Review Summary: Searching for a way to state it right.
I’ll admit that I’m inclined to be a tad hyperbolic when it comes to the Holy Trinity of Odd Future – Frank Ocean, Tyler The Creator, and Earl Sweatshirt. Frank has made some boring songs. Tyler relies more and more on profanity and includes songs that disrupt the flow and enjoyment of his albums. And Earl has stapled words together with reckless abandon and without regard for coherence more than once. And of course there’s that combination of controversy and stupid humor in both their music and image that has earned both fans and detractors, and I’m unsure which group I’m more inclined to side with on that front. I mean, Thurnis Haley was pretty damn funny, but c’mon, guys. Iron Maiden made The Number of the Beast
almost thirty years ago, and MellowHype still thinks it’s cool to slap upside-down crosses on their album covers? And people buy into that?
Still, the three all have enormous potential, and have crafted albums I like – Goblin
, nostalgia ULTRA
– and even albums I love – channel ORANGE
. And I can say honestly that Doris
falls into that latter category.
isn’t perfect. For example, it is a hip-hop album, in 2013, that starts with the words “Baby girl”. These and many more terrible, terrible lines are uttered by SK La Flare, underground (?) rap (?) star (?), who raps about molly, bitches, gunning people down, overcoming haters, and everything else that’s par for the course in hip-hop as of late in a dull, slow flow. He takes up approximately the first two minutes of both the opener “Pre” and the album, and one could be forgiven for getting the fuck out of dodge at this point.
But then the beat cuts out, and Earl starts rapping as the slow electronic beat returns with slinky synths in the background. And the juxtaposition of SK’s brand of generic pseudo-gangster rap with Earl’s lyrical complexity and smooth delivery – on the exact same subjects as SK, mind you, minus the molly – is interesting in a stupid way. Perhaps this was intentional – I wouldn’t know. “Pre” is not a great opener, but it does, in this way, show what is to come. The role of opener is more appropriately filled by “Burgundy”, a Neptunes-produced track in which the horns soar and bass bounces, as Earl impresses even with simpler lyrics like “I know it, I’m afraid I’m gonna blow it, and them expectations raisin’ because daddy was a poet – right?” It’s the songs like “Burgundy” and “Sunday” where Earl is at his most vulnerable on record, and the songs express that well; the beats aren’t quite as dark, the lyrics are simpler but they get their point across better, and they contain very down-to-earth, human sentiments: concerns about pressure and relationships.
Earl has a way of placing his brand of the usual rap-for-rap’s-sake against the intensely personal. The tracks bounce around from subject matter to subject matter, not flowing in a particularly logical or cinematic way. “Hive” opens with an allusion to hip-hop godfather Gil Scott-Heron, promising the late Heron he’ll “put his fist up after [he] gets [his] dick sucked, quick buck, and maybe a gold chain”, and so the first verse lords over the critics and rivals, but his second verse concentrates on the destructive nature of Los Angeles on its citizens and youth. In other words, he puts his fist up after he gets his dick sucked. This all takes place over a bassline that is only fit to be described as “grim”, as well as choir vocals that ramp up the ominous tone and the occasional dash of organ in the chorus.
The production at hand, along with Earl’s lyricism, is what gives the album the most character. The beats match the lyrical content accordingly. When Earl’s making a point of showing off and bragging, it gets matched to the farty electronics of “20 Wave Caps”, the comical hook and menacing synths of “Whoa” or BADBADNOTGOOD’s dark instrumentation on the rumbling “Hoarse”. When he’s feeling more contemplative, we get the wobbly guitars and keys of “Sunday”, the ascending horns of “Burgundy”, or “Knight”, which bridges the soul samples of Just Blaze or early Kanye with the pitch-shifting trend so popular with the new school. And when he’s trying to paint a dark picture, we get “Hive”, the simple piano loop of lead single “Chum”, and the screeches of “Centurion”.
Of course, the tropes Earl is known for must be addressed – narrative storytelling, clever wordplay, and inventive references. At least two of the three are present in abundance here, and the third makes some limited appearances. Earl’s eponymous album was noted for the stories he told – to be fair, most of them were about murder and rape, but they were fairly unique and full of personality. They also took up about half to three-fourths of that album. By contrast, Doris
not only reigns in the rape-and-murder trope, but removes the focus on narrative. Instead of telling stories, Earl relies heavily on imagery – his description of himself as “young, black and jaded, vision hazy, strollin’ through the night” on “Knight”, and the portrait of Los Angeles’ depravity on “Hive”, most notably. But he still employs his aptitude for storytelling in songs like “Chum” and “Centurion” – it’s just no longer as heavily emphasized. By contrast, his worship of MF Doom and Eminem shines more than ever in his lyrics – extensive rhymes, heavy amounts of references (many obscure), and plays on idioms and common phrases, like "I'm a bubble in the belly of the monster" and "stretchin' out the fifteen I had initially" on reggae-inflected "Molasses".
is scattered, there’s no way around it. Just listen to it and go over the way the tracklist progresses: the confusing “Pre” to the confessional “Burgundy” to the braggadocious “20 Wave Caps” to the lovestruck “Sunday” to the grimy “Hive” to the troubled “Chum” to the ridiculous “Sasquatch” to the villainous “Centurion” to the distorted instrumental “523” to the brief and mildly psychedelic “Uncle Al” to the drug-laced “Guild” to the sex romp “Molasses” to the shit-talking “Whoa” to the jazzy “Hoarse” to the conclusive “Knight”. It’s contradictory and self-aware. It doesn’t have the cinematic, logically progressing nature of a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
or an XXX
or a channel ORANGE
or good kid, m.A.A.d. city
. It has flaws – two-thirds of “Pre” suck, Tyler’s verse on “Sasquatch” is kind of moronic, and most of the songs are short and could’ve been fleshed out more than just two verses and a hook – but it aspires for greatness, and it aspires for self-improvement. It’s scattered, and it’s imperfect, and most importantly it’s human
, and that’s why I love it.