Beats that are so ridiculously slow that at times they feel like they might collapse under their own lethargy form a murky foundation for lines so deep and dense you’ll need a team of archaeologists to unearth their meaning.
On May 23rd, 2011, Kelefa Sanneh had his article Where’s Earl? published in the New Yorker. It was unusual fare for that particular readership and exposed a whole new demographic to a largely unknown underground hip-hop collective called Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All Don’t Give a Fuck Loiter Squad. There are other name variations ranging from simply Wolfgang to OFWGKTA. More importantly than the collective itself, however, seemed to be the primary focus of the story -- Earl Sweatshirt.
A video called “EARL” featuring a previously unknown LA teenager dropped suddenly on YouTube in 2010. It was aggressive, obscene, disturbing and completely captivating. It rose quickly to millions of hits and contained some of the most dense, original, and tightly delivered rhymes to come out that year. Critics swooned. As if that wasn’t enough, the mystery of his just as sudden disappearance from the scene as well as the United States made for an intriguing story. The Odd Future collective with whom he’d been credited found their own success within the resulting spotlight and seemed to swell up around his ghost and make their own notable places in hip-hop history. It all happened largely due to the success of “EARL” and the associated Odd Future mixtape by the same name.
A year later, Earl Sweatshirt returned apparently having been sent by his family to Samoa for some intense private education and isolation from what they perceived to be the dark path he was on. They didn’t seem to have any idea that in orchestrating his disappearance they were indirectly contributing to his personal narrative. By the time he returned and stepped back into the driver seat of his now largely fictionalized persona, people were anxiously anticipating the inevitable record that would follow -- Doris.
The first single “Chum” was out well in advance of Doris and showed a new found maturity. Gone is the intense and bizarre over-the-top insensitivity. It's replaced with self-reflection, along the lines of "It's probably been 12 years since my father left / Left me fatherless / And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest / When honestly I miss this nigga, like when I was six / And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it / Sixteen, I'm hollow, intolerant.” It was replaced with a style that seemed to have matured, accelerated perhaps by the absence from the direction his peers were taking. An intensely personal rap delivered like spoken word poetry over a simple piano loop and snare drum roll. Already he had delivered on the promise of his first release. The rest of the album, as it turns out, is equally satisfying.
SK La’ Flare kicks things off like an opening act in “Pre”. His robotic monotone fits well alongside Earl’s. Juxtaposed, the two are like the same instrument with different tunings. The pace is set ultra-slow with deep sub-bass, simple and subtle percussion. Earl’s delivery is rapid-fire but what’s striking is the humility. Still comparing him to the media-savvy bombast of Tyler the Creator and Odd Future the assumption might have been that Earl would show an equal amount of irreverence and drama. This album actually betrays a far more self-deprecating humour and if anything seems poised to simply downplay the hype. “Burgundy” begins with someone asking Earl why he’s so depressed all the time -- telling him that nobody wants to hear about his feelings -- they want to hear some raps. But he does both anyway, as he knows what listeners want better than they do. He tells us about the sacrifices he’s made to bring this record to light. He talks about his messed-up priorities and his fear of meeting people's expectations. It's the second track and against the backdrop of comically dramatic strings and a sloth-like crawling break he’s already telling the listener to keep it real.
As is the requirement all the key collective players make an appearance on the record: Vince Staples, Domo Genesis, Mac Miller and of course, in a surprisingly understated way, Tyler the Creator. It’s not clear if RZA is simply sampled or actually showed up to record on the two minute track “Molasses” which is one of the more amusing and light-hearted tracks. The line “I’m a bubble in the belly of the monster / With a duffle full of troubles / Trunk rattl’in a mazda” rubs up comically against, “I’ll fuck the freckles off your face, bitch." As crass as it sounds, it’s clear that it’s meant to. It devolves from the deep thoughts of the rest of the record into 2010-style sex rhymes very quickly -- a situation which Tyler makes it a point to correct very vocally at the beginning of the following track, “Whoa”. We’re not going back to 2010, he tells us, a not-so-subtle indicator that things are moving forward for all of them in as much as they’re a part of Tyler’s world.
“Whoa” is the track on the record that sounds most like what we might have come to expect after hearing “EARL” in 2010. It’s very much in the same spirit, delivered monotone and dry with warped gritty bass, hard breaks and a warped vocal “Whoooooaaaaaa” which drags repeatedly and hauntingly through the background seemingly just to sound Odd. Aside from the opening pronouncement, Tyler takes two verses on the track which are both welcome guest spots given that he seems to be cognisant of standing back and letting Earl’s dark light shine.
Diversity isn’t the strong point of this record. Consistency of those qualities which set Earl apart in terms of both rap and production are are all over it however. Beats that are so ridiculously slow that at times they feel like they might collapse under their own lethargy form a foundation for lines so deep and dense you’ll need a team of archaeologists to unearth their meaning. Earl never steps far beyond his aggressive but monotone beat-poet reading style and staying between the measures seems of little import. He frequently wanders off beat giving the impression of either carelessness or deliberate humility -- depending on who you ask. Earl seems noticeably uncomfortable in his role and that sometimes comes through both in the writing and the delivery. He is nothing if not self-aware through every beat of this record but there's a charm to that too.
Doris represents one of the most innovative and important hip-hop releases of the year. Not just because of the charm and intrigue of Earl’s story but because of the immense and understated level of his talent for writing rhymes. Regardless of who your favourite Odd Future character is, Earl’s record has now put them and him at the center of a resurgence of talent and creativity in the genre. Whether he’s blindly taking the piss out of rap or consciously dominating it is difficult to know given that he, like the rest of his crew, seem physically incapable of anything that could be pegged as “serious”. In the end however the intent is irrelevant if the result is a seriously great record.