Long-awaited album 'Doris' (Clash review) suggests he's been wrestling with the emotionally consuming consequences of that period, whilst trying to become the successful creative vision he foresees. Success isn't the only purpose here though: it's more the byproduct of Earl fully discovering his stride and subject matter.
Unlike his debut mixtape, Earl Sweatshirt is telling his stories rather than creating them, and 'Doris' is a disturbed and penetrating journey into the poetic mind of the boy that came back from Samoa.
Clash's Joe Zadeh spent some time with the album stream to compile a track-by-track report.
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1. ' Pre' (Feat. SK La'Flare)
'Doris' doesn't exactly race out of the blocks with an opening buzzword verse from SK La'Flare, surrounded by a vague electronic instrumental. America’s newest darling Molly gets another high profile mention, and when Molly's around, you're only ten syllables away from some "twerking".
2. 'Burgundy' (Feat. Vince Staples)
By track two, the invested hype is seeing a massive return. The Neptunes are on production and, quite frankly, this is shit hot as Earl goes straight for the jugular and basically dances in the spray. Amongst the deep piano chords and horn samples, he conducts a frank post-mortem on the heavy pressure that burdened him during the making of the album from both his label and his fans, and how some can quickly forget about the human behind the artist. You can't fault anything but the length here, and you're left clutching desperately for one more minute.
3. '20 Wave Caps' (Feat. Domo Genesis)
L.A. producer Samiyam provides the beat for this one: smooth, sinister and remotely 8-bit. Earl's partnerships throughout the album reflect on his relationships within the OF crew. Clearly him and Domo are tight, because when these two unite it's like fire. Domo's unorthodox verse, about how unorthodox he can be, has more bite than Bram Stoker.
4. 'Sunday' (Feat. Frank Ocean)
Off the back of a questionably disinterested verse on 'Magna Carta... Holy Grail', Ocean revisits those featuring brackets to share verses with Earl over the kind of warped beat you'd expect on a Micachu record. It's a rare treat to hear him ditch the smooth croon and lay down some bars, and they are pretty Frank in every sense of the word. He adheres to the narrative vibe laid out by Earl's verse, but brings a new story, choosing here to detail that fracas with Chris Brown back in January. He briefly addressed this on his written ‘Versace’ remix, but 'Sunday' sees him place both hands firmly on the bull's horns with: “I mean he called me a faggot / I was just calling his bluff / I mean how anal am I gonna be when I am aiming my gun? / And why is his mug all bloody? / That was a three-on-one / A standing ovation at Staples / I got my Grammys in gold." Stay seated, Mr Brown.
5. 'Hive' (Feat. Vince Staples & Casey Veggies)
Earl is barely taking breaths here, but is still rapping at 30mph in that trademark deadpan. The equally slow beat and stalking bassline complement, and a distorted choir sample gives it an off-kilter mood that shares a bloodline with 'Chum'. The instrumentation is purposefully laid bare to leave space for Earl and Vince to sculpt some unholy script. And so they do, before Staples absolutely owns the final 90 seconds with 16 bars that duck, dive and mercilessly jab with some flesh-pounding quick fire.
The moment that piano hook releases, the drums break and Earl begins... “Something sinister to it”, in a biographical reassessment of the dark times that preceded now. This is the first song he recorded when he returned from his publicised stay in Samoa, and the philosophical stance it finds him in is indicative of that period. It closes with a sci-fi avant-jazz outro, and still stands as possibly his best track to date.
7. 'Sasquatch' (Feat. Tyler, The Creator)
‘Sasquatch’ opens with Tyler waxing dark lyrical over clashed hi-hats, musty beats and a finger picked guitar loop. Sonically, it has way more in common with Tyler's album 'Wolf' (especially ‘Pigs’ or ‘Campfire'), and although some will swoon for this track, it doesn’t necessarily suit the atmosphere building on 'Doris'. Where this album is compelling in its exploration of Earl’s inner psyche, 'Sasquatch' revisits the imagery of controversial fantasies (such as locking One Direction fans in the trunk) we now associate with earlier OF mixtapes. As Earl said across his Twitter in August 2012, “I hope I lose you as a fan if you only f*ck with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15.” This one is kinda for them.
