The debut studio album of former Odd Future member, Earl Sweatshirt, may not immediately come to mind in a conversation about classic albums, but it should do. Doris is a release that I would implore every fan of visceral and honest hip-hop to go back and listen to, preferably with a good pair of headphones and an intoxicant of choice.
Doris covers a wide range of themes such as family, drugs, youth, and relationships, and does so with eclectic and disjointed brushstrokes. This is an approach that could be risky in less capable hands, however, on this record Earl presents enough musical and lyrical skill, as well as a great supporting cast, to pull off an album that feels both constructed and unpredictable.
Prior to this release, Earl had been sent to a correctional school in Samoa by his mother, who was worried about his drug and behavioural problems. He had lived there, in isolation, just as he had started to blow up at home. Upon his return, nobody knew quite what to expect from the supposedly reformed Earl Sweatshirt. When singles like ‘Chum’ started dropping, it became clear that we were witnessing a dramatic change, and certainly one for the better. Gone were the childish shock-rap lines of Earl. Replacing them were well-crafted works packed with a pantheon of pensive, mature musings. Set alongside them were fun and playful lines, just to remind the listener of the youthful rebellion still in Earl.
Doris’ production is a keystone in what sets it apart from its contemporaries. At times the album feels homemade, and the sense of a bedroom studio contributes to the relatability of the record. Percussion is used sparingly and many of the instrumentals are daringly minimalist. One particular example here is ‘Sunday,’ in which Earl and Frank Ocean take the listener through stories of relationships and drug use. An uncomplicated percussion loop is used, and above it are layered simple contrapuntal melodies. In this mix, as is common on Doris, a sense of precarious balance is created, mirroring the themes of impermanence and uncertainty in Earl’s verses.
What truly makes Doris a modern classic is simple: it is one of the most unscrupulously authentic pieces of music you will ever hear. It is an unfiltered peek into the diary of the artist. Not once does the album feel like it is trying to be commercial or manipulative; rather it has the purest intentions of art in its creation. On wax these intentions translate to something dark, moving, and endlessly fascinating.