Son Raw isn’t sure how he feels about this one.
Despite Kanye’s best attempts, Doris will probably go down as the year’s most contrarian rap album. Those expectations you have for Earl Sweatshirt, rap’s golden child anointed in absentia? Get rid of them – he wants nothing to do with this shit. No crowns, no pressure no superstardom. Instead, the kid once best known for rape fantasies digs deep and dark, reinventing himself as the heir of DOOM and Lotus with a chip on his shoulder and a life story that wasn’t nearly as entertaining from a first person perspective. He will rap about what he wants, over what he wants, how he wants to – thank you, very much.
This is frustrating.
Earl is such a preternaturally gifted lyricist that anything but a virtuoso performance over perfect production disappoints. When Vince Staples steals the show on “Hive” and let’s face it – the album — anyone who geeked out over Earl’s old shit can’t help but get mad. He’s got so much potential… what is he doing dropping an album of low-key, hyper-intricate confessionals over mood pieces? The answer is: exactly what he wants to. Doris is a dark, emotive, anti-pop album describing just what it’s like to be at the center of a pop culture maelstrom when you’re an introvert who just wants to geek out to Madvillainy. It’s honest. It’s completely unconcerned with rap clichés. It’s not as exciting as you want it to be due to a lack of stand out songs. That last point doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it means you might not like it that much, no matter how hard you try. Earl makes no efforts to engage anyone who tuned in because of his earlier material. He’s far more concerned with cornering an audience that eagerly awaits Jon Wayne cassettes and Toro Y Moi records. If Tyler rebelled against his expectations by spitting bile on wax and making a thoroughly unlistenable album, Earl can’t even muster that kind of anger – he just decided to be an underground rapper. No more, no less. Frustrating.
On first listen, that means Doris disappoints. Neutered of his shock value, Earl’s battle raps just don’t connect and his new tendency towards wordy abstraction will confound anyone expecting the return of the Ritalin regiment. After a few listens however, the album’s charms emerge – the teenage menace of “Hive,” the raw honesty of “Chum,” the paranoid, weed-addled nervousness permeating the entire record. Doris demands a lot from the listener, but it rewards your attention – clever double entendres revealing themselves after second or third listens. This is a kid whose hat is never backwards like the print off legit manga. Get it? You might not, and the rapper’s energy is constantly poured into this kind of clever abstraction rather than overall songwriting. Fascinating. Refreshing. Honest. But also frustrating.
The production is partly at fault. Earl’s beats (under the name randomblackdude) work fine as rapper food, but rarely excite or stick out – they’re canvases for words rather than fully fleshed songs. As a result, songs blur into one another in a stoned haze that’s equal parts pleasant and unspectacular. I suspect Earl doesn’t care – this is strictly take-it-or-leave-it material, music made for the artist’s own catharsis rather than your entertainment. It’s up to you to navigate this territory. Maybe a hundred teenaged rappers will treat this like the new testament… or maybe we’ll all listen to Ferg instead. Frustrating.
From getting locked down in Samoa to having his privacy invaded to seeing his best friend become an Internet era superstar, Earl has plenty to rap about. It’s just frustrating that he does so in a away that counters anything you want from him. To compare him to another LA-raised lyrical genius: Kendrick seized the crown last week. It wasn’t given to him – he reached out and snatched it from the Rap Gods. Comparatively, Earl shirks away from stardom and wants nothing to do with rap glory: his inspirations never did, so why should he? Both approaches are valid, but only one will have the Internet going nuts. Doris is clearly an album Earl needed to make and it’s hard to fault him for wanting to shake off the ghost of his first mixtape. Now let’s see if he can drop the album the rest of us have been waiting to hear.
ZIP: Earl – Doris (Left-Click)