Hip-hop, more than any other genre of music, thrives on personality, mystique, and intrigue, and Earl Sweatshirt—real name Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, brightest star of upstart rap crew Odd Future Wolf Gang and the son of South-African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile—has these in spades. His rise began with his 2011 debut mixtape EARL, a minor masterpiece recorded at the age of 16, then perpetuated by his scene-stealing features on Odd Future mixtape Radical, and then elevated to the stuff of legend by his disappearance. He dropped off the map completely, neither releasing new music nor appearing in public with OF for eighteen months. His mythology grew monstrous; hip-hop heads who had written off the current generation of MC’s passed EARL around, marveling at his commanding delivery and virtuoisic command of assonance, metaphor, and meter, yet trying to reconcile such obvious genius with the revolting subject matter—grotesque and callous mentions of rape and murder ran rife throughout nearly every track. Complex magazine eventually tracked him down to a therapeutic school for at-risk youth in Samoa.
Since his return to the States in January of 2012, Earl has publicly disavowed his previous subject matter (having worked with survivors of sexual violence during his sojourn in Samoa), sat down with Jon Caramanica for a revealing interview, featured on projects with Mac Miller and Flying Lotus, achieved his own label imprint with Columbia Records, and delivered the best verse of 2012 on OF posse-cut "Oldie." Meanwhile, the anticipation for Doris, his major-label debut, has ballooned to unimaginable levels. Dropping tomorrow on iTunes (but, in light of a leak, made streamable last week on Soundcloud), all eyes are on Earl, and he doesn’t disappoint—Doris is terrific, strange, awe-inspiring, proof positive that its 19-year-old creator deserves to be ranked among the giants of the genre.
Whereas Tyler, the Creator’s Wolf was an attempt to break from Odd Future's traditional dark, insular sound, Doris finds Earl exploring, refining, and perfecting that aesthetic. It’s unconventional, uncommercial rap: songs rarely have a chorus, are interspersed with odd (but appealing) instrumentals, and in total don’t add up to more than 45 minutes of playtime. And in stark contrast with Wolf and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Doris eschews any notion of an overarching dramatic narrative, and is the stronger for it—Earl’s narrative, from obscurity to Samoa to stardom, is far more compelling than any artificial storyline could be. This is not a game-changing concept album: it is a short collection of dark, virtuosic raps, heavily reminiscent of MF DOOM’s work on 2004’s terrific Madvillainy. It is one of the best records of 2013, an incredible debut crammed full of incredible lyrical feats.
This is an album about anxiety—like a couch-locked stoner whose hash high has turned from reverie to panic-attack, it appears languid yet is nothing but fear and worry underneath. Nearly every track touches on themes of unease: Earl raps about the conflict between wanting to make money and a serious societal impact, about his strained relations with his girlfriend, mother, and absentee father, about the fear of letting down his family’s prominent poetic and political legacy, and about the pressures and expectations of fame—and make no mistake, fame bestowed by the world of hip-hop comes with the neediest, most ungrateful expectations and demands imaginable. The best parts of EARL were the brief moments when he dropped his adolescent bravado and allowed himself to be emotionally honest—Doris, by contrast, is honest throughout. It’s a tour of the psyche of a shy, whip-smart, intellectual young man burdened with awe-inspiring talent.
Sonically, it's firmly planted in the New York hip-hop tradition, despite Earl and Odd Future hailing from LA—it's as brooding and melancholy as The Infamous or Tical. The beats are dark, grimy, minimalist: team Christian Rich shepherded most of the album's production, though it features a beats from a truly all-star roster of musicians: Pharrell Williams, RZA, Tyler, Samiyam, and several tracks from Earl himself—in the time since he returned to the US, Earl has become quite the impressive producer. There are, thankfully, no skits on the album: it wastes no time, yet somehow manages to sound utterly unhurried.
Doris starts off strangely—SK la Flare, cousin of Frank Ocean, delivers the first verse on the album, with a nasal tone and scattershot diction reminiscent of Lil B. But Earl's verse reminds us why we're here, and the album picks up in earnest with the second track, the extraordinary "Burgundy." Pharrell Williams, perhaps the most successful producer of his generation and noted unaging Adonis, usually wields bright, catchy, brio-filled melodies, but for this track he created a glacially slow, horn-filled beat that lurches gorgeously along. Collaborator Vince Staples starts the track with a brief, mocking vocal interlude aimed at Earl—“What’s up, nigga? Why you so depressed and sad all the time, like a little bitch? What’s the problem, man? Niggas want to hear you rap. Don’t nobody care about how you feel, we want raps, nigga”—before Earl comes in with what he called his favorite verse ever:
My grandma's passin'
But I'm too busy to get this fuckin' album cracking to see her
So I apologize in advance if anything should happen
And my priorities fucked up: I know it, I'm afraid I'm gonna blow it
And those expectations raised because Daddy was a poet, right?
