Odd Future have work to do. 18 months ago they were the biggest new movement in rap; a collective filled with artists of enormous potential held together by the abrasive leadership of Tyler, The Creator. But, after Tyler’s failure to develop on WOLF, the quiet hum of dissent at their relentlessly vulgar and pointedly offensive lyrics has grown into a chorus of criticism at a collective grown stagnant. The weight of restoring the faith now rests on Earl Sweatshirt, perhaps the most disturbed of an already dark bunch and widely regarded as their best natural rapper, and his sophomore release Doris.
His apathetic, monotone delivery has long drawn plaudits for the unnerving manner in which it dovetails with his nightmare-ish material, but that alone will no longer suffice. Top class production has been a staple of the Wolf Gang’s work since the start, but now clamour has grown for it to be accompanied by lyrics that display a similar level of maturity and development. Without the kind of self-indulgent ‘narratives’ that structure Tyler’s work, Earl has the freedom to explore new territory without having to endlessly relay it back to how messed up he is. Here, on tracks like Chum, Earl approaches the kind of lyrical development and narrative control that is being demanded.
It’s still bookended by more traditional rape ‘n’ pillage stuff, but at least Earl keeps the album length brief enough that it doesn’t become a slog in the same way WOLF did. If anything the album grows as it nears its end; by tapping into Earl’s drugged-out style, Doris is significantly more mellow and chilled out than Tyler’s hyper-active monotony; particularly when combined with the jazz-inflected backing that shifts between the horror show of Whoa and the acid trip of Uncle Al.
The production throughout is nothing short of stellar. Inventive, ambitious and always interesting, Doris is at once distinctly OF and yet utterly unique. It displays the kind of focus that was so sorely lacking from WOLF – and production was all that really had going for it.
Doris is finally the OF album that channels their lyrical darkness into songs that have the kind of haunting atmosphere and feeling of genuine dread like that seen on Hoarse – a track of startling ambition and maturity.
It quickly becomes apparent that even comparing Earl to Tyler, or any of his OF contemporaries save Frank Ocean, is redundant. Doris is flawed – you still feel that shock and horror lyrics are a crutch for a lack of real creativity, and Earl’s rapping style, while it undoubtedly works, is still inflexibly ‘niche’ (though he’s clearly working on that) – but it all the same is the first true OF release (does Channel Orange, so strikingly different, really count?) to transcend the collective and bear comparison to the likes of Yeezus. Hell, ditch the Tyler tracks and some of the duds like Guild and it’s beyond comparison with even Kanye’s newest.
At this point it feels like Tyler, who Earl calls a big brother on Doris, is almost holding him back. Compared to the fever dream atmospherics of the rest of the album, his features seem out of place and brash. More than anything they seem like a step back, or at the very least a look back to what Earl has outgrown. Instead it’s the collaborations with the likes of RZA, a modern day rap Midas, on tracks like Molasses that really stand out. It’s on tracks like that and his solo efforts that you can envision Earl amongst real rap heavyweights. Based on Doris that’s exactly where he deserves to be.
Listen to: Hoarse, Molasses, Burgundy