Odd Future’s 19-year-old lyrical wünderkind takes on the insecurities that come with his new life
The genesis of ‘Doris’ goes something like this: in 2010, Earl Sweatshirt, born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile to a professor mother and a poet father, released one of the most exciting hip-hop mixtapes of the year. Shortly after ‘Earl’, his mum sent the 16-year-old to a ‘therapeutic retreat school’ in Samoa, where he stayed until he was 18. While he was there his fanbase in the US and UK swelled, and when he returned to America he was something of a cult hero. Suddenly everyone wanted to know when Earl Sweatshirt would fulfill his potential.
Three years later the world has ‘Doris’, on which Odd Future’s 19-year-old lyrical wünderkind pretty much ignores any expectations of him to become a star. And he does it from the beginning. The downbeat ‘Pre’ is a bad opener, and the clumsy verse of lethargic lyrics from Odd Future affiliate Sk La’Flare wastes the promise of the track’s throbbing bass. It’s frustrating, especially as Earl’s confessions about dealing with his new life on second track ‘Burgundy’ would have been perfect: “I’m stressing over payment/So don’t tell me that I’ve made it/Only relatively famous”.
Once the album gets going these conversations about what it means to suddenly be a name pepper ‘Doris’, and Sweatshirt displays his lyrical prowess exploring them. On ‘Sunday’ we get a glimpse of a relationship creaking with the strain: “I could be misbehaving, but I just hang with my niggas/I’m fucking famous if you forgot/I’m faithful despite what’s in my face and pocket/And this is painfully honest”. He sounds isolated, though, as he does on the other album highlights that go deep on his own conflicted thought processes: ‘Chum’ and ‘Knight’.
And so come the moments when Earl cedes the spotlight to someone else. Sometimes it doesn’t work, as on ‘Guild’, which finds Mac Miller upstaging him. But other collaborative tracks on ‘Doris’ shine. ‘Hive’ is one of the best, as Earl and Vince Staples trade whipfire verses, Sweatshirt internal rhyming in double time like the evolution of MF Doom: “Stamp and shouting, thrashing/These niggas don’ let the Kraken out”. ‘Whoa’, with Tyler, The Creator is old-fashioned Odd Future fun, featuring the best hook on the record as well as jokes about Viagra and the New York Knicks roster.
What this shows is that Earl Sweatshirt is a collaborative kid who came up as part of a collective, Odd Future. He’s not here to save the game, he’s here to make music. His creative process naturally involves other people, and he doesn’t want to be a powerhouse rap star. ‘Doris’ may alienate people looking for him to be that. For everyone else, this is a powerful record.