"Burgundy" segues into the great "20 Wave Caps," featuring OF core member Domo Genesis, then into "Sunday," featuring Frank Ocean. It’s a solid song, featuring a really stellar rap verse from Ocean that takes some great shots at Chris Brown, but hampered by a somewhat hokey chorus. But that soon gives way to the stellar ‘Hive’, the first real piece of solid rap braggadocio on the record. Earl produced the beat himself, and it’s terrific: a throbbing, migrainous bassline rumbles over a stuttering, simple drumbeat. It sounds like a hangover. Earl sounds weary beyond measure but spits some dazzling rhymes, engaging in some old-fashioned self-aggrandization and combating those who doubted him capable of making music with an emotional impact beyond EARL’s horrorcore:
Stone cold, hardly fucking with these niggas, nigga listen
The description doesn't fit, if not a synonym of menace then forget it
In turn, these critics and interns
Admitted the shit spit, it just burn like six furnaces
Writ it, affixed, learning them digits, and simultaneously
Dispelling one-trick-pony myths—isn't he?
As soon as lead single "Chum" hit the Internet in December 2012, music blogs fell all over themselves in effusive praise. It addressed all the elements of his mystique—his absence in Samoa, the manner in which Complex tracked him down, and perhaps most poignantly, his relationship with his father. While OF ringleader Tyler, the Creator's missives to his absent parent are vicious, raging diatribes, "Chum" is simple, confessional:
It's probably been twelve years since my father left, left me fatherless
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 [...]
Too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks
From honor roll to cracking locks up off them bicycle racks
I'm indecisive, I'm scatterbrained, and I'm frightened it's evident
And them eyes where he hiding all them icicles at
"Chum" is an incredible example of doing more with less: the beat is simple, composed just of distorted bass, shuffling drums, and a minor-key piano melody. Earl keeps his diction and delivery simple and laconic (though still wielding it in astonishing ways—consider the stunning internal rhymes and assonance of a line like “Feeling as hard as Vince Carter's knee cartilage is”). It's the centerpiece of the album and for good reason—it's devastatingly effective and moving, Earl's definitive document. (Watch co-producers Christian Rich gawp as they recount how Earl wrote the lyrics then recorded them in one take).
Earl got his start in rap with an appearance on Tyler, the Creator's 2009 debut Bastard and Tyler joins him for "Sasquatch." They work perfectly together: Tyler’s comically-hoarse voice and button-pushing lyrical choices complement Earl’s monotone, mumbled delivery and dense poeticism. Tyler does his wacky thing, but Earl is the real star here, ending his verse with a series of twelve assonant ditrochees delivered into nine seconds—it's simply unbelievable, jaw-droppingly dense and rapped impossibly casually:
Small fry got 'em seasons salty, weeded, coughing
Ease up off me, end is breathing easy as bulimics barfing
From a different breed of doggy, from a different seed and cloth
And teeing off, believe it's Golf… Wang
The subsequent track "Centurion" sets its scene with an opening verse from Vince Staples and a nightmarish, claustrophobic beat from Christian Rich, featuring Earl’s fastest delivery and bleakest lyrical content. The album continues on, through chopped-and-screwed Mac Miller feature "Guild," RZA-produced "Molasses," and the incredible "Hoarse," a collaboration with Toronto-based jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD, sounding like the opening theme to a spaghetti Western. Earl shows off his command of absurd simile, describing himself both as “slick as the bottom of the bowling kicks” and “useless as a broken wrist when tryna open shit.” Though he may rap in a DOOM-esque monotone, he nonetheless has a mastery of vocal dynamics—in the run-up to a truly impressive phrase, he'll gradually increase syllabic and plosive emphasis, drawing your attention to the most important lines in a verse with dizzying effectiveness. Earl really is an extraordinary, once-in-a-generation talent on the mic: very few rappers, certainly none his age, can match him in sheer vocal skill.
The album ends on perhaps its only hopeful note, the Christian Rich/Chad Hugo-produced "Knight." Over some crooning vocals sampled from the Magictones’s ‘I’ve Changed’ (also sampled by RZA for Raekwon’s killer "New Wu"), Earl and Domo give retrospectives of their past: Domo apologizes to his mother for dropping out of college, and Earl promises his (a civil-rights lawyer who met his father while fighting apartheid in South Africa) that he will do some societal good, returning to the clenched-fist black power salute used metonymously throughout the album to refer to his family's legacy of political activism (“look momma, your product is legit, I promise, honest / Karma got me ballin’ up my fist”).
It's not a perfect album: it's perhaps a little too self-consciously abrasive, meanders occasionally, and its guest appearances, aside from Tyler and Domo, aren't up to the standards that Earl sets on the rest of the album. It’s not as accessible a work as, say, good kid, m.A.A.d city, but it shows a depth of musicianship and maturity that few other rappers have ever matched. Earl will never be a pop star—he's too shy, too awkward, his music too intellectual. But Doris is a spectacular record, one worth the wait and that stands up to the hype. Ignore it at your peril.