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Monday, August 19, 2013

Earl Sweatshirt: Doris (Release Date: 8-20-2013)

        One week ago, Kendrick Lamar set the internet on fire with his jaw-dropping verse on Big Sean's Control (HOF). The track, which won't be featured of Sean's upcoming Hall of Fame due to sample-clearence issues, is a cold-hearted killer, though its status as a conversation-starter might just outweigh its actual sound. Lamar's flow is white-hot and savage, blowing through about a million different subjects, ideas, and references before the MC declares himself the best in the game, even name-checking those unworthy of comparison. Much ink has been spilt over the 26-year-old calling out his competition for inferior work, wether such a blast is pure ego mania, or representative of a competition the game has lacked of late. I see it somewhat differently.

        Having just released what quickly became a revelatory debut album, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, Lamar is viewed by many as the best young rapper out there, and when he lists other new genre luminaries, from A$AP Rocky, to J. Cole, to Drake, one wonders if his omissions should be seen as compliments or insults. On one hand, showing up on Kendrick's hit list could be flattering, your name deemed worthy of mention, but having the line drawn with you on its underside can't feel too good. It's a question that's rattled around in my head ever since I heard to song, and one that stuck once I got a hold of Earl Sweatshirt's Doris. Because if Earl didn't make the cut because of Lamar's unstated respect, that's one thing, but if Kendrick thought the 19-year-old prodigy was nothing to worry about, then he'd better watch his back.

        For those who haven't been obsessively keeping up with the youngster's life and career, here's a quick brush-up: Earl Sweatshirt first came to prominence in 2010, when the release of his self-titled mixtape earned him attention and acclaim at the ripe-old age of 16. Having been discovered via Myspace the year before by Tyler, the Creator, Sweatshirt rapped with his mentor's L.A.-based hip-hop collective Odd Future until his voice suddenly went missing. After months of speculation, Complex magazine hit the investigative trail, and discovered that the young rhyme maker had been quietly sent by his mother to a therapeutic boarding school for at-risk youth in Samoa. Thus started a movement to bring Earl, whose proper name was revealed to be Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, back to the states, the crowd chant of, "Free Earl!" soon devolving into, "F*** Earl's Mom!" Thebe returned shortly after his 18th birthday, family issues and sudden fame awaiting him, along with a million-dollar album deal from Colombia records. Expecting a teenager, even one as talented as Earl, to rise above all this noise and release a good debut record seemed like too much to ask. It wasn't.

        Doris is that rarest of things; an album preceded by a juicy backstory and mountains of hype that actually lives up to expectations. Despite what the early string of (incredible) singles might have had you believe, the album is anything but one-note, alternating between bass-heavy trunk-rattlers and sunny afternoon throwbacks with a variety of other flavors intermixed. Even Earl's collaborators surprise and excite, Vince Staples given an entire 16 bars all to himself, while the Pharell-produced Burgundy lasts all of two minutes, and RZA shows up for no reason discernible to man (Molasses). Earl is putting every odd but perfectly-fitting piece into place, and gluing them all together with his indomitable flow. It's a disc that's always one step ahead of its listener, and doesn't mind bragging about it.

        While being aware of an artists' backstory can overwhelm their actual creations, knowing a thing or two about Kgositsile before stepping into Doris only enriches the experience. The nature of his Odd Future affiliation becomes one of the disc's dominant narratives, as almost every single guest artist derives from the same collective. But while Domo Genesis is, "Still bangin' Wolf Gang/As if you n***** didn't know," (20 Wave Caps) and Tyler calls for a return to Sweatshirt's days of, "that old f****** 2010 s***," (Whoa) Earl makes no such shout-out to his old squad, which probably has folks like SK La' Flare and Hodgy Beats biting their nails right about now. His relationship with Tyler is of particular interest; Kgositsile obviously views the Wolf Gang figurehead with great admiration ("Searching for a big brother/Tyler was that/Plus he like how I rap") and even imitates him with some of his pitched-down vocals (Guild in particular) and Burgundy's self-affacing spoken-word interludes. But one gets the feeling that this idolization is dwindling quickly, as Earl easily vanquishes his mentor on the two tracks that they share (Sasquatch and Whoa), and appears to push his styles and cadences into new, decidedly non-Tyler directions with increasing frequency.

        Even more interesting than Earl's ever-shifting relationship with his metaphorical family is the mysterious bond he has with his biological one. Doris shares its name with Kgositsile's grandmother, whom we learn is, "...passing/But I'm too busy tryna get this fuckin' album cracking to see her/So I apologize in advance if anything should happen." This is only the start of many references to the teen's home life, a subject most vividly chronicled on Doris' oldest track, Chum. Released way back on November 2nd of last year, Chum broke a lengthy drought of solo material with an autobiographical tale of its author's adolescence, set to a nocturnal, ruminating piano loop. Picking a specific line or two to encapsulate the song's entire scope would be foolish, as the tune covers relationships with both his parents, Tyler, his city at large, his own personal insecurities, and even calls out Complex magazine by name. It's a captivating, emotive, and unnerving listen, and stands head and shoulders above the competition as 2013's best song not released in 2013 (it also has a killer video).

        The varied soundscapes and windows into personal life might come as a bit of a surprise, but Earl's status as a virtuoso wordsmith does not. Wether he's crafting rat-a-tat-tat tongue twisters, ("Momma often was offering peace offerings/Think, wheeze cough, scoffing and he's off again,") thoughtfully relaying the troubles of his metropolis, ("From a city that's recession-hit/Stressed n***** could flex metal with peddle to rake pennies in/Desolate testaments trying to stay Jekyll-ish/But most n***** Hyde, and Brenda just stay pregnant,") or just making lewd jokes, ("Yeah, the miss-adventures of a s***-talker/Pissed as Rick Ross' fifth sip off his sixth lager") there's a density to his every line that invites endless revisits. His guests, while expertly chosen, most frequently appear before Sweatshirt on their respective tracks, only the album's two best outsider verses (the aforementioned Vince Staples Hive flow, and Frank Ocean's smart-allack surprise on Sunday) allowed to take the mic instead of handing it off. Otherwise, it's Earl doing the heavy lifting, and with a pen by his side, he might as well be Hercules. It's been one week since Kendrick dropped the challenge, "I'm gunna get it ever if you're in the way/And if you're any better, run, for Pete's sake." Let's hope he's ready for the can of worms he just opened.

Grade: A-

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