After braving the storm of misguided “Free Earl” campaigns and absentee fathers, 19-year-old Earl Sweatshirt is back with his debut album “Doris.”
A member of the Los Angeles-based hip-hop collective Odd Future, Earl Sweatshirt was first introduced to the hip-hop scene as a 16-year-old featured on the 2010 mixtape “Earl,” which casually throws around images of murder, rape and drugs in vivid and sickening detail. But after “Earl” and the young rapper’s subsequent disappearance to a Samoan reform school, Earl has returned with cleaner and more poetic lyrics that are a stark and welcome contrast from his earlier morbid fantasies.
In “Doris,” Earl’s skillful rapping warrants a medal of its own. The first track, a woozy, kickback-esque number titled “Pre,” doesn’t begin with vocals from Earl, contrary to what’s expected on a debut album. Instead, underground rapper SK La’ Flare introduces the album under a slow and mellow beat. Earl is nowhere to be heard until almost two-thirds of the way through the song, when his surprisingly husky voice reluctantly takes the stage for about a minute. Regardless, Earl’s rapping sets the mood and tone of the album well, and immediately gives off a sense of profound sympathy for a teenager stuck in the whirlwind of hype and fame.
The emotional Earl continues into the second track, a reflective piece titled “Burgundy.” Featuring frequent Odd Future collaborator Vince Staples, the track examines Earl’s power-charged parentage – his biological father is South African poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile and his mother is UCLA School of Law professor Cheryl Harris – and his resulting insecurity: “I’m afraid I’m going to blow it/And when them expectations rising because daddy was a poet, right?” Indeed, it’s rare to find a track on this album that isn’t punctured with intensely painful self-doubt. Nevertheless, Earl’s prodigious rapping skills transform the album into an elegy of exquisite and deeply moving angst, and his masterful internal rhymes pay due homage to his father’s poetic legacy.
One of the strong points of the album is the song “Sunday,” featuring fellow Odd Future member Frank Ocean. A calmer, less showy piece than the rest of the tracks on “Doris,” “Sunday” recounts the poetic misadventures of a troubled teen grappling with girlfriend problems and drug abuse. Mellow and introspective, the track sums up the gist of adolescent misery and depression in one of Frank Ocean’s lines that he, surprisingly, raps: “What good is West Coast weather when you’re bipolar?”
Continuing the trend of heartbreaking songs, “Chum,” the album’s lead single released in November 2012 and performed solo by Earl, may well be the best track in the album. Framed by a piano loop, “Chum” wrestles with devastation, anger and vulnerability. Its lyrics are both tragic – “It’s probably been 12 years since my father left, left me fatherless” – and frustrating – “Thanks so much, you made my life/harder, and now the ties between my mom and I are strained and tightened”. With undertones of pain and angst, this sixth track on the album represents the crowning achievement of teenage poignancy.
At times, however, the album hits a few obstacles that prevent it from being one of the best rap albums of the year. The numerous guest artist appearances overwhelm what is supposed to be Earl’s shining moment and, occasionally, raise confusing questions: Why does Vince Staples take up space on three tracks? Why is it necessary for Tyler, the Creator to mention “dingleberries,” spit a crude joke about Chris Brown and Rihanna and then congratulate himself in “Sasquatch”?
The last track resurrects the album, however. “Knight,” featuring fellow Odd Future member Domo Genesis, begins with a bluesy loop that slowly descends in pitch with Domo’s voice. Highlighting a rebellious and sulky independence, “Knight” pays tribute to absent fathers and subsequent success. Delivered in a dragging, lowered pitch, Earl’s last line in the song succinctly ties the mood and message of the album together well: “Young, black and jaded, vision hazy strolling through the night.”
All in all, “Doris” is a heartbreaking and angsty work of art. While it’s unfortunately and irreparably crushed under the weight of Odd Future’s imposition, there’s no doubt that Earl Sweatshirt has enormous potential and needs only a little bit of space and artistic independence to shine.