Wednesday, August 21, 2013

album review: 'doris' by earl sweatshirt

I have an odd relationship with Odd Future.

Keep in mind it's not like I dislike any of the associated acts, because for the most part, from what I've seen of Tyler The Creator and Frank Ocean, I've liked what I've seen. Hell, I was almost on the cusp of reviewing channel ORANGE last year, arguably one of the best albums to come out in 2012. But I didn't review channel ORANGE and I probably never will, mostly because it represents a bit of a strange problem I have when approaching Odd Future-associated acts: I have no idea how on earth I'm supposed to feel about them. 

Let me try to explain this. For starters, as good as Tyler The Creator can be, I'm not quite sure whether I should buy into the exaggerated elements of his persona or treat them almost as a parody. There's something strange about the way he delivers his lines that's very much unlike Hopsin or Eminem, who are straightforward and direct in their assaults - Tyler The Creator just seems oddly comfortable in the way he goes to shock, and once you get your brain on the same wavelength, he lacks the same ability to surprise. It's even not that I don't doubt that said things he's saying are true, either, but I'm not sure how I'm supposed to react to them, which adds that extra second where I pause to think about that, which kind of stifles my enjoyment of his material. I definitely appreciate the rawer, rougher production on his beats, but too often his flow does nothing to engage me and his content tends to feel strangely distant. 

Frank Ocean also tends to feel distant and isolated (except on heart-wrenching songs like 'Bad Religion'), but that was half of the point with channel ORANGE, most of which I remember listening to in a spaced-out haze of heat exhaustion wandering through the woods outside my house. I'd argue that on the sensory overload alone, channel ORANGE is an incredible success - which really does a disservice to the lyrics, which contain some of the most incredibly descriptive, cripplingly honest poetry put on record in a long time. Combined with the fact that channel ORANGE had plenty to say about the state of modern youth, sexuality, faith, and love, and I'm not surprised at all that people fell in love with the album.

And yet... for some reason, it never truly landed with me beyond a few songs. It's not an album I return to again and again, and for the life of me, I don't really understand why. I want to love it, but yet I feel distant from it, unable to truly connect. Part of it might be that so much of channel ORANGE feels alternatively very personal and then very disconnected from everyone, a bit of a passive observer in his own life. And strangely, I feel the same thing with Tyler The Creator as well, even despite he and Frank Ocean's wildly different deliveries and choices of subject matter. And while it might make for impeccable and effective artistic framing, it also can make for a bit of an odd listening experience that might have kept me away for this past year. 

So will the same be true of Earl Sweatshirt, the oft-absent member of Odd Future who has finally released his debut studio album Doris? Will this be the Odd Future member I finally connect with, or the first I must unfortunately consign to the trash?

Well, I wouldn’t quite say that, per se, but while Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris is indeed a good, possibly even a great album, I feel it suffers from the exact same problem I have with the rest of Odd Future’s work, and thus it doesn’t quite stick with me in the same way. I really, really wanted to love this album, I really did, but in the end, I feel the most I can call it is an extremely solid album that just doesn’t work for me.

And you have no idea how frustrating this is for me, because on the surface, Earl Sweatshirt does nearly everything I like in a rapper. His instrumentation and production is creative, gritty, and incredibly organic, with very few of his beats truly blowing my mind but all of them working in service of conveying the mood and tone of the song perfectly. You get your spots of trap instrumentation, but where A$AP Ferg made all the wrong choices in fusing it with the typical ‘cash money hos’ raps, Earl Sweatshirt is smart enough to pair it with choices in subject matter and delivery that do wonders for the atmosphere of the tracks. And it’s a testament to how good the beats are that I feel left wanting more at the end of every track.

Of course, this comes back to the rapping itself, and while I will say it did take me a bit of time to get accustomed to Earl Sweatshirt’s slower, more methodical flow, it definitely became enough on its own to carry many of the tracks on the album, despite the excess of guest stars (which I guess know is just a ‘thing’ on rappers’ debut albums, particularly when they’re part of a posse). If I’m going to criticize Earl Sweatshirt’s flow and delivery, I will say that his low-key, quieter delivery doesn’t quite make him stand out initially among his peers, but that’s the same problem I’ve had with nearly all of the mixtapes and albums from Odd Future, and that is a serious lack of energy and driving momentum.

It doesn’t really help matters that there are very few hooks or upbeat instrumental cadences on Doris, which lead to a series of raps from the various members piling up on each track, with maybe a bit of a transition between verses. I won’t precisely say that it’s a bad thing, but I can’t say I’m a fan of it – sure, the lack of these hooks makes it clear that this is a rapper’s album first and foremost, but it can also make some of the verses and songs feel distinctly unfocused or unfinished, which is a complaint I’ll level at the entire album. If anything, this album feels very much like a mixtape:  a lot of intricate, dense wordplay, but lacking any real focus to bring it all together.

But it definitely goes a long way on the strength of that wordplay alone, let me tell you that! I can’t say that Earl Sweatshirt or any of his guest stars won me over completely on this album (Frank Ocean, in particular, delivers a verse that’s affecting on 'Sunday' that continues to reference his sexuality in ways you never see in rap, but it feels a bit clumsy), but I was definitely impressed by the sheer technical wordplay on this album across the board. There are a few glaring mistakes at points from various rappers, but nothing critical and nothing that isn’t forgivable for a rapper’s debut, and there’s definitely real talent on display here.

And there are nuggets of brilliant wordplay and concepts here, where Earl Sweatshirt brings a surprising amount of emotion through on his tracks, nailing the human balance that Tyler The Creator seems to still struggle with on occasion. Earl Sweatshirt talks about how being the son of a poet has led to expectations forced upon him on ‘Burgundy’, and that while he tries to be hard and hate his absent father, he still misses the man and wishes he could be a part of his life (referenced to heart-breaking effect on 'Chum'). Like J. Cole before him, Earl Sweatshirt seems to be smarter and more educated than most his fellows, but he’s also aware that his education ostracizes and isolates him from his community more than it can actually help - and on songs like 'Hive', he spares no words delving into the cyclic and self-destructive attitudes within the hood community. And like Childish Gambino, he doesn’t shy away from mentioning his feelings of being caught between black and white (also brought up on 'Chum', which is probably one of the best songs of the album). He has his darker fantasies, but since they don’t feel as cavalier as Tyler The Creator’s, they land with significantly more impact. In other words, Earl Sweatshirt seems to toe the line between Frank Ocean and Tyler The Creator, and more often than not, he rises past them.

And yet, the album feels unfocused. Even despite the brilliant verses, they feel like a set of pieces that haven’t yet been assembled into a truly meaty, effective whole. But even if we consider tracks individually, there are very few that feel ‘complete’ or that couldn’t be improved by a strong, driving hook or a few more bars or another verse. Some critics have said that the album feels long, and I definitely can see that, but that’s more due to Earl Sweatshirt’s low-key delivery and the darker beats than anything else. Adding more to make the songs a cohesive whole could only strengthen the album, not weaken it.

But even with those problems, I’d still recommend Earl Sweatshirt’s debut album Doris. As a display of pure wordsmanship, it’s phenomenal, the combined works of a rap collective that has repeatedly been shown to have a deep talent pool and something interesting to say (something a lot of other posses couldn’t say). As a rapper, Earl Sweatshirt has a ton of technical skill and a lot to say, and his instrumentation is tight and solid across the board, and if this album had the focus to be more than just a collection of strong verses, it could easily be in convention for one of the best albums of the year. 

As it is, it’s still very, very good, but not quite amazing.

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