8. 'Centurion' (Feat. Vince Staples)
Staples returns for ‘Centurion’ and this two-pronged attack is quickly becoming the prized jewel of ‘Doris’. Probably the best beat on the album makes this track a killer, with chaotic classical instrumentation and clean old-school drums.
9. '523' & 10. 'Uncle Al'
Cue an experimental midway point, and things get short and spontaneous. First, a shit-hot instrumental with distorted drum breakdowns, and a wandering melody. It’s a calling card for production alias Randomblackdude, showing off the heavy influences Earl has gleaned from working with FlyLo. As every forum is labelling just now, this one wouldn’t be lost on Brainfeeder. Track 10 is 52 seconds of what sounds like it could have been a freestyle, and in both length and structure, this is Earl's 'Ballskin'.
11. 'Guild' (Feat. Mac Miller)
A seasoned live song is remoulded with a guest verse from Earl Sweatshirt tour buddy and Clash cover star Mac Miller. This track lies within the nightmarish throws of some disorientating and hallucinogenic chemical binge. An octave is dropped, time warps, codeine soaks, trips open. And this moves at the laggard speeds of the proverbially shit-faced with pitch-shifted showboating, as they trade-off wordplay like “Real n***a from the start 'til the casket shut / Present his own case as a basket one”.
12. 'Molasses' (Feat. RZA)
Molasses (or ‘150 Molasses’ to those who have spent the last few months pining over live footage of this one), opens with Earl unfolding a narrative (“99 problems all gone in that one joint”) over a smooth, simple and classic beat from Wu Tang’s RZA. The slow bass and distant tambourines provide a playful atmosphere, considering the main hook is the questionable “I’LL F*CK THE FRECKLES OFF YO FACE, BITCH!” I could choose here to pick out all the sexual slurs but, with an Odd Future record, you'd need a big boat.
13. 'Whoa' (Feat. Tyler, The Creator)
Smashing through the bathroom door, like a true cinematic maniac, here's Tyler. His presence draws out the old Earl, as the pair unleash some comical anarchy for old times’ sake. This ain’t a personality relapse, but more a point to be made that whilst bearing all might have solidified Earl as a deep and grisly storyteller, there is still fun to be had up on the surface. And jocular lines like "Pissed as Rick Ross' fifth sip off his sixth lager" bring that home.
Die-hards will recognise Earl’s verse here from words he laid down over a Chuck Inglish beat back in 2012. The replacement instrumentation is a beautifully uncomfortable build, and the jagged bassline denotes a constant threat of some strange and impending doom. It comes from avant-jazz trio BadBadNotGood, who Clash writer Robin Murray has described as “three trained musicians, whose sound sits somewhere between the infinite recesses of free jazz and the equally infinite journey hip-hop is currently undertaking”. There are a lot of people out there who aren't enjoying this new arrangement, but at Clash we reckon it’s a trillion times better and actually frames Earl’s lethargic delivery and subject matter in a real macabre matrimony.
15. 'Knight' (Feat. Domo Genesis)
Amongst the numerous accomplishments of ‘Doris’, letting Domo Genesis confidently squint under some serious limelight is certainly one, and he returns for the album’s closer ‘Knight’. His opening verse addresses this very point: he wonders why the rap game hasn’t fully acknowledged him yet, as his voice pitch-shifts mid-verse, in a distinct nod to ol’ Captain Murphy. Earl’s verse is the perfect wrap for ‘Doris’, with dagger sharp shout-outs to absentee fathers, critics and any other foes still listening, before a final line of genuine poetic beauty "Young, black, jaded, vision hazy, strolling through the night".
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Words by Joe Zadeh
'Doris' is out now - check out an archive feature on Earl Sweatshirt's background HERE.
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