In a lot of ways, the prodigiously gifted young rapper responsible for Doris is vastly different from the brash young punk we met on 2010’s EARL mixtape. Gone are the murderous fantasies of sexual violence (“epaR”), the high school angst about strict parents and girls who don’t like you (“Luper”), and the total reliance on Tyler, the Creator’s dystopian beats (although, unsurprisingly, Tyler does show up a couple of times on Doris). Instead, we have a quieter, more meditative MC. Instead of unchecked rage, we have deftly worded rebukes. See album highlight “Chum”, where Earl muses about loving/hating his absentee father and calmly but explicitly takes Complex Magazine to task for exposing his whereabouts during the days of Odd Future’s “Free Earl” campaign: “Complex – f*** n***as done track me down / just to be the guys that did it, like, ‘I like attention’. / Not the type where n***as trying to get a raise at my expense. / Supposed to be grateful, right?” The mixture of honesty and sarcasm is palpable and far more affecting than any revenge play would have been.
And whereas Tyler handled the overwhelming majority of the production on EARL, Earl Sweatshirt takes things into his own hands more often than not this time around, producing tracks under the unassuming pseudonym randomblackdude. Doris benefits from Earl’s choice to take the production reigns. His minimalist compositions – often relying on nothing but simple drumming and small instrumental embellishments here or there – give his exceptional rapping skills room to breathe. The focus is, as it should be, on Earl’s flow. Take, for example, “Sunday”. Here, Earl delivers a top-grade verse, full of conflicted musings, part-heartbroken, part-hurtful: “And I could be misbehaving, I just hang with my n***as. / I'm f***in’ famous if you forgot, I'm faithful /despite all what's in my face and my pocket, and this is painfully honest”. The dreamy soundscape that underpins these lines allows them to unfold and reverberate in listeners’ heads. Earl’s linguistic webs are tangled, certainly, but half-the fun of listening to Doris is trying to unwind them. (It would be unforgivable to mention “Sunday” without talking about Frank Ocean’s guest spot here. Instead of using his ungodly gorgeous pipes to lay down a beautiful melody, he delivers an honest-to-god rap verse. It’s a new look for Ocean, and it’s one he wears well. He’d be a show-stealing guest, if he weren’t sharing the track with someone as talented as Earl).
But for all the ways in which Doris veers from Earl’s past, it stays the course where it counts: Earl is still the virtuosic rapper he was in 2010. In fact, he’s even better, despite all the time he spent away from the limelight in a Samoan boarding school. It’s impossible to do justice to Earl’s skill by trying to describe it. An exercise: Look at the bars I quoted above. On paper, they’re examples of solid lyricism: rhythmic, insightful, affecting without being sentimental. But go listen to “Chum”, or “Sunday”, pay close attention to when Earl spits those lines you’ve just read: thanks to Earl’s timing, his linguistic control, his keen eye for all possible permutations of rhyme, his syllabic emphasis, these words are utterly transformed; they become music.
Still present, too, is Earl’s healthy sense of humor. Although Doris is an admittedly more contemplative and introspective record than EARL, it’s not the work of a self-serious navel-gazer. “Burgundy” opens with Vince Staples teasing Earl: “Why you so depressed and sad all the time, like a little b****? What's the problem, man? N***as want to hear you rap. Don't nobody care about how you feel, we want raps, n***a." Earl responds with: “Grandma's passing / but I'm too busy tryna get this f***in' album cracking to see her / so I apologize in advance if anything should happen.” The joke is on Vince Staples: Earl can rap and talk about his feelings at the same time, without sacrificing the integrity of his flow or his emotional insights. Tyler shows up for a ludicrous verse on the playful “Sasquatch”, which is the closest Doris comes to sounding like EARL. Tyler and Earl play off of each other, both clearly having a blast, except, here’s the thing: Earl goes hard, but he doesn’t forget why he’s rapping in the first place: “Squadron full of some lost souls / sergeant of all”. Earl leaves the domestic violence jokes to his guest this time around.
Lest you think Earl has lost his sense of humor and just asked his friends to fill the void, see “Pre”, where he calls himself an “Escobarbarian” (a honed sense of neologism is another one of Earl’s skills), or “Molasses”, where he cops to “scheming on a Fanta and a Camel Crush” at the deli.
Before releasing Doris, Earl publicly stated, “I hope I lose you as a fan if you only f*** with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15.” And maybe Earl did lose some fans by releasing Doris. But anyone whose favorite thing about EARL was the album’s offensive humor missed what makes Earl someone worth listening to in the first place: it’s rare for a rapper of his technical caliber to come along. At 19, he’s already got two classics under his belt, and he’s talked about plans for a third. So, stop messing with Earl if you only came around to hear him use homophobic slurs or belittle women. But you’ll be missing out a rapidly maturing MC who has already secured himself a place in the history books. You might want to rethink turning your back on him now.