Earl Sweatshirt’s willfully weird ‘Doris’

In the fall of 2010, T-shirts and stickers started showing up with a photo of Thebe Kgositsile sporting an upside-down cross on his forehead and an impassive expression, framed by the words: “Missing: Have you seen me?”

Kgositsile, now 19, was better known as Earl Sweatshirt, a central member of Odd Future, the Los Angeles-based rap collective then becoming famous for its mix tapes and infamous for its fondness for weed, misogyny and chaos. He had one solo release, the provocative mix tape “Earl,” to his credit.

(Tan Cressida/Columbia Records) - Album art for Earl Sweatshirt's ’Doris.’

In the following months, the image started showing up everywhere except the sides of milk cartons, the public encapsulation of a movement, #FreeEarl, fanned largely by Tyler, the Creator, Earl’s friend and Odd Future’s lead provocateur. No one had seen Earl in months, but it turns out he wasn’t technically missing; his mother had spirited him away to a boys’ camp/reform school (reports differed) in Samoa to keep him away from his growing cult celebrity and the other members of Odd Future, who probably aren’t great influences, when you think about it.

Earl Sweatshirt became famous not just in his absence, but for his absence. He returned home in early 2012 to confront the question: If being missing makes you interesting, what happens when you show up? How do you make good on a legend that precedes you, one that had little to do with you in the first place?

Earl has no idea, and, if the wary uncertainty etched into every note of the great and depressive swamp that is “Doris,” his willfully weird major label debut, is any indication, he’s not sure he wants to find out. “Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits,” he mumble-grouses on “Chum,” the roundabout story of his captivity and reluctant release back into the wild.

If Tyler, the Creator represents the regressive, rape- and homophobia-friendly horrorcore wing of Odd Future, and Frank Ocean, the member most likely to be asked to sing at a White House state dinner someday, represents the progressive wing, Earl Sweatshirt represents no one but himself. “Doris” is internal in every sense of the word, both in its rhyming scheme and its worldview.

Most of “Doris” features Earl rapping nimbly over syrupy, unmemorable beats. Its tracks are mostly thankless and frequently dark and still utterly compelling, because Earl wills them to be through a combination of charisma and smarts and the tug of relatable misery. These songs usually don’t have hooks or conventional lyrics or even much life to them. They also sometimes don’t have a recognizable shape; they occasionally start without Earl, putter along morosely after he shows up, and end vaguely.

Earl, who upon his return from Samoa landed both a major label deal and his own imprint, approaches “Doris” as one uncomfortably shouldering a load. He doesn’t even turn up until midway through its first track. Most of the songs have guests, all of whom treat him very carefully, and who sometimes contribute more to Earl’s songs than Earl does. Almost all of their verses address Earl; Earl talks mostly to himself.

The many guests on “Doris” (named for Earl’s dead grandmother, because it wasn’t depressing enough already) ease the insularity of it, bring it whatever modest energy or joy it possesses, and are elevated in turn. Simply by showing up on the retro-minded “Burgundy,” Earl’s state of the union address, the Neptunes become more interesting than they have been in years. Mac Miller enlivens the trudge-through-molasses-with-no-payoff “Guild.” On “Burgundy,” previously obscure Odd Future orbiter Vince Staples provides comic relief: “Why you so depressed and sad all the time?” he quizzes Earl. “Don’t nobody care about how you feel.” And crooner Ocean raps (quite ably) about his Chris Brown beef on “Sunday.”

Tyler hovers protectively throughout, turning up on several tracks including the superlatively lively “Whoa,” which sounds like Odd Future ripping off a late ’90s hip-hop song. Tyler’s contributions already feel like dated, unpleasant reminders of Sweatshirt’s bravado-tinged pre-Samoa release “Earl,” which found him trying on Tyler’s shockcore persona like an ill-fitting suit of clothes.

Earl was more interested in telling stories on “Earl” than he is on “Doris,” which is more concerned with verbal gamesmanship than lyricism. “Earl” wanted to shock you. “Doris,” detached, unexcitable, doesn’t care what you think. It’s weighted down by the sadness of boys with absent fathers (Sweatshirt’s dad is Keorapetse Kgositsile, poet laureate of South Africa), the general indignities and pleasures of being 19, and the fear of being swallowed by fame — of becoming, as Earl puts it in “Molasses,” “a bubble in the belly of the monster.”

The closing track, “Knight,” incorporates “I’ve Changed,” an obscure song from the Magictones that was also previously sampled by Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan. This makes sense, as the Wu-Tang Clan are Odd Future’s spirit animals and only real living analog. RZA even shows up on “Molasses,” as if to emphasize the point.

Odd Future lacks the insider-y self-seriousness the Clan had, but also its deep bench. It’s tough to imagine more peripheral members like, say, Domo Genesis, getting any more famous than they are now, and easy to imagine that members like Ocean might inch away. With Tyler, the Creator unwilling or unable to move beyond his increasingly ineffective 22-going-on-15 schtick, that leaves Earl, the Hamlet of Odd Future, to hold the center, though his Reluctant Prince vacillations will lose their appeal once he hits his early 20s. By then he’ll have to own it, or think of something else to do.

 
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