Dear Doris

by: T.M. Brown

August 22, 2013

I remember sitting down for a few drinks with an acquaintance who is paid a decent amount to know a lot about hip hop. Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin had dropped a few weeks prior and his crew, the Los Angeles-based rap collective Odd Future, was making the uneasy transition from Internet-famous to the more corporeal kind. I listened to the first few mixtapes they released through their bad acid trip funhouse Tumblr and didn’t think I heard anything exceptional in the Superjail-ish violence and the good-not-great production. I figured Odd Future’s brand of fisheye lens brutality appealed to upper middle class suburban kids the same way that Eminem spitting bars through a nasally falsetto about locking his ex-wife in a car and driving it off a pier appealed to an upper middle class me. Artistic violence was just a reaction to commercial violence; Gravediggaz did it before Eminem; Bret Easton Ellis did it before Gravediggaz.

Earl Sweatshirt WILD music

I also remember that conversation pissing me off when this acquaintance told me I was just “too old” to appreciate what Odd Future was doing. He was right, of course, but being told that you’re too old to appreciate new music as a recent college graduate felt slightly condescending, like a David Foster Wallace fan telling you anything. As a group, O.F. felt mobbish and thrived on being a bunch of “outsiders” pouring salt down the tastemakers collective throats. They figured out they could get the most gasps—and the most 17 year-old concert goers—from graphically repulsive rape scenes and mined that vein until the record companies finally got the heads of the crew under control. Maybe if the production was more polished and the flows half decent I would have been interested, but it struck me as pedestrian wretch rap, the musical equivalent of the Queasy Bake Oven.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard the Legend of Earl Sweatshirt. He appeared as a 15 (or 16?) year old rhythmic savant on his eponymous mixtape. A few tracks became standouts, especially “Earl.” The video revealed the scrawny, relaxed kid behind lines like “How the fuck I fit an axe in a satchel? / Slip capsules in a glass, she dizzy rascal / Party staff baffled, askin’ where her ass go / In my room, redefinin’ the meanin’ of black holes.” The lines are amazingly fucked up, showing off the lyrical talents of a kid who is playing a game of gross out one upmanship with peers that are already a few miles behind musically. (Another stanza from “Luper”: “She said ‘You rushing, you rabid son of a Labrador’/But I’m attracted to you like teenyboppers to Apple stores/ The basement light is darkened and the switchblade is sharpened/ Her name on my arm and her face on a two percent carton.” It’s terrifying and insensitive, a lyrical horror show, but keep in mind he couldn’t legally drive at this point. The compositional talent is in its own orbit.)

The next chapter has Earl stuck in an island reform school in the south Pacific. His friends in Odd Future keep his whereabouts a secret, though it’s not clear if any of them actually knew where he was when they were encouraging the “Free Earl” campaign and tolerating the predictable calls to kill Earl’s mom, a UCLA law professor.

The story behind Earl Sweatshirt being banished to Samoa is boring as far as middle class childhoods go, but the rote fantasy that burrowed into a lot of fans’ heads was so far outside the small compartment we label “hip hop” that it began to take on a near-political flavor like a featherweight Mumia. Earl was making music that was thoughtfully designed to upset and worry people like his mother because he inhabited a world where mothers were exceptionally accomplished and had the financial and temporal flexibility to be engaged with their sons even with an absent father. I’ll generalize here, but there’s a good chance his fans were in a similar boat: active if conservative parents worried about noxious influence coming through their iPhones. So Earl’s mother did the relatively affluent thing and shipped her son off, musical talent and all, where he could be insulated from the impending fumes of fame. It’s a scenario that repeats itself in minor scales from Scarsdale to Irvine, a tactic that bears no similarities to the kidnapping fever dream in the heads of so many teenage Odd Future diehards.

And then Complex found him. Then the New Yorker found him. Then he came back.

