A lot of people who are better and more insightful music writers than I have written a lot of smart things (especially this) about Earl Sweatshirt’s debut album, Doris. I hadn’t been planning on adding my thoughts, especially since I’m inclined to agree with the more positive end of the critical spectrum—Doris is really excellent, though not an all-time classic, and showcases Earl as an upcoming talent more interested in oblique, dense wordplay and introspection than murder and mayhem. But none of those essays has made the single most important comparison in the short history of thinkpieces about Doris—it’s basically Earl Sweatshirt’s Congratulations.
In case you’d forgotten (most people have), Congratulations is psych-pop outfit MGMT’s sophomore effort, an album most people found kind of disappointing after the crossover success of their debut Oracular Spectacular. But what does a 19 year-old rapper who came up as part of a semi-controversial horrorcore-type crew have to do with the group that penned several songs that were nearly ubiquitous in indie high school kids’ mixtapes in 2008? Both albums are potentially risky declarations of artistic intent designed to put off substantial factions of the artists’ fanbases.
Compare the unintentionally meteoric rise of both acts. MGMT thought the A&R call asking them to sign to Columbia Records was a joke, and their big single “Time To Pretend” satirizes the standard notion of music stardom—but in 2008, they were suddenly as close as anyone with an album titled Oracular Spectacular can get to rock stars. Buzz for Congratulations built to a fever pitch before its flatline reception and mediocre sales.
While Congratulations torpedoed MGMT’s chances at crossover success, a 16-year old kid in LA became a nearly mythical figure after releasing a short EP of rhymes technically proficient and disturbing beyond his years and summarily disappearing, leaving the video for “Earl” as his biggest claim to pre-“Free Earl” fame. Similarly, expectations for Doris were such that the album would have to be all things to all people; this year’s real rap Holy Grail. When it wasn’t, response soured quickly, suggesting maybe all the hype over this Earl kid was totally misplaced and we should all get back to obsessing over responses to Kendrick’s “Control” verse (I dunno, maybe we should).
Fans shouldn’t have been so confused—the seeds of each musical zag were there at the beginning. The first half of Oracular Spectacular is a string of hits, but the second half veers into the sort of weirdness that oozes from Congratulations on songs like “”Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” and aptly-titled closer “Future Reflections.” Similarly, Earl’s mixtape contains tracks that’d fit in reasonable well on Doris. For all that “Earl” and its music video garnered attention, “Luper,” a short, jarring, piano-backed track in which Earl uncomfortably confesses to heartbreak and wanting a stereotypical family of four, is the mixtape’s best cut.
Rather than middling disappointments then, Congratulations and Doris serve as rejections of the Rorschach quality of both artists’ early work in favor of clearer statements of purpose. Where Oracular Spectacular could be the promising debut of an indie pop anthem machine, Congratulations leaves no doubt about who MGMT is. Beyond the record’s intentional complexity and occasional opacity, the band’s initial refusal to release singles suggested it was primarily interested in fans willing to listen to the album in its entirety—12 minute epic “Siberian Breaks” included. Likewise, Doris has some production and guest rhyming reminiscent of some of Odd Future’s more Odd Future tracks—“Whoa,” for example. But it’s hard to mistake the pensive reflection of “Chum” or lyrical density of “Hive” for the Earl who opens “Drop” with the unforgettable early Earl line about bodies and temples.
In both cases, it seems helpful to read the sophomore effort as a conscious rejection of an earlier, more populist sound in favor of if not necessarily a more mature sound, a more particular one. From the looks of their new record, MGMT seems happy to disappear up a psychedelic hole, where you are welcome to join if you so choose. The critical trope comparing Doris to the work of DOOM seems right—the Villain might have a sizable cult following, but it’s a cult following nonetheless, and Earl appears aimed at a similar audience. The main lesson of comparing Earl with MGMT, then, might be that people who are down on Doris for the wrong reasons (lack of “epaR”), you might now have realized what you were getting into. If you’re disappointed in Earl, the problem isn’t him—it just might be you.