Review: Earl Sweatshirt – “Doris”

August 20, 2013 3 comments


“Told you he can rap, dumb muthafucka”

Above, the final words spoken on “Pigeons” by Tyler, the Creator, from Earl Sweatshirt’s lionized, 2010 debut mixtape, Earl. It’s a callback to said project’s opening skit, which sees members of Sweatshirt’s Odd Future crew satirically mocking their “new” member upon introduction, only to be immediately defended by Tyler with a gesture of anxious encouragement: “trust me guys, he can rap. Just say somethin’.” To anyone familiar with the “legend of Sweatshirt” up to this point, those words are rap relic fodder. LA’s Odd Future collective would ride this, among several other polarizing releases, to wide internet fame, multiple major label releases, an Adult Swim TV show, and multi-continent tours. Their fans; rabid. Their presence; controversial. Their branding; game-changing. Earl (born Thebe Kgositsile), throughout all of this, was seen as the group’s most talented emcee, and their most valuable asset. The sharp-tongued, quick-witted, wordplay-obsessed spitter was held as the burgeoning of some sort of Nas/MF DOOM reincarnation during the entirety of the group’s ascent.

And, ironically, Sweatshirt was absent for all of it.

As of his major label debut, Doris (Tan Cressida/Columbia), we’re over a year removed from Earl’s return from Samoa’s Coral Reef Academy — a retreat for “at-risk” youth Sweatshirt attended by order of his mother. Nuance is a lost art among the Lions Den of internet conspirators, who interpreted the dark, nihilistic lyrics of Earl’s early material as (even marginally) fact-based, and warped Odd Future’s anthemic chants of “Free Earl” as an indictment of his mother and her decision to send him away. But, the Earl that rapped on first single, “Chum”, was clearly a different entity. Still an enthusiast of internal rhymes and broken couplets, but far more subdued and in his own head. “Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits,” he closes. Earl was ready to speak. About everything.

The album surrounding this expository reintroduction is more veiled than our first taste, though. Throughout we’re treated to Earl’s quiet, observatory take on his place in hip-hop, his friends, and where he grew up. The first, addressed early in “Burgundy”, is one of pensive apprehension to his new fame. “I’m afraid I’m gonna blow it”, he admits, and even makes mention to the pressures brought upon by his estranged father, Keorapetse Kgositsile: “And when them expectations raising because daddy was a poet, right?” It’s a glimpse into the gears that turn inside of Earl’s head without being overly ardent. “Whoa” is a lyrical exercise not for the easily-winded: “Pen? Naw, probably written with some used syringes/ From out the rubbish bin at your local loony clinic/ Watching movies in a room full of goons he rented/ On the hunt for clues, more food, and some floozy women.” It’s boastful, but still establishes Sweatshirt as the understated lyrical linchpin of his team. “Hive”, the dark, bass-y third single sees Earl nimbly describe is hometown — before a tough-as-nails final verse from Vince Staples carjacks the song from its lead. Sweatshirt divulges, “From a city that’s recession-hit/ Where stressed niggas could flex metal with peddle to rake pennies in/ Desolate testaments trying to stay Jekyll-ish/ But most niggas Hyde, and Brenda just stay preg-a-nant.” Utterly awe-inspiring.

Doris doesn’t keep much momentum between its highlights, unfortunately, which isn’t damning so much as it is revealing of the biggest flaw here: Earl’s guests, more often than not, set the pace. From the opener, “Pre”, SK Laflare, the first voice on heard on Doris, floats over the trap percussion and queezy synths as if he made the beat himself (that credit actually goes to the criminally under-recognized Michael Uzowuru), leaving Sweatshirt to make up space. It’s not a wasted verse by any means (his “Pesto blunt” line is ridiculously clever), but the song never really feels like his. Elsewhere, the most glaring example lies in the second verse of “Sunday”. Earl’s contribution, another introspective mining of feelings about an intangible relationship, ends up rendering him self-deprecating, petty, and insecure all at once. It’s a great 16, but it doesn’t touch his feature appearance, Frank Ocean. In a verse that throws shots at Chris Brown (that “anal” turn-of-phrase should shake Breezy to his core), references Fleetwood Mac, and even dances around flows that remind one of everyone from Mos Def to Lil B. Ocean steals the show in nearly every facet. It’s a peculiar realization to know, without a doubt, that Earl is the best rapper on these songs, yet continually finds ways to get outperformed.

Luckily, the verses that Earl shines on have indisputable staying power. “Centurion” bears an absolutely sinister beat switch after the opening verse from Vince Staples that sets the stage for tricky bars like, “In a park at 2, plotting, trying to garner loot/ Split it with his big road dog, call him Marmaduke.” In the fashion of early Eminem, Earl often finds his rhyme scheme early in the bar and recalls it significantly later with the punchline, almost as an afterthought, as if he can’t be bothered with the dopeness he just dropped. And he gives us reason to yearn for the long-rumored EarlWolf project with “Sasquatch”, where he plays the foil to Tyler, the Creator’s ADD seventh-grader verse by simply rapping his ass off. He tongue twists, “Small fry got ’em seasons salty/ weeded, coughing/ ease up off me/ and it’s breathing easy as bulimics barfing/ from a different breed of doggy/ from a different seed and cloth and teeing off, believe it’s Golf… Wang.” Try not to rap that to yourself all day now.

Still, while Doris is high-octane straight spitting, it can be tedious to the point of fading into the background. The beats are fairly muffled on a regular basis, with echoey drums that flirt with the downbeat (but never quite “hit”) and tend to evoke images of a baby taking its first steps. Instrumental jazz trio BadBadNotGood come through to produce one of the few truly unique beats on the album with the penultimate “Hoarse” (the aforementioned “Sunday”, produced by Sweatshirt himself [under the randomblackdude moniker] and Frank Ocean, being the other production highlght). And the hooks primarily consist of more rapped, four-bar stanzas. There are no overarching melodies, no semblance of a desire for “catchiness,” and no tendency to build song structures towards climax beyond the singles. Yet, all of that seems completely appropriate, considering who’s behind the mic.

Doris is uneven. It’s as downplayed and unobtrusive as its key figure, which is why it seems as though Earl needs so much coaxing from his friends and collaborators to get him to really step up and take his presence on the album by the reins. A lot of his best verses (that weren’t overshadowed) come second to someone else, as if he needs to stack the cards in his favor. It’s emblematic of the very moment that introduced him to the rap world at large on that fateful mixtape. A superior rapper, lyrically untouchable by all of his close peers, who still needs someone to pull back the curtain and say, “trust me, he can rap.” Yes, Earl can rap. Better than most, which is why I say with optimism, not trepidation… Now what?


1. Earl Sweatshirt – Pre Lyrics
2. Earl Sweatshirt – Burgundy Lyrics
3. Earl Sweatshirt – 20 Wave Caps Lyrics
4. Earl Sweatshirt – Sunday Lyrics
5. Earl Sweatshirt – Hive Lyrics
6. Earl Sweatshirt – Chum Lyrics
7. Earl Sweatshirt – Sasquatch Lyrics
8. Earl Sweatshirt – Centurion Lyrics
9. Earl Sweatshirt – 523 Lyrics
10. Earl Sweatshirt – Uncle Al Lyrics
11. Earl Sweatshirt – Guild Lyrics
12. Earl Sweatshirt – Molasses Lyrics
13. Earl Sweatshirt – Whoa Lyrics
14. Earl Sweatshirt – Hoarse Lyrics
15. Earl Sweatshirt – Knight Lyrics