When Odd Future first tumbled out of Southern Los Angeles County in 2010, it wasn’t the high-strung antics of the group’s de facto figurehead Tyler, the Creator that tipped them into the spotlight. It was Earl Sweatshirt, unbelievably young (15? 16?) and skilled beyond his years, a methodical wordsmith whose splatterpunk murder fantasies were rendered all the more unsettling by his incredible poise. The video for “Earl” (off the mixtape of the same name), wherein Sweatshirt and company down a risky drug cocktail and party until they begin to decay, was integral in setting the then-unknown collective on its crash course with hip-hop notoriety. But just as Odd Future took off, Earl appeared to vanish. Once a menacing presence over Tyler’s post-Neptunes synth wheeze, Earl was frustratingly absent from the group’s inaugural round of live shows and festival spots as well as the second round of Odd Future solo efforts. The group refused to provide an explanation for the lingering absence of its best rapper when pressed, opting instead to lead fans through a quixotic “Free Earl” campaign immortalized in t-shirts, records, and elaborate satirical fan fiction.
After a winding investigation, Complex was eventually able to trace Earl to a Samoan retreat for at-risk teen boys. It seems his mother, a civil rights activist and law professor, had shipped him overseas to clear his head after behavioral problems bled into his schoolwork. Barring an expository chat with The New Yorker, Earl fell silent after the reveal until turning up unexpectedly on Twitter one night in early 2012 with a new song called “Home” that closed with Sweatshirt giddily announcing his return: “I’m baaaack. Bye.” He appeared on various ephemera afterward: a supremely anesthetized spot on “Super Rich Kids” off Frank Ocean’s Grammy Award winning Channel Orange, an unannounced freestyle on the posse cut “Oldie” from The OF Tape Vol. 2 compilation, and tracks with OF compatriot Domo Genesis and Flying Lotus’ rap alter ego Captain Murphy. He seemed to pick right up where the maleficent EARL left off, the new verses touting the same deadpanned orgies of bloodletting and misanthropy.
It wasn’t until the end of 2012 release of the single “Chum” that Earl addressed his story in song. Built around a simple, affecting piano figure and clattering boom bap low end, “Chum” was a travelogue of a lost soul seemingly back on track. In it Earl opens up about a life of struggles, from the absence of his father, one-time South African Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, after a split from his mother (“I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest/ When honestly I miss this nigga like when I was six”), to discovering drugs and petty crime, finding a big brother in Tyler, and the fallout from the Complex expose. “Chum” was the most personal and direct he’d ever been on record; it was gobstopping without relying on the trick of sullying the youthful zest of his voice with grim stories of death and defilement.
Loosed from the nauseating gutbucket grit of EARL, Sweatshirt uses his Columbia Records debut Doris to convey a more varied palette of emotions. He challenges the uplifting mood of “Burgundy”’s jazzy Neptunes production, addressing the illness of his grandmother, insecurities about the new material, and lingering issues with his father in one fell swoop (“My priorities fucked up, I know it, I’m afraid I’m going to blow it/ When them expectations raising cause daddy was a poet”). He’s a distant lover on “Sunday”, trading verses with Frank Ocean about trying to tend to withering relationships as studio rats and touring musicians. “Hive” captures the sobering realities of L.A.’s inner city as Earl, his voice just above a whisper, speaks of hopeless commuters biking to jobs that don’t pay their bills (“From a city that’s recession hit/ Where stressed niggas could flex metal with pedals to rake pennies in”). The resignation in his voice in these moments of reflection is every bit as communicative as his unflappable stream of internal rhymes and arresting visual images.
Even in the face of the newfound depth in Earl’s songwriting, Doris’ primary concern is his wordplay, which presents itself in thickets of rhymes so dense they can register as inscrutable on first listen. “Hive”’s second verse opens with: “Desolate testaments trying to stay Jekyll-ish/ But most niggas Hyde, and Brenda just stays preg-a-nant,” a glob of offbeat references, double entendres, made up words, and brilliantly disguised slant rhymes that hit as great exercises in rhyming words well before the deeper meanings can be teased out. Doris is also relatively hookless; where heaping doses of melody helped Tyler, the Creator break form earlier this year with Wolf, here it’s just raps on raps on raps. Guests are frequent, but they either come out rhyming for dear life, as Odd Future affiliate Vince Staples does when he swipes “Hive” out from under Earl in the third verse. Or they play hype man like Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA on “Molasses” and Vince in the spirited pep talks between Earl’s verses on “Burgundy”. The focus never strays from Earl’s fractious, DOOM-influenced songwriting for long, and Doris prefers to dispense it in short, impactful bursts as the “half short and twice strong” EARL did in 2010.
The album breezes by in 44 minutes, but it feels longer. Earl favors droning, lumbering productions full of intriguing sound textures, but he pulls in enough curveballs to give the album a jerky energy. In the first few minutes alone, we get the airy keys and trap drums of opener “Pre”, brash horns and live drums on “Burgundy”, and piddling video game synths battling chunky bass on “20 Wave Caps”. Between the campy drum shuffle newly added to the end of the otherwise austere “Chum” and the shrill violin trills that usher in a shock beat change in the middle of “Centurion”, Doris gets as much of its jollies from settling into dark, forbidding soundscapes as it does from unexpectedly ripping us up out of them. Without the noirish serial killer stories of earlier work to fall back on, Earl has discovered new ways to shock and disorient the listener.
Doris is full on its author’s prodigious abilities as a formidable young voice in L.A.’s resurgent hip-hop scene, but it’s not as concerned with the wider significance of the moment as it is with disbelief it’s actually happening. As comebacks go, it’s shockingly insular and unassuming. Earl remains self-deprecating throughout; he produces a number of the album’s tracks under the telling moniker Randomblackdude. Even when he skirts the mainstream, he does so with cautious optimism. Earl made a television appearance with the Roots on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" this month, running through the boisterous “Burgundy” with eyes closed after a tense walk from the blue room to the stage. It was a peculiar event, the anticlimactic unveiling of a star who’d been the talk of rap circles for three years but scarcely able to relish the attention. With Doris, Odd Future’s Odysseus is finally back and chasing the ghosts out of his head.
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