In rap’s Internet era, buzz comes fast and easy. Mystery, however, is a much rarer commodity. By disappearing from the public eye shortly after the release of a visceral 2010 mixtape, Earl, Odd Future teen prodigy Earl Sweatshirt became one of rap’s great enigmas, the subject of endless rumors and speculation. It speaks to the media savvy of the Odd Future camp that if his peers knew where Earl was, they weren’t sharing, but by early 2012, the full story had been pieced together: He’d been sent to a boarding school in Samoa by his mother, not so much because she objected to his profane music, as a favored theory went, but because he’d been using drugs and getting into trouble at school. In short, she told The New York Times, her son had emotional issues to work through, an impression anybody who had heard his mixtape had probably already gleaned.
Released after a year of adjusting to the spotlight and having every new verse greeted as a major event, Earl’s commercial debut, Doris, plays like an attempt to deflate his own hype. It’s not a sprawling treatise like Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin or an openhearted masterpiece like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. In fact, it often feels less like a finished work than a sketchbook, a jumble of beats and raps (about half of them from guests) with little in the way of hooks, choruses, or general songcraft to tie them together. Mac Miller, Casey Veggies, and the RZA all get feature turns; welterweight mixtape rapper Vince Staples alone gets three of them. Even when Ocean, one of the premier hook singers and songwriters of his time, pops by, it’s just to toss another rap verse onto the pile (a particularly clumsy one about his altercation with Chris Brown).
As the longevity of Stones Throw Records and MF Doom attest, there will always be a market for releases like this, half-focused hip-hop records paced like late-night smoke sessions. Given his nonchalant flow, a stream of intricate internal rhyme, it’s easy to see why Earl took to the form, but between the album’s weed-fogged beats and his “mumbly kid in the back of the classroom” delivery, Doris often plays like background music. Upon returning from Samoa, Earl professed that he’d outgrown the puerile rape and murder fantasies of his early work, and unlike Tyler, he’s made good on his promise of maturing. What he hasn’t found, though, is a muse that moves him like the shock-rap of his delinquent days. It’s telling that the most fired up Earl gets on Doris is when he entertains the idea of abandoning rap altogether. “Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits,” he huffs on “Chum,” the kind of autobiographical spleen vent the album could use more of. Judging from this dispassionate, at times almost deliberately underwhelming album, it’s not inconceivable that he might actually make good on that threat.