With today's post, it's official that my self-imposed blackout on all released from the West Coast-based Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All camp officially only extends to the leader of the movement, Tyler, The Creator. Yeah, I fucking said it. I know a lot of you two are curious as to why I choose to ignore his work when there are so many other shitty artists within our chosen genre. To which I say: Because shut up, that's why.
During my extended hiatus a few months ago, Blogland threw up its collective arms at the major label debut of Odd Future's resident cypher, Thebe “Earl Sweatshirt” Kgositsile. Said debut, Doris, was such a highly-anticipated project that hip hop heads were convinced that Earl was somehow ushering in a new iPhone in musical form. As an artist, Earl was coming into the game with a shitload of publicity: aside from the critical acclaim for his first album, the freebie Earl (including what I wrote back in the day but nowhere near the original release date), he had an intriguing backstory (involving a mysterious evacuation from the country, which was later revealed to be not quite so dramatic, but still) that all but guaranteed that his fanbase would run out on day one and download the fucker from iTunes, if only because it was nothing short of a miracle that the kid recorded a second album in the first place.
And then it faded into relative obscurity.
I noticed that fans, bloggers, and the like quickly dismissed Doris for various reasons: the music itself wasn't up to par, nothing sounded like the teaser single “Chum”, Earl's flow seemed tired and without energy, and what have you. It was at that moment that I tuned out anything and everything I could find about Earl Sweatshirt's Doris. I didn't want my opinion to be tainted by random folks on the Interweb, which is somehow different that me influencing a reader to purchase something (I don't know how, but it just is), so I excused myself from the conversation. Didn't even bother listening to it until now, several months after its street date, in the hope of giving Earl a fair trial.
Perhaps all of my concern was for naught: according to the wealth of trusty knowledge that is Wikipedia, every goddamn critic and their grandmother praised the shit out of Doris, lauding Earl's transition to more innovative rhymes, his focus and how it related to the overall tone of the album, its uncompromising vision, and the excellent use of the guest stars. Of which there are many: damn near every track on Doris features someone for Earl to bounce off of. And since Doris is supposed to be his major label debut, that constitutes a major problem for me, unless everyone just contributes a hook and nothing else. Not sure how this is supposed to be a showcase for Earl Sweatshirt if he's forced to share the spotlight with lesser Odd Future collaborators.
1. PRE (FEAT. SK LA' FLARE)
Curiously, the first voice heard on Earl's commercial debut is that of the guest star, who manages to come across as a simpler, slower version of our host who lost his rhyming dictionary but did remember to suck the helium out of not one, but two balloons he swiped from his little sister's birthday party inside the Playplace of McDonald's yesterday afternoon, throwing in a request for bitches to “pop that pussy” just to prove that he's conscious of current hip hop trends (that being the rapper's love of thrusting vaginas). Earl steps in with a minute to spare in an attempt to save the day, but while he sounds like a more natural fit over Michael “Uzi” Uzowuru's sprawling, Maniac Cop-esque score, his apathetic flow fails to drive home the fact that he's supposed to be the star attraction. Not a great sign.
2. BURGUNDY (FEAT. VINCE STAPLES)
The guest star credit is a red herring, since all Odd Future treasurer Vince Staples contributes to the Neptunes-produced “Burgundy” are...well, not so much words of encouragement as simple commands to rap, since, as he puts it, nobody gives a shit about Earl's personal life. Our host ignores the plea, opening his first of two verses by explaining that he couldn't even visit his ailing grandmother in hospice because of all of the pressure to deliver Doris to the label. Sadly, “Burgundy” isn't good enough to warrant ignoring your own family, even with the ringers brought in to produce (both Pharrell “Mr. Summer Jam 2013” Williams and Chad Hugo receive writing credits, so either Chad actually reconnected with his partner or Skateboard P sold our host an older beat): maybe he threw that shit in as a way to deflect all critical barbs that may come his way? Whatever the case, this should have been much better, especially as Earl grows more comfortable with both the music and the spotlight as the track rolls on. More of that, please.
3. 20 WAVE CAPS (FEAT. DOMO GENESIS)
Thus far, there hasn't been anything on Doris that could qualify as an actual song: both “Pre” and “Burgundy” are merely collections of verses without any clear connections. “20 Wave Caps” does nothing to change this, although Earl does shout out his homey Domo Genesis's name at the beginning of his performance (which takes place after Dom gets his verse in – Earl is nothing if not generous to his guests), so at least this was intended to always be a collaboration. Probably. When the most memorable aspect of a song is how producer Samiyam (alongside our host) slows the beat down to a crawl at the very end, scaring the listener into thinking his iPod is somehow malfunctioning (I would have written “him or her” there, but come on, does Odd Future really have that much of a female following?), you know you've fucked up. Domo and Earl even kind of sound alike on here, and neither impressed me, so.
