The first time he was on record, he made an immediate impression. On “AssMilk,” Earl Sweatshirt showed off his otherworldly internal rhyme prowess, shared a chemistry with Tyler, The Creator that went beyond music, and claimed to be the reincarnation of ’98 era Eminem. His eponymous debut Earl released the next year quickly became the most critically acclaimed project that Odd Future has put out before or since and established the 16 year old as a genuine child prodigy. His talent legitimized Odd Future. The crew reached beyond shock and awe. And then suddenly he was gone, right as OF began their dizzying climb to the top of the food chain. His disappearances added to the groups growing mystique. Rumor had it that his mom heard his work and promptly grounded him. Or maybe he had been kidnapped by Steve Harvey. It turned out Earl was in boarding school in Samoa so when he got back all eyes were on him. The prodigal son had returned.
But Earl’s major label debut Doris is defined by the dissonance from his earlier work. Before the album dropped Earl tweeted that he was going to lose fans by getting rid of the rape schlock and gay bashing that Odd Future became famous for. Unfortunately for Earl, this seems to have hampered the response to Doris. Not in the sense that critics love “lol fag” jokes (they don’t) but in the sense that the punk feel, that vital energy that made Odd Future so refreshing seems to be missing. It’s easier to recreate that energy with shock tactics. There’s a lot of apologizing going on about the record, like “it’s not bad it’s just not what we expected,” due to the absolutely enormous hype that went into the album. But for me, Earl lived up to all the expectations and then some. For all the emphasis on lyricism that has arisen post Control-gate, you simply won’t find better rapping on an album this year. Earl’s knotty lines have grown into dense forests that trap you. “His sins feeling as hard as Vince Carters knee cartilage is” or “spitter of the Little Nick, nimble, rickrolling, bitch niggas pick litter, piff blower plus I pillage shit” OR “snap chatting panty clad baddies, I’m a bachelor, I’m high and polite cause po-lice is in back of us.” I could go on and on. You could honestly pick any line and use it as an example. But it sounds better when he raps them because his heavy lidded flow plays all types of tricks with the assonance and allows him to keep twisting words to fit his insanely large rhyme schemes.
The production has evolved appropriately as well, boosting the sound quality while still keeping the grit of the original OF works. Earl handles most of the production himself and creates a dark carvenous world he inhabits perfectly. His voice has been focused into a monotone bass, a step up from his comeback verses on Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” and Domo Genesis’ “Elimination Chamber” where he hadn’t figured out his adult voice. Some have claimed that the monotone makes the album boring but I think it enhances the mood and lets his rhymes stick out, much like Roc Marciano and MF Doom’s low-key deliveries. And all the production collaborators pinpoint the album’s mood and create it perfectly, even when they shine a little light on the subject like The Neptune’s “Burgandy” or RZA’s “Molasses.” Jazz band BADBADNOTGOOD even transforms the general feeling of the album into a breathing live song on “Hoarse” and Earl sounds right at home. It’s thrilling. The main critique of the album is the lack of ambition Earl has and the fact that he takes backseat in a lot of songs. It’s true. Vince Staples overshadows Earl in a career making verse on “Hive” and Frank Ocean proves he’s just as good at rapping as he is at singing and writing cryptic notes on “Sunday.” There are two Domo verses (two too many) and the album’s first verse belongs to an absolute nobody who isn’t very good. But would the album be that much better if those three verses were replaced by Earl? And the rest of the guests are good! Tyler, The Creator keeps his energy building with every bar on “Sasquatch” and Mac Miller pitches down his vocals to decrease his “Cheesy Mac” personality and sludges along with the beat on “Guild” (“This a hit of liquid heroooooinnnnnn”). Earl shares the spotlight a lot but it doesn’t change the consistency or cohesion of the album in any way.
Earl doesn’t want the attention anyway. He pokes fun at the listeners expectations (“we heard you back, we need them raps nigga!) But the personal tales on “Burgandy” and “Chum” are just as great as the linguistic adventures of “Hive” and “Woah.” And he displays way more empathy and resonance than I would have ever given him credit for on “Sunday.” It’s just a relationship song, with Earl and Frank Ocean candidly talking to their significant others. Earl sets it off with some realer-than-real love talk that’s just as bare and plaintive as anything Drake or Kendrick could muster. “I know it don’t seem difficult to hit you up, but you’re not passionate about half the shit you into…and I don’t know why it’s difficult to admit that I miss you…I’m fuckin famous if you forgot, I’m faithful despite what’s all in my face or my pocket.” And this is all before Frankie delivers maybe the verse of the year! You don’t need to be famous to understand those feelings and Earl doesn’t need to have hit rock bottom in order for them to be worth exploring. It’s honest. When he says on the chorus that his dreams got dimmer when he stopped smoking pot and his nightmares got more vivid when he stopped smoking pot, it makes sense that the whole album is filtered through a dead-eyed THC haze.
Everyone should try to abandon hype when listening to an album so it could be judged fairly, but I still think it lives up to expectations. The 16 year old prodigy grew into an introspective artist. Say goodbye to the Ritalin regiment. There’s something sinister to it.