The world first saw Earl Sweatshirt through a fish eye lens. Pour barbiturates, six different liquors, and a Prince wig into a Tumblr, and just add blood. The 2010 video for “Earl” depicted fake seizures and incited written ones from bloggers. So it goes when you threaten rape, “slut uppercuts,” and masturbating to Asher Roth videos in the first three minutes of your career. Then he was promptly shipped off to parts unknown, true identity still a mystery, age only 16.
You remember the rest: the ascent of Odd Future and the “Free Earl” slogan tailor-made for Golf Wang t-shirts. Was he in boarding school, jail, or forced into slave labor on the Steve Harvey collection? The combination of hype and scarcity culminated in Complex publishing photos of Thebe Kgositsile, jubilantly eating ice cream at a Samoan school for at-risk youth. A few weeks later, a nine-page New Yorker feature boasted e-mail communiqués with the exiled teenager and the revelation that his dad was a Nobel-nominated South African poet whose missives inspired rap godfathers, the Last Poets. It was published shortly after his 17th birthday.
Sweatshirt was really a precocious West LA teenager from a broken home with 26 often-great minutes of recorded material. Hobbies included: smoking weed and filming ironic videos about Keith Sweat concerts. Yet the consensus impression was that the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama had been discovered in the tropics, eating sugar cones. The omens included: wordplay that hinted at a hard-wired poetics and sarcasm that rendered him incapable of being overly precious.
All of it seemed to build towards Doris. Everyone from streetwear hypebeasts, to thirty-something critics, to Slaughterhouse fans singled out Earl as the most talented of the Odd Future pack — the one more focused on rapping than shock or making a quarter million off of socks. He was anointed to deliver on the think piece prophecies and Odd Future agnosticism.
The album’s first single, “Chum” corroborated that idea, with its Mobb Deep references and minor-chord piano loop with something “sinister to it.” It’s Earl as he’d been idealized — capable of condensing complex ideas into intricately woven phonetics and abandoning the grotesque imagery that made him anathema at Women’s Centers. For the first time, his story came into close-up through his own words: the pain inflicted by his absentee dad and the drunk and stoned early high school chaos. He could distill two alienated years into two bars: “too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks/from honor roll to cracking locks up off them bicycle racks.”
Then after the most complete song of his brief career, Earl closes “Chum” by saying he wants to quit. Too much pressure and bullshit. It’s the exhale after the blunt, when you realize that none of this fucking matters. And you can’t fault him. Unlike every paparazzi-smashing rap malcontent, Earl never asked for the fame. One minute, he was a 15-year old year too shy to record in front of the other Odd Future members. The next, LAX security guards recognized him the moment he stepped off the plane from the South Pacific.
The apathy re-appears at the start of “Burgundy.” Vince Staples mocks Earl for being “depressed and sad all the time like a little bitch.” People want to hear him rap so he should rap. But all the human flaws that made him flee in the first place remain: the stoned listlessness and anxiety, the self-doubt and stress. His strengths and weaknesses are immediately up-front. He lets Vince Staples, RZA, Mac Miller, Domo Genesis, and Tyler, the Creator rap before him on various songs. Earl’s a great rapper, but ambivalent. Expectations are Olympian and he’s wary to confront them.
Doris is like watching the rebellious honor student slumped in the back of the class getting calling on when he isn’t raising his hand. His turn has come to give the presentation, so he dawdles to the podium, eyes red as maraschino cherries, mumbling in a why-am-I-here monotone. Even though it looks like he doesn’t care, he’s still smarter than almost everyone.
What’s frustrating about Doris is that you can tell Earl really cares. You don’t write sentences like the “block as hot as Denny’s plates” when you aren’t constantly searching for the best simile. Other than Ka’s The Night’s Gambit, you probably won’t find a more vividly scripted rap album this year. Earl’s absorbed the internal rhymes, oblique references, and opacity of DOOM. Like Eminem, he can dazzle you for 48 bars without saying shit. But absent memorable hooks, he’s only intermittently able to turn those into insular anthems.
That’s not to say that Doris is bad or even mediocre. It’s a finished album but rarely sticks. The best moments often come when Earl is reluctantly pressed into competition (“Centurion,” “Sunday,” “Whoa,” Hive”). Even then, Frank Ocean raps the album’s underlying question: what good is West Coast weather if you’re bi-polar? The record’s circumstances and antagonists are murky. His mother and father, dead grandmother, critics, and an unnamed girlfriend loom on the periphery, but mostly, the words exist in service of the words. He’s flashing the steel, but you rarely smell the smoke.
The problem partially stems from the production. Handling over half the beats under the alias, randomblackdude, Earl shows promise, but remains a 19-year old who has had Ableton for a little over a year. Blended with his monotone flow, it melts into a dreary and drugged blur. It captures teenage ennui, bored and blunted, surrounded by video game consoles, empty Indica canisters, and potato chip bags. It’s an accurate mirror, but rarely fun. There’s a somber flatness incongruent with the trickster mugging for photos in Horace Grant goggles.
Yet if Doris feels disappointing, it’s mostly due to our own distorted perspective. For the last three years, the frenzy hinged upon Earl’s long-term potential. People stomped their feet for a savior; they got a stoned and cynical teenager who wanted to make a dissonant well-written underground rap album. Rather than acquiesce to the pressure, he slunk left and crafted something free from cliché. It’s both a validation and dismissal of the hype. Earl made an honest album that he felt had to make. You sense greater things ahead. But hopefully next time, the vision comes into clearer focus.