean listens to Fleetwood Mac and fires shots at Chris Brown: “Forgot you don’t like it rough, I mean he called me a f—– I was just calling his bluff / I mean how anal am I gon’ be when I’m aiming my gun / And why’s his mug all bloody, that was a three on one? / Standing ovation at Staples I got my Grammy’s and gold.”
5. ‘Hive’ Feat. Vince Staples & Casey Veggies
Here’s another particularly strong track on ‘Doris.’ As good as lines like Earl’s, “Striking, wait, wait, who the f— you badder than? / Boy oh boy, I’m bad as burnt pollo off the grill and s—,” Vince Staples ends up stealing the show with his venomous verse. “But to each his own, I ain’t tripping long as I can reach the chrome / Heat your home like Southern California Gas, police pass,” he spits.
‘Doris’ was highly anticipated not just because it would feature more of Earl’s impressive rhyming skills — we already knew he could rap — but fans wanted to see just how much he matured. ‘Chum,’ the album’s first single, showed just that. It’s not just about technical skill as Earl gets pretty introspective here. “It’s probably been 12 years since my father left / Left me fatherless,” he raps. “And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest.”
7. ‘Sasquatch’ Feat. Tyler, the Creator
Over sinister guitar notes, Tyler, the Creator sounds like he’s skipping along with ease. This is him in a luxury car pointing and laughing at critics as he drives by. “F– the block news and the venues, they can’t handle us / They can’t stand us including fruits that Frank’s channeling,” Tyler raps, referencing Ocean’s masterful ‘Channel Orange’ and his sexuality. He’s even gracious enough to give the critics and himself a reason to cheer up: “Man, I suck now, I ain’t still dope / But Chris and Rihanna‘s f—ing again so there’s still hope.”
8. ‘Centurion’ Feat. Vince Staples
Christian Rich provides one of the album’s more outstanding instrumentals on ‘Centurion.’ The chugging, fast-paced backdrop has a horrorcore feel to it, which is an atmosphere Earl built his name from. The pure shocks present on ‘Earl’ aren’t the selling point here though, and it’s for the better. ‘Doris’ is an album that hinges on raw technique and precision, and the same thing goes on ‘Centurion.’ Earl’s dense delivery makes those jabs feel much more threatening: “Stomping clowns, welcome p— n—-s to the romper room / Buckshot will cover a whole torso like a parka do.”
While the ragtime-inspired instrumental provided by Earl (credited as RandomBlackDude) is good on its own, it feels like more of an interruption than an interlude here. The effort does show Earl’s production chops, but it’s still a skippable track given the fantastic material that surrounds it.
10. ‘Uncle Al’
It’s another Earl beat, except this one feels more whimsical. He raps over this one, too, and he’s spitting with a little extra urgency as if he’s aware he has only a few more songs to drive home the point that he’s one of the best rappers out there. He knows it’s his time, with lyrics like, “Snapping like the shutter speed, pucker up kiss of death / Tell your men to hit the deck or hit the dirt.”
11. ‘Guild’ Feat. Mac Miller
Friends Mac Miller and Earl Sweatshirt both perform with altered voices in this slow-churning effort. This is definitely one of the more divisive tracks on ‘Doris.’ While some will like the bits of absurdity — Mac Miller claims to smoke weed on Jay Z’s lawn — others will find the slowness a bit off-putting.
12. ‘Molasses’ Feat. RZA
This track sounded excellent when Earl debuted it back at a Syracuse University concert, and it still sounds amazing on ‘Doris.’ A part of the reason is RZA’s superb guitar-based production, which sounds like triumph. Then there’s the hook, which isn’t wholesome, but feels designed to be yelled from cars as the track is playing. Combined with Earl’s visceral lyricism, ‘Molasses’ is one of the most replayable tracks on the LP. It’s just a shame it’s a bit short.
13. ‘Whoa’ Feat. Tyler, the Creator
Earl follows a highlight with something anthemic. The teenager calmly delivers his complex verses, while Tyler plays the goofy, but intimidating enforcer. He chants, “50 K for the last check / But the Dollar Menu still be on deck.” They’re your average guys; they just happen to rap better than you.
It feels a bit late for a Wild West, standoffish type of instrumental, but production by BADBADNOTGOOD is always welcome. They don’t disappoint here with their eerie beat. Earl isn’t really standing off against his competition here. With lyrics like, “Pinnacle of titillating crisp spit / Fist clinched emulating ’68 Olympics,” it’s clear ‘Hoarse’ is an entertaining moment of self-aggrandizement. ‘Molasses,’ Whoa’ and ‘Hoarse’ are Earl at the top of the mountain.
15. ‘Knight’ Feat. Domo Genesis
“I’m farming, harvesting hits / Just me and Domo and lit marijuana to split between two of us / Rocking boxes easy as warming some Ramen noodles up.” These lines feel doubly important since it’s heard after Kendrick Lamar’s famous decree for competition on ‘Control.’ Earl and Domo Genesis walk a path that involves absent fathers and a lot of weed to make it to the top of their figurative mountain. Now that they’re there, it’s Earl and Domo Genesis against the world.
Watch Earl Sweatshirt’s ‘Hive’ Video Feat. Casey Veggies & Vince Staples