Following up a critically lauded debut is a challenge at the best of times. But factoring in Earl Sweatshirt’s apparent raw talent, his well-documented absence, and the success of his peers, the expectations begin to look almost insurmountable. He’s managed to take some of the heat out of this anticipation with a handful of solid features over the last year or so, including a phenomenally slick verse on Odd Future posse cut ‘Oldie’, but the pressure awaiting the 19 year old’s first proper full-length is still pretty intimidating.
You’d expect the old Earl to come out all guns blazing, eager to validate expectations, so it’s strange to find that he’s taken a restrained, almost calm approach on Doris. It’s not that the album is low on firepower, but you do get the sense that Earl has little interest in catering to expectation; from the moment he opts to leave the album’s opening verse to someone else it’s clear that he’s doing this thing on his own terms, and he doesn’t disappoint.
Instantly memorable lines like “99 problems all gone in that one joint/and the neck gold froze like he held it at gunpoint” are layered, visual and phonetically potent all at once. He has an uncanny ability to coax striking, often darkly humorous imagery out of couplets so concise they can easily slip by unnoticed; a skill which has earned comparisons with underground veteran DOOM, whose crowded internal rhyme schemes also loom large in Earl’s flow. But his abilities can’t all be chalked up to influence – the rhymes here really are devastatingly fluid. Syllables almost trip over each other as they spill out of his mouth, his indifferent, slack-jawed delivery masking the practiced control of these half-asleep verbal gymnastics. On a purely visceral level it’s mesmerizing.
He could quite easily fill a record with dense, lengthy verses, but, regardless of technical finesse, an entire album of his monotone would make a tiring listen. Thankfully he’s wise to this and doesn’t stay on any one track any longer than needed, and instead we’re treated to a healthy roster of guest spots: Tyler puts in a couple of typically charismatic, heavy-handed assists; Earl trades pitched-down bars with Mac Miller over a queasy instrumental on ‘Guild’; and we get a serenely self-assured verse from Frank Ocean on the hypnotic ‘Sunday’. But the show is somewhat stolen by relatively overlooked Odd Future associate Vince Staples, whose sinister verse on album highlight ‘Hive’ is comfortably the best of his career. This is one of a number of songs where Earl handles production himself, and it has to be said he’s no slouch in that department either. The sparse track slithers around uneasy cymbals in a manner fitting of its assonant lyrics, “the description doesn’t fit/if not a synonym of menace then forget it”.
From the cathartic horns of ‘Burgundy’ through to the murky lurch of ‘Hoarse’, via RZA’s signature staccato on ‘Molasses’, the variety of beats on Doris leaves Earl with room to channel a range of moods. These moods don’t really form a cohesive whole but then again this isn’t a concept album – whether he’s frankly addressing parental issues on ‘Chum’ or taking his sporadic self-confidence for a spin on ‘Woah’, this album is very much the reflection of its creator’s self-described “scatterbrained”, “indecisive” mind and as such feels like an honest statement.
It’s a highly creative and personal record. The instrumentals are engaging and diverse with a refreshing lack of gimmicky hooks, and the wordplay Earl produces from his “Suitcase scented with haze and fileted sentences” is consistently dazzling and poised. So much has happened around him over the last three years that he understandably isn’t ready to make any grand statements just yet, but in the meantime Doris is more than enough to cement his reputation as one of the most captivating figures in his genre.
…Dan is listening to Deafheaven – ‘Irresistible’…