Prior to the release of Doris, Earl Sweatshirt said he was hoping to lose those fans who only listened to him because “I rapped about raping girls when I was 15”. The flip-side is that, while he may well have achieved this cull, his debut studio album is sure to win him still more admirers because of – rather than in spite of – the thematic development it represents.
Doris is a progression from the juvenile delinquency that characterised his earlier work, towards a more serious and introspective album: a coming of age of sorts. It’s a dark, hazy, reflective journey, packed with equal doses of honesty and self-deprecation, while retaining the cryptic lyricism and dry humor Earl fans have come to cherish. Odd Future fans will be satisfied with darkly humorous tracks like ‘Sasquatch’ and ‘Whoa’, but the broader transition to an undoubtedly more mature Earl is a welcome one.
In particular the record sees him taking the opportunity to come to terms with the tough experiences since he emerged on the scene. After being forcibly exiled to boarding school in Samoa by his Mother, the weight of expectation placed on his young shoulders increased massively with the cult following it created (you barely need reminding of ‘Free Earl’). Appropriately this is an emotional project, in which he’s very open and honest about his insecurities: “I’m indecisive, I’m scatterbrained, and I’m frightened, it’s evident,” he admits on the excellent ‘Chum’.
In a similar vein on ‘Burgundy’, a frustrated Earl addresses his fans perceived inability to understand the emotional strain of being a musician; (“Why you so depressed and sad all the time like a little bitch? /Don’t nobody care about how you feel, we want raps, nigga” Vince Staples’ delivery oozing with post-Millennial entitled apathy). Earl goes on to reflect upon the amount of time he’s spent working on the album in spite of his grandma’s poor health. (‘and my priorities fucked up, I know it, I’m afraid I’m going to blow it’.) The contrasting pressures of fans and family leave a conflicted Earl in a position of guilt and fear of failure, something seemingly all pervasive in a culture of expectation and incessant fandom. Emotionally these two tracks express Earl’s conflicted state perfectly; he’s caught between fans and family, music and relationships, satisfying his own needs, and those of others.
Further reinforcing this integral and self-conscious split, is the contrast between Earl’s monotonous, sleepy flow, and his evocative lyrics. On ‘Chum’ once again, a quintessentially OF style dark synth beat contrasts with the lush piano sample as Earl reflects upon his non-existent father: “When honestly I miss this nigga, like when I was six/And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow”. This recurring and constantly intriguing aspect of Doris works to great effect, and when combined with his knack for complex internal rhyme schemes, it solidifies him as one of the more inventive artists out there both in his lyrics and flow.
Production-wise the beat selection on Doris is solid, without being particularly adventurous. The use of grand horns and piano on ‘Burgundy’ (co-produced by Pharrell) works excellently, and there’s a classic RZA beat on ‘Mollasses’. ‘Sunday’ is a real standout track, a woozy grower, with a simple hook that seems to get better and better, topped off by Frank Ocean showing he can spit as well as sing, as he discusses the impact of his newfound fame upon his relationship with a lover. From ‘Pre’ onwards though – which sets the bleak, atmospheric tone of things to come from the off – the overall sound of the album doesn’t stray too far from the dark, grimy formula we’ve come to expect from this stable.
The eerie, dark synth sounds are typical of OF releases, with some tracks (‘Sasquatch’, ‘Guild’) particularly sounding like a throwaway from Tyler’s Wolf. While he’s clearly succeeded in creating a murky, late night walk through the city feel, it can admittedly get a little wearying at times. Combined with the lack of energy in Earl’s delivery, some may find Doris’ sound limited especially during mid-record lull it suffers (‘Sasquatch’, ‘Centurion’ and ‘Guild’ could have been replaced by some more adventurous samples and expansive beats in order to continue the great opening to the album).
Yet, despite this lack of diversity, the production is incredibly consistent, cohesive, and sturdy throughout, and it’s a testament to his talent and work ethic that Earl himself produced over half the tracks under the pseudonym randomblackguy.
These gripes aside though, Doris is an immensely encouraging record from a young rapper who shows great lyrical maturity and a willingness to continue evolving as an emcee. It may not receive the same critical or popular recognition as Kendrick Lamar’s debut last year, but like his fellow west coast phenomenon, this is a talented lyricist with plenty of honest, intelligent and thought provoking things to say; and that’s not something we’ve always been used to hearing from mainstream hip-hop.