When Odd Future crashed the party in 2010, they seemed, momentarily, like marauders. Now that the Golgi Apparatus of the music industry has more or less broken them down for useable parts — a cartoon show, a pop-up clothing store, corporate sponsorships — they resemble nothing so much as a good, old-fashioned, harmless dysfunctional family. Like any family, they have their louts and their geniuses, their ne’er-do-wells and good kids — Tyler, the Creator is the braying patriarch; Frank Ocean is the successful cousin who moved to Europe and who only returns for reunions.
But Earl Sweatshirt? He’s the kid brother, the one everyone huddles around protectively and gives extra space. He’s the only one with any of that original OF mythos still surrounding him: He’s the kid in the barbershop chair; he was the subject of an amateur manhunt at the blood-crazed height of the OF feeding frenzy. It’s a burden he grimaces slightly under but doesn’t reject on Doris, his calmly incredible and long-awaited full-length debut. Earl remains better at stringing words together than anyone his age, or triple it; pick any stretch of Doris and be mowed over by quotables, the kind that practically compel you to type them out so you can marvel at their wheels-within-wheels inner music: “In turn, these critics and interns admit that the shit spitted just burn like six furnaces,” he says on “Chum.” His verses sneak spring-loaded, incisive commentary into standard rap language: He’s “harder than immigrants’ work” on Chum, and on “Hive” he deadpans that he’s “riding dirtier than the sky that you praying to.”
But Earl is more than a great rapper; he’s a great writer, period, good at making you feel for him, see things from his perspective. On “Chum,” he reflects: “It’s probably been 12 years since my father left/ Left me fatherless/ And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest/ When honestly I just miss this nigga like when I was six/ And every time I got a chance to say it, I would swallow it.” Compare this sweet, sad sentiment to Tyler’s famous “I just want my father’s email so I can tell him how much I fuckin’ hate him in detail.” There is more bravery in Earl’s quiet admission, with its introspection and risk of vulnerability, than in anything Tyler yells.
It’s a quality Earl shares with Frank Ocean, the other sky-high superior member of Odd Future: He’s an empath. For Earl, the air is swarming with other people’s hurt feelings, and he writes as astonishingly well about those as he does about his own. On the album highlight “Sunday,” he and Ocean appear together, and Earl’s verse is a long, tangled love letter and apologia to someone close to him: “I don’t mean to offend you, I’m just focused today,” he admits, pleading, “I don’t know why we argue, and I just hope that you listen/ And if I hurt you I’m sorry, music makes me dismissive.”
For someone who seems distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, Earl seems unafraid to take emotional risks, to wear his heart on his sleeve even if it hurts. It’s ironic that he’s the only prominent member of Odd Future who is still a teenager; he seems decades older. On “Burgundy” (produced by Pharrell and one of only two tracks not produced by Earl himself), he says “I’m stressing over payment/ So don’t you tell me that I made it/ Only relatively famous.” For the rest of his crew, “only relatively famous” is all they’ve ever wanted. But Earl sees further than that.