4. SUNDAY (FEAT. FRANK OCEAN)
Way back in 2012, Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean released his commercial debut, channel ORANGE, to loads of critical acclaim, some of which was generated by a duet with Earl Sweatshirt, “Super Rich Kids”. Now, I can't speak to the quality of “Super Rich Kids”, since I have yet to listen to channel ORANGE (I know, I know), but it still makes sense that Frankie would return the favor by appearing on Doris. However, even though he refers to “Sunday” as “melodic”, Ocean doesn't sing on here: instead, he raps, as he sometimes does, and he steals the focus from our host by touching ever so lightly on his parking-lot brawl with that cocksucker Chris Brown, which he brushes off as a “what else was I supposed to do?”-type response (it was allegedly self-defense, after all) while still taking some mild pride in the outcome (“Why's his mug all bloody / It was a three on one”, Ocean says with a smirk visible through all of time and space). Earl's verse, which sounds faux-apologetic before he succumbs to his own selfish whims, was also alright, and his own beat certainly wasn't plain. Probably the most enjoyable track on Doris so far, and it even has a chorus! Of sorts.
5. HIVE (FEAT. VINCE STAPLES & CASEY VEGGIES)
The second single from Doris is a miscalculation, in that there are only two memorable aspects of this track, neither of which really involves our host. Earl delivers two verses (and half a hook) in such an apathetic fashion (that at least meshes with the Matt Martians beat, in that the music also doesn't seem to give a shit about anything) that you fear he'll realize the silliness of his career choice and drop the microphone mid-performance to get a real fucking job, and that lack of investment lingers throughout like a cloud of goddamn regret and remorse. To be fair, he does get in one good idea regarding the twisted priorities of the local Los Angeles-area media and how they give more of a shit about the Lakers than they do crime statistics among a specific demographic (they seem to be taking a Lisa Simpson / Paul Anka “Just Don't Look” philosophy in the hope that the problems will solve themselves somehow). Problem is, Earl is upstaged by Vince Staples, who spits a fucking excellent verse chock-full of the swagger and boasts Earl seems to have eschewed, and, in what has quickly turned into my favorite part of the song, Casey Veggies delivers the other half of the chorus, ending on the catchy-as-fuck line “Like it's nothing 'cause it's nothing, bitch” (italics mine, but implied during the track). Come to think of it, that one line is probably the only reason “Hive” was released as a single. Try to work it into a conversation: you'll be surprised how well it'll fit.
Ah yes, the song that turned me on to Earl in the first goddamn place. (That and Odd Future's "Oldie", if you remember the previous Earl review.) When listened to within the context of Doris, I'm struck at both how personal the lyrics are (a fact that gets mentioned more than a few times on the project, since I'm adding this sentence after having finished the album) and how detached he seems from them all at once. This is a strange sensation, as this is the exact same song that he leaked last year (although some extra interlude music is tacked on at the very end). However, that detachment works, since it's almost as though he's trying to observe himself impartially (“brush[ing] the dirt off [his] psyche”, in a way). Our host's simple loop (produced alongside Christian Rich) still sounds pretty great, as do our host's bars: “Chum” comes across as the perfect bridge between Earl and Doris, sound-wise. Proof that, when he gives a shit, Earl can spit. Where was this level of effort on the rest of the album, dude?
7. SASQUATCH (FEAT. TYLER, THE CREATOR)
Tyler, The Creator's instrumental is actually really goddamn good: it sounds like something The RZA would have used for a Wu-Tang Clan b-side that would eventually end up on the nonexistent third volume in the Wu-Chronicles series. Unfortunately, even though our host sounds alert for the first time since birth probably, he also lets Tyler (the leader of the Odd Future movement, and also his rhyme partner in the duo EarlWolf) provide the first verse, and Ty-Ty makes it very clear that he's just fucking around and not taking shit seriously (he even goes out of the way to declare himself as sucking, just so that any criticism contained within this paragraph is rendered moot, but I'll say it anyway: he sucked). Now, there's nothing wrong with not taking the rhymes seriously if the overall track sounds good, but nobody only purchases half a fucking song. Give this beat back to Earl and give him a second chance to secure a better collaborator, and we'll talk.
8. CENTURION (FEAT. VINCE STAPLES)
It's either insanely nice or incredibly fucking stupid of Earl to consistently allow his guests to perform before him on each track on Doris thus far (save for “Hive”). Vince Staples is the lucky winner on “Centurion”, and although absolutely nobody is clamoring for a solo album from the dude, he spits his goddamn heart out anyway over a Christian Rich beat that doesn't even fucking resemble something that one could rhyme over at first. When our host begins speaking, the background morphs into what sounds like the score from a poorly-plotted horror flick, and then becomes rather awesome, so awesome that even some of Earl's inane bars can't ruin what we have together.
