Earl Sweatshirt explored insular shades of gray on Doris

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Earl Sweatshirt Doris

“I don’t like anything,” Earl Sweatshirt insists. “I’m an old-ass young person.” In a 2013 radio interview around the release of his first studio album, Doris, Earl sounds terse, deadened and privately amused, like he has too many words to choose from. Across his self-titled 2010 debut mixtape and scattered verses with Odd Future, he’s an unending fountain. Whatever your feelings on Earl’s hyper-violent subject matter, the skill was evident: this 16-year-old hip-hop prodigy could embark on mind-boggling, complex runs of rhyme with no affect and ageless assurance. 

On Doris, Earl both enhances and transitions away from his early sound. He unspools otherworldly bars, rich enough for hours of unpacking without needing analysis for enjoyment, keeping more than a toe in Odd Future’s world of cartoonish and crass verbal acrobatics. Even on “Chum,” the album’s leadoff single and most vulnerable moment, he’s still a member of the “potty-mouthed posse.” But he also dives into his own psyche much more honestly than ever before.

When I first heard Doris ten years ago I was starting my freshman year of college. Earl Sweatshirt quickly became my favorite hip-hop artist. His style drew me in, the way he withdrew from the world and aggrandized himself with a wink (it helped that we were the same age). Earl’s bars sounded like negotiations with language, clearly written by someone with a hyperactive mental life. His delivery was devil-may-care, his rhymes smooth as calligraphy. He called himself “the ticket-dodging aristocrat,” “Escobarbarian,” “hard as armed services,” “spitter of the Little Nick,” “a bubble in the belly of the monster.” This was a persona I could get behind.

In hindsight, it’s all the more impressive that Doris managed to stick out in 2013, a banner year for mainstream hip-hop. Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap was both eccentric and accessible, soulful and fleet-footed enough to earn College Dropout comparisons. Meanwhile Kanye himself dropped Yeezus, straying far from his early sound and inventing a hair-raising new one in the process. And at the end of the year came Nothing Was the Same, in which Drake muscled up his production and kept sharing his woes in insistent detail. My perspective on hip-hop was blinkered, but I loved these albums too much to care. Each of them kept me different kinds of company through the transitional time: Acid Rap with goofy optimism, Yeezus with thrilling anger, and Nothing Was the Same with a little self-indulgent brooding.

Doris was different. In their own ways, Chance, Kanye and Drake mixed energy with experimentation with pop. These three records were colorful and dynamic. Earl washed everything to gray. The production on Doris is lazy and loopy, benumbing but glitchy in unexpected moments. Many of the beats have a stop-start feel. “20 Wave Caps” lurches in lockstep with assonance-laced anecdotes of social alienation. “20 minutes, burn a fucking quarter back to two grams/ But I’ma dip, I know you must have had it with my rude ass,” Earl announces right as the beat jerks unceremoniously out of tune to match the sentiment. “Guild,” a one-off smoking song with Mac Miller, sounds like when your thoughts start repeating themselves after one too many hits. In the closing track, “Knight,” Earl and Domo Genesis’s voices pitch lower and lower until they wind down like a busted TV set, then jump to life again.

Doris is stuffed with features and aided by high-profile producers, but it doesn’t feel like a group project. Everyone tends to settle naturally into Earl’s audio morass. Jazz fusioners BADBADNOTGOOD add menace to “Hoarse.” The Neptunes infuse “Burgundy” with bombastic synths and staccato strings, but the beat is still more than insular enough to accompany Earl on a deep dive into self-doubt: “My grandma’s passing/ But I’m too busy tryna get this fuckin’ album crackin’ to see her/ So I apologize in advance if anything should happen/ And my priorities fucked up, I know it/ Afraid I’m gonna blow it.” Pop-oriented production duo Christian Rich produce four songs, each disjointed and unsettling. The best of them, “Centurion,” deserves a whole essay: a collage of schlocky mythmaking, blaring synths and devilish sampling, including a Can snippet and a spine-chilling shriek after the line “Sold sniff, mama knew.” It’s not horrorcore, it’s straight-up horror.

Even as Earl sets the mood, he takes pains not to stick out. He hands off the opening bars to another emcee on almost half the tracks, including the first three. But with the exception of Tyler the Creator (despite fantastic Earl verses, “Sasquatch” and “Whoa” sound too much like Odd Future leftovers to blend in), none of the features usurp the vibe. RZA adds only a short hook to “Molasses,” and Frank Ocean doesn’t even sing on “Sunday.” In fact, unlike Acid Rap, Yeezus, or Nothing Was the Same, there’s no singing on Doris at all. Earl conjures a drab, cold universe with a diamond-sharp point on language and a strong preference for sound as mood instead of melody. Roughly in the middle of the album comes “523,” the only instrumental. With just a quick interlude, Earl shows not only his technical production talents but his ability to evoke gloomily shifting introspection without using words. It’s an approach he’d refine on his next album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and stretch to thrilling limits on the extended loosie “Solace.”

Much has been made of Earl’s stay at a correctional boarding school in Samoa between Earl and Doris, and the fan-led “Free Earl” campaign that followed. But at the time, Earl didn’t seem interested in using his personal life as anything more than a jumping-off point (that would change later). When asked in an interview to what degree Doris addresses his time in a correctional boarding school in Samoa and the “Free Earl” campaign that followed, he makes it sound like a necessary evil: “It’d be stupid not to address it at least once. But that shit got used…Nobody was coming at me about anything else.” In “Chum,” he has a few choice words for an informant who tipped Complex off to his whereabouts in Samoa and thereby ignited “Free Earl”: “Supposed to be grateful, right?/ Like, thanks so much, you made my life/ Harder and the ties between my mom and I are strained and tightened/ Even more than they were before all of this shit/ Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits.” 

Even if he weren’t still a teenager, the aversion to having his private life poked at would have been understandable. What Earl experienced in Samoa is for him to know. Ultimately, speculating on its effect on the album isn’t necessary. With or without context, Doris is a landmark hip-hop debut. It’s not an Odd Future retread or a pop turn, it’s the album Earl Sweatshirt wanted to make. There’s no “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” “Bound 2,” or “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” It’s not an everyday album, and it’s not particularly inviting. But it’s there for those times when the armchair in the eye of the storm in your head’s a little more comfortable than anywhere else.

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