Earlier this month, Earl Sweatshirt made an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon — the same program that played a large role in Odd Future’s explosion two years ago. Earl began his performance in the green room, watching The Roots on a wall-mounted TV as they laid down the beat for “Burgundy,” the second track off his major label debut, Doris. The camera followed Earl as he made the slow walk from green room to stage; it then glided past his right side, finally taking its traditional position out in front, giving us the same vantage as the live audience there in the theater. As we watch these opening moments, we are keenly aware that Earl — real name Thebe Kgositsile — is experiencing all of this for the first time. We are denied some of the objectivity that typically comes with watching a televised performance like this. We realize that rapping in front of a national audience must be quite nerve-wracking, and it pulls us into Earl’s corner.
Once Earl arrives on stage, he looks uncomfortable, like a turtle that might at any moment pull its extremities back into its shell. “Burgundy” is divided into two verses, the first filled with doubt: “I’m afraid I’m gonna blow it;” “I’m stressing;” “[I’m] in the midst of a tornado;” “I’m not stable.” The second verse is delivered in double time and bustling with braggadocio: “I’ma start shit type nigga;” “Ride in the jeep I’m gonna side-swipe niggas;” “Bars hotter than the block where we be at.” As his performance ends, Earl runs his hoodie sleeve across his sweaty forehead; he appears strained. When Fallon comes over to shake his hand, he looks like he’d rather be back in that green room with his friends — not hamming under the lights with a guy in a gray suit and gingham tie.
This performance — which might not sound like much from my description — is actually quite compelling and a good representative of the dichotomous tensions and neuroses that permeate Doris. This is a hesitant album. It is overstuffed with guest features — out of 15 tracks, eight have substantial verses by rappers other than Earl. As some reviewers have already pointed out, Earl doesn’t even take the first verse. Instead, opening track “Pre” begins with 18 bars from SK La’ Flare, followed by a shorter 10-bar verse from Earl. It’s the on-record equivalent of a rapper spending the first 45 seconds of his network television debut backstage. And, come to think of it, it’s not all that dissimilar from “Thisniggaugly,” the short opening track from Earl’s eponymous mixtape from 2010, in which Tyler, The Creator needs to coax Earl into rapping.
Doris is a self-obscuring record; Earl seems hesitant to occupy the spotlight for too long. He also seems hesitant to give us a coherent statement. This album is all over the place, and it has a few moments of meta-commentary that acknowledge this somewhat schizophrenic nature. At the beginning of “Whoa,” Tyler, The Creator ad-libs half-coherently: “Niggas think cuz you fucking made ‘Chum’ and got all personal” — referring to the first single Earl released from the record back in 2012 — “that niggas won’t go back to that old fucking 2010 shit, about talking about fucking and all that.” Earl then proceeds to rip through Tyler’s abrasive, classically Odd Future-sounding production with rhymes about “steaming tubes of poop” and “used syringes from out the rubbish bin.” At the start of “Burgundy,” Vince Staples asks Earl: “Why you so depressed and sad all the time like a little bitch?” He goes on to advise: “Niggas want to hear you rap. Don’t nobody care about how you feel.”
I, for one, do care about how Earl feels. Many of Doris’s best moments come when things get personal. The self-analyzing first verse from “Burgundy” is a highlight, as is the Frank Ocean-assisted “Sunday,” on which Earl rhymes about a muddled relationship. On the already-mentioned “Chum,” Earl finally gets a chance to tell his own story, after all the ink that has been spilled over him. (I’m hesitant to get into the backstory too much, but this recent Los Angeles Times feature by Randall Roberts is a good primer for the unfamiliar.) He raps about missing his absentee father, the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile; his fall from “honor roll to cracking locks up off them bicycle racks;” the “strained and tightened” ties between him and his mother; and his annoyance with Complex, which famously broke the story that he was at a treatment facility for at-risk youths in Samoa. “Chum” is an incredibly affecting song and probably the best demonstration of Earl’s impressive linguistic facility. Lines like “Mama often was offering peace offerings/ Think, wheeze, cough, scoff, and then he’s off again” are both technically dazzling and heartbreaking.
Doris hits a couple more high points when Earl flirts with horrorcore. On the Christian Rich-produced “Centurion,” he raps over high-pitched, shrieking strings straight out of a film score. “Hive” features a bass-heavy, menacing beat and gritty noir verses from Earl and Staples, and the accompanying video is an unsettling, Lynchian nightmare, complete with moving wallpaper, a crawling insect, and charmingly simple but creepy costume designs that strike just the right chord.
Other tracks on Doris are more fragmentary: “Uncle Al” is a 52-second sketch, and “523” is a short, lumbering (but enjoyable) instrumental produced by Earl. Some of the other beats — like Earl’s production on the Mac Miller feature “Guild” — are built on simple, repetitive loops that are a bit under-realized and static. There is, of course, a tradition of great hip-hop records built around short, scrappy tracks; a lot of DOOM’s output falls into this camp. But I can’t help wishing that Doris had more structure and heft. The penultimate track, “Hoarse,” sports perhaps the most dynamic instrumental on the record; it’s a dusky, guitar-driven beat by BADBADNOTGOOD that manages to tell a story in its own right, taking some of the burden off of Earl’s rhymes. It’s consequently one of Doris’s strongest moments. “Sunday,” produced by Earl and Frank Ocean, is another track that provides some welcome variety. A number of early reviewers have singled out Ocean’s verse as one of the best on the record. It’s a fine verse, don’t get me wrong — but perhaps what they are really responding to is the music that it’s delivered over: it is the brightest, most unexpected stretch on an album without much tonal diversity.
Over the past three years, pop music has offered few stories more compelling than Earl Sweatshirt’s. There is a reason he got 8,000 words in The New Yorker. Doris is not a tidy next step in this narrative. It is not the Big Album many were hoping for, although it certainly shows great growth when compared to EARL. Instead, it sounds like a transitional record by a 19-year-old with a lot on his mind. In the same Los Angeles Times story referenced above, Earl’s manager is quoted as saying Earl recorded songs for Doris that “could have been top hits on the charts,” but were left off. In his manager’s words: “[Earl] was like, ‘I don’t want to have a number one my first time around with this. Can I take my time with this?’” This could certainly be an attempt at myth-making by someone who is, after all, in the business of advancing Earl’s career. But based on the Fallon performance — based on Earl’s secondary role on his own opening track — it might be true.
Perhaps the best way to describe Doris is in Earl’s own words. Back in April he tweeted: “I dont give a fuck how this album is gonna be recieved [sic] critically this shit is imperfect and fucking dirty and as scattered as me.”
That seems about right.