An instrumental interlude produced by our host, credited as randomblackdude. Not great, but there's a bit of promise here.
10. UNCLE AL
A quickie one-verse wonder from Earl that goes absolutely nowhere. The Alchemist's production never settles into a groove, and this causes our host's lyrics to sound more scattershot and plain than they actually are. Which is too bad, as the song is ostensibly named after Al Maman himself. Bleh.
11. GUILD (FEAT. MAC MILLER)
Earl looks outside of his comfort zone to secure a guest spot from MTV2's favorite rapper Mac Miller, who, yes, contributes the first verse, and...you know what? I can't do this anymore. This song was fucking terrible. Fuck this shit.
12. MOLASSES (FEAT. THE RZA)
The RZA's vocal contribution to “Molasses” is (a) terrible (“I'll fuck the freckles off your face, bitch!”? This is the guy who was able to secure a multi-million dollar budget from Universal to write and direct The Man With The Iron Fists?), and (b) weirdly apes a similar sentiment from ScHoolboy Q on his recent (banger) “Collard Greens”. Ignoring that, though, Prince Rakeem's instrumental sounds like vintage Wu, as though he crafted the beat for Ol' Dirty Bastard and forgot to ever let him hear it, and our host's bars mesh well with the melody. Nothing of any substance is shared on here, but Wu stans will probably seek it out anyway, so just know that “Molasses” is alright, but not all right.
13. WHOA (FEAT. TYLER, THE CREATOR)
Earl invites Tyler back to the party, but this time Tyler reciprocates by merely producing and spitting the hook, so he doesn't threaten to disrupt the flow. The Creator does promise that “Whoa” will be more of a throwback to the Earl that recorded, well, Earl, but while our host's shit-talking abilities are out in full force, it's obvious that he isn't the same kid: Thebe seems to have quickly figured out that shock-value rhymes don't equal a lengthy career in our chosen genre (unless your name is Eminem, in which case there are also many other factors working in your favor), so he allows his skills to carry him over the catchy instrumental threshold. This wasn't bad, and it has just enough of a slapped-together quality to appease the backpackers that find themselves lost in the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All catalog.
BadBadNotGood's musical backing is much more expansive than everything else on Doris to this point, and I'm including the Neptunes and RZA tracks in that critique, but our host's slower flow gets buried fairly easily. He also sounds phlegmy, especially during the first verse, which may help explain the song's title. The production lends “Hoarse” a dramatic intensity that is never quite fulfilled due to Earl's lack of commitment. Oh well.
15. KNIGHT (FEAT. DOMO GENESIS)
Doris ends with an artistic cock-up, as Christian Rich's instrumental is slowed down to a drug-induced crawl at the end of each participant's verse, stretching out Domo and Earl's syllables far beyond reason, and this seems to be done with absolutely no purpose, since as soon as it occurs, the beat starts back up and all is well. Thankfully, there wasn't anything worth checking for on “Knight”, so you won't feel like you're missing anything when you cut this shit off halfway through.
THE LAST WORD: Although there are certainly flashes of brilliance, both from a lyrical standpoint and behind the boards, Earl Sweatshirt only manages to ride in the passenger seat of his own goddamn fucking project. Doris somehow ends up being the polar opposite of Earl, and not just because our host has mostly abandoned shock-value bars in favor of attempted longevity in the rap game: musically, Earl seems less inclined to give a shit, and the final product mirrors this apathy, from the delivery of the bars that aren't coming from his friends to the musical backing, which, with the exception of The RZA's contribution, caters to our host's world instead of yanking him out of his comfort zone. Doris could be seen as an anti-debut album if one were convinced that our host had placed that much thought into it: often downgraded to a guest star on his own shit, Earl forces himself to try to steal the show from his game coworkers, only succeeding about half the time. Still, when he scores, that's when Doris springs to life, such as on “Chum” or “Sunday”, although the latter is a bad example since Frank Ocean owns that shit. Odd Future fanatics who prefer the Earl of, um, Earl will be disappointed, while backpackers, underground heads, and people who somehow found this blog while Googling album downloads and references to Nicolas Cage movies will merely feel indifferent. This is what everyone in Blogland was eagerly anticipating? That's a lot of unfair pressure to put on Earl: the kid probably does have a pretty good album or two in him, but do you know how difficult it is to drum up a classic right out the gate? In closing, Doris is boring, except for when it isn't, which isn't often, but it isn't bad enough for me to treat Earl Sweatshirt any differently: while this wasn't what I was expecting, I'm not actually sure what I wanted to hear from the dude, since I'm picky and fickle, so the fact that he managed to release an album at all is amazing. Now if only he could sound more interested in his own rhymes...