Thebe Kgositsile, better known as rapper Earl Sweatshirt, has been anointed by music journalists as the next coming. Unfortunately, other than using words like “progressive” and similar verbiage to describe his music, there is no consensus on what this “coming” entails. The 19-year-old actually rose to fame in absentia; when his L.A-based Odd Future collective started gaining national buzz, he wasn’t around. A self-released mixtape floated around online but Sweatshirt himself remained a mystery. The myth grew as OF members and even Lil Wayne sported “Free Earl” sweatshirts, prompting curious writers to ask “Who’s Earl?”
After much speculation, New Yorker magazine’s Kelefa Sanneh penned an 8,000-word feature about Sweatshirt, who, it turns out, had been sent to a reform school in Samoa by his mother, Cheryl Harris, a UCLA law professor. Also revealed was the identity of Sweatshirt’s absentee father, an influential South African poet laureate. At that point, major media down to the tiniest of blogs began broadcasting Sweatshirt’s pedigree to the world as the hype machine went into overdrive.
After a substantial build-up that included an exhaustive profile in the Los Angeles Times by the paper’s pop music critic, Sweatshirt’s debut album Doris finally arrived this week. In all of its monotone, lack-of-any-melodic-sense glory, it is progressive indeed – if “progressive” is really a euphemism for “weird.” Over minimalist, self-produced beats under the alias “randomblackdude,” Sweatshirt’s raps are odd and often incoherent. The album is so lyrically dense and ultra-abstract that even to a savvy critic, it’s the equivalent of free jazz, dissonant and disconnected, devoid of vivid storytelling or clever bars.
There are only a few intriguing moments. Over a churning piano riff on “Chum,” Sweatshirt admits his dad’s absence left a scar on his psyche. He also labels Tyler, The Creator a “big brother” and even gets into racial politics. “It’s probably been 12 years since my father left/left me fatherless/and I used to say I hate him in dishonest jest/when honestly I miss this n***a like I was six,” Earl raps. Ironically, Tyler sabotages the album’s best moment with a disclaimer before “Whoa,” calling it “that old f****g 2010 shit” before proceeding into his preferred garbled abstract rap.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA lends production for “Molasses,” complete with a menacing hook in which he threatens to“f**k the freckles off your face b***h.” There are some remnants of early Wu-Tang Clan here, validating the comparisons between the famed Staten Island crew and Odd Future. Unfortunately, Sweatshirt doesn’t say anything memorable on the song, making it a missed opportunity.
Doris proves to be an unfocused experiment for Sweatshirt, who is as unlikely a hip-hop hero as we have seen. If there was a lot of pressure to deliver a classic debut, it surely doesn’t show. With fame inadvertently engineered by his mother and an overzealous media, the 19-year-old doesn’t come across as a prodigy as much as just another aloof teenager who is trying to find his voice.