A line’s been drawn in the sands of rap. Kendrick Lamar’s Twitter-breaking verse on Big Sean’s “Control” called out anyone who might be called his peer or rival, and he called out the rest of the genre too, for that matter; the latest prince of hip-hop has shouted a call-to-arms to the buried lyricists and traditionalists of the world. The more rappers get drunk on the glitz of hit-seeking jams, the more they eschew the narrative, commentary-laden genesis of the genre and contribute to a flashy, opiate-of-the-masses nothing, to put more hands into the air, the worse. So suggests, anyway, the logos of “Control.”
Days after Lamar’s verse got everyone talking, Earl Sweatshirt’s proper debut LP leaked. And “Doris” places itself so firmly on the narrative, verbal side of things that it’ll inevitably act as a pole in the ongoing conversation. And a damn good one, at that. The album’s title speaks to its MC’s throwback stylings—“I love old names,” he says in a radio interview. “I have a lot of geriatric tendencies.” If wordsmithery at the level of this nineteen-year-old—son to South African poet and activist Bra Willie—is considered one of those tendencies, we should be glad that a camp of argument is forming to steel his sort of career (“I’m just glad the culture is getting back on some rap shit,” said Killer Mike, in an interview following the “Control” verse).
Earl (real name Thebe Neruda Kgositsile) is previously best known for his affiliation with the L.A.-based collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, responsible for launching the careers of Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator. Only fifteen years old at the time of the group’s infectious, controversial explosion into the mainstream, Earl’s mother—who’d had him sent to a boarding school in Samoa after he’d gotten into too much American trouble—would not sign off on the commercial release of any of his music. A viral “Free Earl” movement followed, and Mr. Sweatshirt’s legend began to precede him.
But the heightened expectations are largely met, here. Rather than over-indulging in our attention, the youngster thrives on his sense of immediacy and ephemera, wowing with a singular cadence and feel for rhyme in short bursts throughout. On show-stealer “Burgundy,” Earl’s seemingly slow stoner drawl packs a world into two minutes of golden Neptunes bombast, as he deftly balances sadness about his grandmother’s impending death with his self-loathing over not going to see her (“I’m too busy trying to get this fuckin’ album crackin’ to see her…my priorities are fucked up, I know it, I’m afraid I’m gonna blow it”) and carries his emotional mixture with ample confidence. “Don’t nobody care about how you feel, we want raps,” he says authoritatively, in the song’s prelude. “I heard you back, I need them raps,” the pseudo-chorus says—”Doris” is often delightfully formless—“I need the verse, I don’t care about what you’re going through; I need bars, sixteen of them.” It would seem important to Earl that he doesn’t over-think, or over-feel, but only use language and attitude in an ostensibly more productive, and tactile way.
And here is where he—and so much of the work in vein with Lamar’s instantly iconic verse—treads most problematically toward that line in the sand. The more one tries to identify with a tradition—however righteous it may be—the more likely it seems that their work becomes necessarily conflated with any number of less worthy schools of thought. In the case of “Doris,” and with much of hip-hop, an excess of masculine repression frequently threatens to poison the water. There are times when Earl’s nonchalance is less intoxicating than aggravating, when he seems more detached, blasé and puerile than he does prodigious, and I find myself wishing his vocals aspired toward the expression of his friend Frank Ocean’s famous “channel ORANGE”—Ocean features on the brilliant “Sunday,” flexing a rap muscle that may surprise many—such that the MC’s rare ability to belie himself is only barely enough to carry an album of this length. While his words cut deep into who he is, we’re usually left with the impression that his heart is yet untouchable. “Doris” is a distinct, terrific debut, but I’m dying to hear Earl’s uncannily aged voice crack into something more daring, in the future—for him to back off even more from the Odd Future dread-treading that he’s proved he’s above, and to give us more of the introspective dynamite he’s clearly capable of. To show us more of the struggle that he’s telling us about. (John Wilmes)