As soon as rap collective Odd Future exploded all over the internet a couple of years ago it was immediately apparent that their most talented member also happened to be the youngest. The prodigy in question, Earl Sweatshirt, was only 16 when his début mixtape Earl dropped in 2010 but, although his lyrics were as violent and misogynistic as the worst of the group’s output, he was clearly the only member whose actual skill at rapping was self-justifying and merited comparison with the best of the competition.
As such, it was a bit of a shame that at some point in 2011 he disappeared for two years to a Samoan boot camp; apparently the nihilistic lifestyle that the band promoted hadn’t impressed his mother as much as it had their legions of teenage fans. In his absence Odd Future only continued to get bigger, although there was definitely something missing: without their wunderkind there was nothing to really validate the comparatively crude bars of the group’s other stars Tyler the Creator and Hodgy Beats. So when Earl reappeared older and wiser late last year with the brilliant and brooding ‘Chum’ it was a more than welcome return.
‘Chum’ was an accurate foretaste of the album that, some eight months later, has now dropped: Doris. Going into detail on family and personal issues, with verses punctuated only by a dense and downbeat hook (“Something sinister to it/ Pendulum swinging low, a degenerate moving”), it’s emblematic of a dark and introspective record that sees Earl drop the obscenity of his earlier career but none of its lyrical dexterity. Whereas his previous mixtape, and much of Odd Future’s other output, has the air of a sort of gory low-budget horror movie, Doris is more of a psychological thriller, eerie and unsettling throughout, but infused with enough thrills and a good enough sense of humour to make it a rewarding experience.
On standout tracks like ‘Hive’ and ‘Guild’, woozy production provides the perfect background to the claustrophobic and jarring images that Earl evokes in chilling monotone, whereas sad guitar drones accompany stripped-down drumbeats on ‘Hoarse’ and the bittersweet, Frank Ocean-featuring ‘Sunday’. Indeed, all this would be enough to make Doris a bit of a dour listen, if it wasn’t for the fact that the sheer lyricism on offer is so damn good. No matter how murky the sounds and the subject matter get, Earl’s control of his material shines strongly enough that you never get caught in the mire; the complexity of his rhymes and the richness of the images he evokes are at times stunning, and totally justify putting him in a whole different class to his fellow Odd Futurists.
The 19-year-old emerges from the album sounding much more reminiscent of the underground old guard. DOOM in particular is channelled on a number of occasions, his smoke-and-mirror aural patterning clearly influencing lines like “God spit it like it’s truth serum in that beer and then/ Disappear again, reappear bearded”. Of course it’s not all verbal acrobatics – some of the best lines on Doris are starkly worded sentiment – but throughout the record there’s a level of nuance and maturity that certainly wasn’t there before.
It would be a valid complaint that in the process he’s lost some of the shock appeal that made Odd Future’s early releases so exciting; there’s nothing here that slaps you in the face and demands your attention in the same way that ‘Orange Juice’ did, or that Tyler’s records still occasionally do. As Earl has himself pointed out a number of times, Doris has little to offer to fans with short attention spans.
This isn’t to suggest, though, that he’s disappeared up his own arse. Much of the album is devoted to the time-honoured topics of drugs, sex and violence, and there are plenty of grimly funny punchlines scattered around throughout. Doris is by no means a masterpiece, and it’s by no means the work of an artist in his maturity, but that’s to be expected when the artist is still a teenager. If Earl continues on this trajectory we could soon be looking at something very special indeed.