Review: Earl Sweatshirt's "Doris"

Review: Earl Sweatshirt's "Doris"

OFWGKTA’s macabre maestro delivers a project that’s as solid and compelling as it is conflicted.

Among Odd Future’s colorful cast, Earl Sweatshirt is almost reserved. Almost.

Earl’s kept a relatively low profile since his return to the States from Samoa last year. He was all but reclusive until the release of “Chum” last November, a record that showed the same lyrical prowess of his debut mixtape Earl minus the outlandish alludes to rape and kidnapping. After nearly a year since “Chum,” Doris is out and features a more mature, complex Earl.

That doesn’t mean the album is some big soul-bearing excursion. For at least the first half of the album the tracks seem to alternate between introspection and a hardcore, Wu-Tang esque grit.

“Pre,” a braggadocious display featuring Earl and SK Laflare (Frank Ocean’s cousin) opens the album with hardcore, somewhat typical raps over rumbling bass with a synth twang. The song sounds good, but feels a bit trap by OFWGKTA standards, if they have a standard sound at all. Then again, the irony of such a track plays right into this movement’s MO.

The second track “Burgundy,” produced by The Neptunes, is the crux of the album. More than any of the album’s 15 tracks, “Burgundy” shows the duality of Doris.

The song opens with Vince Staples mocking fans and critics general attitude toward Earl - indeed, most celebrities. “Why you so depressed and sad all the time like a little bitch?” Vince asks. “Don’t nobody care about how you feel… we want raps.” Earl then goes into his struggles to finish Doris while his grandmother's health declined. It’s a sobering moment in the project, probably the most so.

The second verse pulls back a little in favor of more straight up bars like those in “Hive,” one of the lyrical high points of the album.

While “Hive” and “Sasquatch” are examples of the album’s more freestyle (as in raps for rap’s sake) records, “Chum” is the height of introspection and honesty. “Chum” is closely followed by “Sunday,” which features a stunning lyrical display by Frank Ocean. “Burgundy” functions as a topical nexus.

The topical duality gets a little loose in the later half of the project. That doesn’t mean Doris becomes any less interesting though.

The Wu-Tang and MF Doom parallels are real here and it’s clear where some of Earl’s influences stem from. Take  “Molasses” for example. It’s Earl’s smooth flow over The RZA’s legendary production with dark, twisted lyrics. “Molasses” could almost fit with anything from the Wu’s acclaimed catalogue, not that it tries to. This song, along with the other hardcore records on the album, definitely has a distinctive identity.  

Doris isn’t exactly polarizing, but it's not for everyone either. Its fluctuations between macabre and meditative can be seen as a lack of cohesion, or deliberate juxtaposition. While some will see the plentiful features as breaks from Earl’s often montone delivery, others can argue there are too many. Doris’ production is simultaneously dark, focused and meandering. Its imagery often borders on disturbing, though never quite as much so as on Earl.

Earl Sweatshirt presents a complex album that warrants multiple listens. At the very least, Doris solidifies Earl’s place as one the most talented rappers and writers in the Odd Future collective. Perhaps even the best.

If Doris is any indication we can expect some great work from this young emcee.

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