Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, a.k.a. Earl Sweatshirt, was the musical guest on the August 9 show of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, but when Fallon howled, “Please welcome Earl Sweatshirt!” his introduction seemed to fall on deaf ears. The man of the hour was seemingly absent on the stage—at least momentarily. The spotlight instead moved to the Roots, who played an extended instrumental of “Burgundy,” while Earl, who was making his solo network TV debut, walked unhurriedly through a passageway backstage until he arrived on the main stage where an audience awaited him. Then without caveat, he began spitting about juggling stardom in the midst of his grandma’s passing and a host of other personal struggles. “Talk all you want/I’m taking no advice” and the comeback line, “He don’t give a fuck again, right?” was one of the most foretelling bits of the horn-conquering, autobiographical track. These lyrics don’t just reflect Earl’s offbeat performance on Fallon; they might as well have been his mantra during the making of Doris.
Doris is the first solo release from Earl since he released his mixtape, Earl, in 2010 when he was 16 and a member of Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future. But just as the crew was blowing up in the rap game, Earl’s mother reportedly sent him to a boarding school in Samoa, which led to an underground media circus regarding his whereabouts. Though you won’t catch him divulging unreservedly about his stint at the boarding school, we get a hint of that with “Chum,” and Earl does so without a single casing. The track is bare yet swampy and completely beguiling. It’s Earl’s makeshift confessional about what it was like growing up without his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, an accomplished South African poet (the issues he has with his pops also resurfaces in the album’s soulful closer “Knight,” which features nostalgic samples from The Magictones’ “I’ve Changed”).
Earl isn’t salivating from the buzz that surrounds Doris. In fact, he’d rather not be the center of attention. “Pre,” the album’s snail-moving, bass-stretched opener, begins with rhymes from Frank Ocean’s cousin, Sk La’Flare. Earl clocks in at 1:46 to state the obvious, “I’m a problem to niggas,” before unfettering his signature offhand flow stuffed with grimy wordplay. Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is twerking to the song (unfortunately) and you can blame it on La’Flare’s two-step rhyme scheme and of course the “pop that Molly/twerk some” lines.
Odd Future affiliate Domo Genesis kicks off “20 Wave Caps” with a smug declaration to OF naysayers while Earl grapples with his newfound fame again: “New patterns patty-caking with mannequins cause I don’t like my fucking homies dip/Bruh, they all jaw-slacking/All ‘em awe struck,” raps Earl before finally acknowledging later in “Sunday” that he’s “fucking famous, if you forgot.” We never forgot, but at times, it feels like Earl needs a reminder that his skills are something special. The slothful yet thud-laden track features Sweatshirt dishing out melancholy grumbles later swallowed up by Frank Ocean’s biting raps about his well-documented beef with Chris Brown. From Odd Future ringleader Tyler, The Creator on “Sasquatch” and “Whoa” to RZA on “Molasses,” there are a bunch of guests on Doris who offset Earl’s drab tone.
The very casual style that makes Earl’s music a draw is also the thing that makes Doris feel slightly unmoving. Because of this, it’s easy to feel like a kid in a toy store lamenting over a toy that you just realized you’re not going to get. Earl’s skills are incontestable, but at times, it feels like he has nothing to prove. Doris could have resulted in one big shrug fest, if it weren’t for the ferocity in Earl’s bars—which is probably all the leverage he needs.