You could hear the heralds announcing Earl’s return at the end of 2012 when he released Chum, a somber confessional backed by a simple looping piano and drum kit cut open by a cacophonous instrumental outro. The track saw Earl opening up about his relationship with his father (“And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest/ When honestly I miss this nigga, like when I was six/ And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it”) and addressing the journalists who blew up his spot in Samoa (“Craven and these Complex-fuck niggas done track me down…Like, ‘Thanks so much, you made my life
Harder, and the ties between my mom and I are strained and tightened/ Even more than they were before all of this shit’”). The song sounds like a promise fulfilled, but it’d take nine more months and two more singles to actually get an LP from Earl.

There has probably never been a time where an individual heard a piece of music without some sort of foreward. Classical and tribal music had independent purpose, whether as tribute to patrons or as cultural Cairn stones; modern composition from ragtime to folk to hip hop is colored by the culture it springs from, so listening is more a practice in translation than something physical. I know it seems like this is a half baked philosophical departure from Doris but consider how much we heard about Earl Sweatshirt in the 18 month run between his return stateside and his first album. Dozens of articles on Complex, The Fader, Noisey, and Pitchfork’s websites; performances on late night shows; guest spots on tracks with legends like DOOM and The Alchemist; collaborations with excellent acts like Flying Lotus, Action Bronson and fellow Odd Future alums Frank Ocean and MellowHype. Earl isn’t the first artist to go through the the all-devouring Hype Machine but in listening to Doris it was the first time I felt myself affected by the tastemaking denizens of the internet, like a convert of some hipster propaganda organ.

Doris is not EARL. The kid who rapped about queasy, cartoony violence with predictable energy has been replaced by an introspective wordsmith uneasy with fame, acknowledging insecurities and the weight of expectations. Some of the best moments come when the album gets downright postmodern, like when Vince Staples playing the macho metacommentator on the Neptunes-produced “Burgundy,” “What’s the problem, man? Niggas want to hear you rap. Don’t nobody care about how you feel, we want raps, nigga.” “Burgundy” is the album’s earnest beginning, with the nominal opening “Pre” acting as a sonic dividing line between people who were going to give the album a chance and those who might dismiss it out of hand. Earl wants you to get the joke, then you can come in.

Earl winds through the 44-minute like he’s in a haze of anti-anxieties. That’s not to say there’s anything resembling laziness: the wordplay has only gotten subtler in its excellence like on the single “Hive”: “With stress, niggas could flex metal with, peddle to rake pennies in/ Desolate testaments trying to stay Jekyll-ish/ But most niggas Hyde, and Brenda just stay pregnant.” Sweatshirt never gives you the impression he doesn’t care or that he’d rather be doing something else, his voice simply works best at a tone slightly above drone and leaves it at that.

Earl takes most of the production credits as well, using the moniker RandomBlackDude. (“Burgundy” was done by The Neptunes; the low point “Molasses” was produced by the RZA.) It’s sparse and the influences are obvious as well as wide ranging from homages to Flying Lotus to DOOM to RZA—three guys he just happens to have collaborated with in the last couple years. On slower tracks like the excellent “Hoarse” and the Mac Miller-assisted “Guild” you can hear Earl trying to tailor tracks to his delivery; he builds dark, layered rooms where his monotone can bounce off deep booms and underwhelming rhythm sections. The successes outnumber the failures, but Earl is prone to time altering gimmicks adding a redundant tier to his excellent lyrical lethargy. He knows where he wants to go in the studio, he just may need more time to get there.

Doris is the most successful music to come out of Odd Future’s uneasy clubhouse—better than anything Tyler, the Creator’s put out and a hair ahead of Frank Ocean’s pleasing but pretentious Channel Orange. The first time I played Sweatshirt’s LP front-to-back I was disappointed. I wanted a classic, I wanted Kendrick on Quaaludes, I wanted the fucking heralds announcing the 19 year-old’s arrival. That’s not what Doris is; it’s a good album from a great rapper. That doesn’t mean we won’t hear what we were promised by the rabble of the Internet. Earl will get there soon enough.

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