Sunday, August 25, 2013

Earl Sweatshirt's "Doris" is another boring album from a talented rapper

Television critic Todd VanDerWerff recently spoke on a podcast about one of the problems with HBO's The Newsroom.  He stated that Aaron Sorkin's signature fast-paced dialogue is one of those things that works perfectly when he's at the top of his game, but if he's just slightly off, it can sound terrible.  Over the past few days, I've been trying to figure out why I haven't been as hot on Doris as the rest of the critical community seems to be, and in a way, I have a similar opinion of Earl Sweatshirt's rapping that Todd VanDerWerff has with Aaron Sorkin's writing.  There's no question that Sweatshirt is a talented rapper -- his gift for knotty verses full of internal rhymes and assonance has few equals.  Yet it's a double-edged sword, and on Doris, his greatest gift also becomes the source of my biggest complaints.

To say that the album is low-energy would be the understatement of the year.  He's always had a drowsy style, but here his rapping is downright soporific.  His first mixtape, 2010's brazen Earl, was thrilling, and it introduced the world to his characteristically dizzying flow, but his spiraling lyrics just feel like white noise on Doris.  I'm happy that he's moved past rapping about raping and killing, but at least there was some sort of consistency to his first mixtape.  Is Doris even about anything?  It's fun falling down the rabbit hole of his lyrics, but ultimately unsatisfying when you realize that you're right where you started.  Basically, this album is the rap equivalent of a band whose excessive soloing gets in the way of actually being, you know, tuneful.  I'm just not sure there's anything to be found in Earl's apathetic mumbling, especially when the best rap albums of the year (Acid Rap, Run the Jewels, Yeezus) are works of such fiery passion.

It's not like the album is completely devoid of merit though.  He's still capable of coming up with tongue-twisting lines like "I'm as pissed as Rick Ross's fifth sip off his sixth lager."  And as much as people have turned on Tyler, the Creator; it's clear that he has the best understanding of Earl's strengths, because the two songs that he produced end up being two of the most assured on the album.  In general, he's more comfortable when falling back on old habits -- "Hive" is excellent because it recalls the buzzy low-end of yore, while "Centurion" has some vivid storytelling that's otherwise lacking on the album.  At the end of the day, Doris is a collection of individually successful parts that don't mix together very well.  Most of all, I'm worried that he just can't sustain himself for more than 30 minutes (the album clocks in at 44 minutes, 19 minutes more than his first).  Maybe next time he can make his sound less monochromatic and cut out some weak Domo Genesis verses, and he could have a killer album on his hands.

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