The first and most superficial thing that followers of Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt will notice about Doris, his second album, is that the lyrical content is, compared to his early work, G-rated. Gone are the psychosexual, horrorcore-ish fantasies of his 2010 debut (recorded when he was fifteen and sixteen); the rapper now seems, for the most part, to engage in societally acceptable sexual transactions. The most outlandish scenario occurs on “Molasses,” on which RZA, who seems to be enjoying hanging out with the kids, echoes the threat: “I’ll fuck the freckles off your face, bitch.” This overall shift in tone befits a record on which weed is mentioned in nearly every song, no songs discuss murdering women, and Gil Scott-Heron is name-checked instead of Relapse.
It is also immediately clear that Earl’s verses on Doris are dense, both in meaning and locution. Categorizing each of them (“autobiographical,” “derisive,” “absurdist,” “metaphysical,” etc.) is difficult because the rapper is at pains to constantly shift gears, and often at the rate of Kendrick Lamar’s most dumbfounding verbal somersaults. However, Earl doesn’t load up his couplets with gravitas like the self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. Lamar; he’s more focused on launching into new subject matter by virtue of something as simple as a clever inside rhyme or a catchy alliteration. This technique often suggests the influence of DOOM, and sometimes Dipset (see “Centurion” for some Cam’ron-esque cadences: “Whether Hell or bad weather, high water, I’m a sailor type, assailing for the paper, livin like I met the maker twice/Hit it like I’m faded right, mami, take a hike and treat it like you’re fucking shaking dice”). Elsewhere, listeners may find Earl channeling Wu-Tang’s dark humor or the menacing delivery of Prodigy.
Earl punctuates his blunted flights of lyrical fancy with the sobering, personal reflections that give the record its weight. “Chum,” Doris’ first single, remains the most overtly autobiographical song; among other things, Earl addresses the circumstances of his life following his “return” from obscurity in Samoa, and accuses both his fans and media of bad behavior towards his family. In its unadornedness, it remains something of an outlier on Doris, a strong song but one which feels of a different time and frame of mind than the more metaphorical litanies which make up much of the rest of the album.
The finest of these is doubtless Earl’s contribution to “Hive,” which is easily the most ambitious verse on the album. The triumphant, Neptunes-produced “Burgundy” and the Frank Ocean collaboration “Sunday” are other standout songs on which Earl strikes an effective balance between the belligerent, the comic and the confessional. Throughout the album, Earl remains deadpan even as he threatens his enemies, makes jokes and dusts every corner of his “psyche.” This relaxed approach has, from the beginning of his career, been his greatest strength: the device that sets him apart from Odd Future’s other MCs and most other “lyrical” rappers his age. The impression of effortlessness is heightened here by the stoner-rap bent of the record; no musical action intensifies too much.
Those who hoped that Earl’s ambition might extend to heavy experimentation with production style will be disappointed; Doris’ sound palette is similar to that of other Odd Future releases. It sticks largely to synth-based, damaged-N.E.R.D. beats with overdriven, acoustic drums, peppered with several crackle-treated sample loops. “Sasquatch” (Earlwolf-as-K.M.D.), “Molasses” (the beat for which would have been at home on either MM…Food or Liquid Swords) and the closing track “Knight” (Doris’ “Bound 2”), are strong examples of the latter category. This is not to say the beats aren’t inventive. The second half of the album features some especially unique work; see the dissonant string washes on “Centurion,” the ambient, Aphex Twin-esque underpinning of “Guild,” and the noir guitar sludge on “Hoarse.”
Despite Earl’s Tweeted intimation that listeners should expect something as “imperfect and fucking dirty and scattered as me” from the album, Doris is an impressively cohesive, if uncommerical, effort. It seems clear that it will be successful with both OF’s underage fanbase who identified strongly with EARL’s misanthropic vitriol, as well as with older rap fans. Though the narratives are harder to follow, and the refrains more verbose (or simply absent), this music is still full of youthful anger. The nature of it is simply more suitable for a recent-high-school-graduate-aged kid grappling with more knotty insecurities. It’s also probable that much of Earl’s younger audience has grown up with him, and will relate to this impressive record even more deeply than his first.