Earl Sweatshirt has come a long, long way since 2010 when he burst onto the scene as a fresh faced 16 year old rap prodigy with Earl, a startling mixtape that captured the attention of every self respecting hip-hop fan with it's outstanding lyrics, clinical delivery and dark, often disturbing subject matter over a minimal backdrop provided by mentor and close friend Tyler, The Creator. To those already familiar with the teen's controversial rap collective Odd Future, the story is one that has taken on an almost mythical status, as Sweatshirt vanished from the scene as quickly as he had appeared, leaving fans puzzled as to his whereabouts until February of last year when it emerged that Earl had been sent to a detention camp for troubled youths in Samoa by his mother in order to clean up his act.
Upon his return, Earl set to work immediately with the announcement of Doris followed by the release of ''Chum'', a brutally honest, emotional single that detailed his feelings on his time in Samoa and issues regarding his father, growing up and increased expectations. The last part isn't so surprising, as the wave of hype that followed the teenager is one that would heavily burden even the strongest of shoulders, and repeated delays due to a lengthy production process didn't help to cool the baited breath of OFWGKTA's devoted fanbase. Sweatshirt took to Twitter weeks before the long awaited release with a blunt warning to fans who may have been expecting a record he was unwilling to provide: ''...I anticipate a loss of fans. I also anticipate gaining some... I hope you lose me as a fan if you only fuck with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15.''
A brave statement perhaps and one that could prove a smart move or the beginning of a backlash, but as Doris dropped yesterday it was about time that all the talking stopped, we found out for ourselves and let the music speak. Thankfully for Earl and his supporters, it does a wonderful job of silencing critics and dubious fans alike with it's raw power and majestic flow, as Earl immediately sets the record straight on ''Burgundy'', a Neptunes produced track that kickstarts the album in style as the 19 year old declares ''Don't tell me that I've made it/ Only relatively famous'' over the type of smooth beat that Pharrell has perfected over the last decade. It's a mission statement that sets us up perfectly for the 15 tracks, dispelling perceived expectations while also laying down the high standard of quality that continues throughout as fellow OF member Domo Genesis steals ''20 Wave Caps'' from the beginning, before Frank Ocean joins Earl for a softer moment on ''Sunday'' as the two recollect on past relationships and apologize to their estranged partners.
Guest features are a trend that dominate the entire album, as Earl welcomes numerous Wolf Gang friends and extensions of these while also incorporating use of bigger names in the industry- ''Hive'' see's Vince Staples pick up where he left off on ''Epar'' with a skillful verse that quite nearly steals the show from the main man, Mac Miller shows up for the wonderfully weird ''Guild'' while production for ''Molasses'' is provided by Wu Tang legend RZA, whose influence is clear on Earl's cold, dark production throughout Doris, best exemplified on the aforementioned ''Hive'' with it's sparse beats and fuzzy bass combining with Earl and Staples natural flow to create one of the highlights of the album.
Other highlights include the Tyler produced ''Whoa'' which see's Earl reverting back to his troublesome 2010 self to remind us that's he's ''still in the business of smacking up little rappers'', while experimental techniques pay off in style on tracks like ''Centurion'' and ''Hoarse'', featuring production from post modern jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD, frequent collaborators of Odd Future. The finest moment however came a full year before the album in ''Chum'', a beautiful centerpiece that is made all the more impressive by the fact that Earl created it by himself.
Which brings us to perhaps the only negative aspect of Doris- it's lack of solo Earl material. At times it takes on the appearance of a group album with the heavy amount of featured artists, although Sweatshirt deserves credit for choosing wisely. It's not that any of those featured put a foot wrong (in fact, quite the opposite) but the next logical step for Earl is a completely solo work, especially considering the production skills he displays under the humble moniker of Randomblackdude that he assigns himself in the track credits.
As the 44 minutes of Doris breezes to a close with Earl addressing his father, critics and haters in a triumphant finale on ''Knight'' (well assisted once again by Domo), that controversial Twitter announcement may seem a tad dramatic post listen- to describe it as an experimental album would be reaching to say the least, however to many of the Odd Future die hard's it will be tough to swallow the fact that Earl is no longer trying to shock his audience into submission. Much like Tyler's Wolf in April, Doris will indeed be a breaking point for the rap collective's teen following, however the process of a changing fanbase should come as quite the opposite of a loss for the young rapper as a broader audience respond to Earl and OF's desire to develop their skills rather than regurgitate them. In another landmark year for the rapidly developing rap group, Doris has set the bar for solo work alongside Wolf and Frank Ocean's 2012 R&B masterpiece Channel Orange, confirming the band's unmatched ability to produce a challenging, unique brand of hip-hop that stands out in today's modern music scene.
In conclusion, while it shouldn't be a factor, in reality the massive hype revolving around Earl since last February won't have helped Doris- those expecting a classic in the vein of good kid may be slightly underwhelmed, but that would be an unfair way to analyse Earl's first full length release; this flawless 44 minutes of raw, old school rap is just the first demonstration of Sweatshirt's incredibly natural talent, and crucially, it seems inevitable that he will only get better. For now, Doris is more than enough material to satisfy, but the most important thing to take from these 15 tracks is that at 19 years old, Earl Sweatshirt's potential is limitless. Watch this space.
Review by Andrew Lambert | FOUR STARS