Stew (Passing Strange, the Negro Problem) Talks Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris

Musical genres are as groundless as racial categories. Genres don't describe music, they describe sales categories, marketing ploys, demographic...

As just about anybody who follows popular music knows, the SXSW music festival happened last week in Austin, Texas. SXSW features thousands of musicians, but every year, a few become generally acknowledged standouts, and careers are made or kicked up a notch or two. This week, the Talkhouse is running pieces about some of the most celebrated bands of SXSW 2015.
— The editors of the Talkhouse

It’s my entrance
My own creation
—John Lydon, “Public Image”

Desolate testaments trying to stay Jekyll-ish
But most niggas Hyde…


Musical genres are as groundless as racial categories. Genres don’t describe music, they describe sales categories, marketing ploys, demographic studies, etc. And, like racial categories, they attempt to simplify the human spirit. But spirit is a hard thing to market.

Get up off the pavement
Brush the dirt up off my psyche…


Spirit is flexible but genre ain’t. A dude with an acoustic guitar and harmonica can be more punk rock than a bunch of poseurs in safety pins. But you knew that.

Crazy heart, hazy lung, making art, raking funds…

The crazy-making dichotomy of genre and spirit is a wicked chamber to be trapped in, especially if a lotta execs are hell-bent on you making their advance money back times a gazillion. And the fans never help at this stage because mistaking spirit for genre is what made them fans in the first place.

But it beats the hell outta goin’ to college, no?

I’m a problem to niggas…

So let’s say a “punk rock” artist made a shatteringly strong, critically acclaimed debut “punk rock” record. Said “punk” is, of course, now expected by his fanatics to build a better mousetrap which will exhibit huge turds of sonic cheese in the guise of high genre recognizability, i.e., like his classic punk debut only mo’ better.

So shimmy through the swamp, nigga
Follow me through the foxholes


The punk can push the music way further than his fans can stand, way faster than his collaborators can keep up with and way deeper than his handlers can fathom, because unfortunately, he’s a poet.

This poet has time to become Dylan if he wants to. Doris is the sound of a poet wriggling out of a straitjacket that cannot contain the scope of his artistry. Spirit is flexible but genre is not.

I think Earl Sweatshirt knows this and I think he doesn’t give a fuck and I also think it doesn’t matter what he or I think.

The description doesn’t fit
If not a synonym of menace

then forget it…

The fanatics are screaming “Judas” at the punk as he goose-steps outta line.

Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks
From honor roll to cracking locks up off them bicycle racks

— “Chum”

Mining the black male psyche, or any psyche for that matter, is scarier and more shocking and alternative and arty and nightmarish and NECESSARY than any horror movie song. Horror movies are distractions and, as brilliant and artistically undeniable as Earl’s and Odd Future’s are, they ultimately exist as sensationalist blips that sell downloads to white boys in the suburbs while also providing the noble and necessary service of freaking out their parents. But the real horror movie lurks somewhere deeper.

Earl clearly has a helluva lot in his mind and isn’t addressing a fraction of what’s on it. But the clues he leaves are cool.

One adolescent, fucking six-nigga energy…

It’s important to stay a kid as long as possible cuz adulthood is generally less fun and more expensive. But since Earl is getting paid to be a kid, yachting it up on the surface for as long as one can before diving in deep where the sharks of the psyche live is understandable.

I’m indecisive, I’m scatterbrained, and I’m frightened, it’s evident…

The deepness artistically profiles poets — it stops and frisks them for the real dark shit. But who knows whether Earl Sweatshirt wants that job.

My momma raised me a prophet…

It has come to my unfocused attention that heaping teaspoonfuls of modern day pop-music believers have been waiting on this Jesus of a record to drop, this here long-playing spiritus sancti, by the talented teenager with the most rock & roll nom de plume ever, for what musta felt like a fucking eternity in internet years.

I hope it was worth your wait, disciples. This Jesus, by the way, is human. Are you disappointed?

Re: the pressure of following up the wicked, Day-Glo mind-slime that was his debut, Earl knew he was not gonna be able to step into that radioactive pool twice.

Earl closed that theme park the day he opened it. But don’t worry, the next well-spoken teenage werewolf with a creature-feature jones will steal the keys and re-open it real soon. The alluring sewage of man-child psyche will always sell tickets and downloads.

Dispelling one-trick-pony myths, isn’t he?

But a great poet cannot write teenage symphonies to misogyny and violence forever. So he moved his Jag forward but failed to find a spot. Doris is the sound of genius double-parked.

Only relatively famous in the midst of a tornado

This record sounds and seems like the only sane brick he could have hurled at all the hype that followed his 2010 debut album Earl and the Samoa Thing. Playing today’s fame game pimps an artist into responding to Twitter more than to his innards. The Beatles worked in relative peace and quiet compared to the shit-storm of vomit today’s artist are trudging through and wiping off their faces. Not to mention the piles of content crap their managers tell them they need to shit out daily. Can you imagine Jimmy Page tweeting, back in the day? Actually, Lennon woulda made a great tweeter, but whatever.

Searching for a way to state it right
Young, black and jaded, vision hazy
Strolling through the night


I predict Doris will be viewed as the greatest Transitional Record since Public Image Ltd.’s first record. We all wanted that record to be the greatest thing ever — but it wasn’t. But it was still genius because of what it promised: we KNEW something like Metal Box HAD to be on the way. Earl’s Metal Box is coming. You can hear it in his instrumental “523.” You can hear it in his vulnerability, in the dramatic lyrical leaps he’s taken — which will be lost on the knuckleheads. Ultimately, you can hear his next record in his voice. John Lydon sang, “Getting rid of the albatross…” He also sang, “I’m not the same as when I began…”

This transitional masterpiece will continue to spread in our heads like a hungry fungus long after the buzz dies, attracts worms and grows hair. Once time’s remix has been spun we’ll be able to give Doris a static-free listen. But I do know it’s better than any of us even realize.

Earl Sweatshirt is rhyming in a world he will artistically outgrow by the time you get to the period at the end of this sentence.

Stew is the writer and co-creator of the Tony Award-winning musical Passing Strange and the singer of the Negro Problem. You can follow him on Twitter here.