On Wednesday, April 24th I was lucky enough to attend the Earl Sweatshirt & Friends show at the Novo in DTLA. The Novo houses around 2,200—providing a split intimate audience experience in the pit or up above on a balcony. The stage is close enough in proximity to the audience that the artists seemingly appear within armlength during their performance. Going into this show, I wasn’t sure what to fully expect. Earl Sweatshirt has been undergoing massive changes as an artist, persona, and contributor to the music community since his Odd Future days. Sweatshirt’s career started off early, similar to current pop icons like Billie Eillish, when he was 14 and began rapping about some of the most controversial topics that have come up in the rap genre—from gangbanging to inciting mass fan riots to cold-blooded murder. The former rap collective, Odd Future, led by moguls like Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean, was Earl’s home for the longest time throughout the 2010’s. After a brief stunt of military camp per his mother’s decision and the passage of life, Earl has come back with a new record, Some Rap Songs, unlike anything heard in the mainstream hip-hop. Taking old jazz samples, chopping up beats into mechanical, disengaged beats, playing on darker themes of humanity, and offering minimal verses, Earl Sweatshirt has began the transition into the next chapter of his career. In interviews with Pitchfork, Earl has stated he no longer wants to perform under the Sweatshirt title, and would prefer his birthright name—Thebe Kgositsile—after taking the proper time to learn from his parents and become the truest version of himself the world has seen. Having only seen Earl perform at Camp Flog Gnaw back in 2017, I didn’t know what sort of performance was in store for the Novo.
Some Rap Songs was a departure from lines about gang banging and hard riots to slam poetry and singular verses regarding the importance of parental influence. Breaking into a soundscape pioneered by New York City artist, MIKE, Thebe Kgositsile created a personal record like no other, elaborating on his life’s hardest struggles while opening up about the doubts he has faced. Not worrying about the money, cars, and clout like the rest of the rappers in the industry, Thebe sought to create a work that allowed him to accept the reality around him while maintaining the importance of his past. That has been one of the most interesting aspects of the Odd Future collective—seeing where it takes each respective artist and the products that they later create. From Tyler to Flower Boy, Frank with Blonde, Syd with The Internet, Domo Genesis and his solo career, as well as Taco and his DJ career that has come from the group. A collective of insanely talented individuals that just had a “fuck it” mentality has led to some of the most pioneering and visionary artists of our generation. Earl being one of the most key members; an entire generation of hip-hop fans grew up with him as the pinnacle of unbridled angst, anguish, and genuine performance. Some Rap Songs continued building upon some of those principles, while building on the maturity and life experiences in Earl’s life.
The show itself was opened by MIKE, the same artist that led Earl to his new musical territories. Their origin started back on Fairfax, a major shopping street in DTLA, three or four years ago. MIKE, absorbed in the mass OF underground following, met Earl on Fairfax, sparked a conversation, one thing led to another and the two were off to NYC to work in the studio. MIKE put out three records in 2018, saturating the market with a darker street sound composed of minimalist beats with a backwards/clockwork sound. After MIKE, a female rapper artist, LIV.E took the stage and was clearly a bit intoxicated. After every set she kept mentioning her “fine man” on stage and for LA “to seriously turn the fuck up”—that was something consistent with every act. They had an expectation of the LA crowd to be wild, rowdy, and hyped for the show—when in reality it seemed like most people in the crowd were just stoned and waiting for Earl to take the stage. When going from OF to a fresh crew of breaking underground artists, Earl may be the “same” individual, but his fans have not made that same transition. Most audience members did know a good amount of his new material, which was a really calming moment to realize his bars were still carrying just as much weight as they did on Doris or I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. But this was an audience that came out to hear Earl and listen to every word—which was a shame, especially for a talented and intricate artist like MIKE.
The live setlist opened halfway through SRS’s track list with “Nowhere2go” all the way through “Azucar”, setting a darker tone on stage paired with ambient blue and purple lighting. Earl monotonously trotted around the stage, always just a hair behind the beat and really performing with a drudged consistency with every bar. He was spitting each word out, as if it wouldn’t make it off-stage, giving a weight that carried across the venue. Initially, I was in the GA Pit because a friend of mine was able to get us down there and then halfway through the show went up to our original GA Balcony seats. The balcony gave a perspective of Earl that really extended an idea of slow-motion with his performance—it was as if he was underwater with every moment, word, and action he performed on stage. Giving this molasses effect with all of his new songs; I was interested to see how he’d perform certain tracks that rely on the same beat construction for most of the track, but he pushed each song out with such energy it wasn’t a concern. That performance helped further extend a lot of the darker them and reflected the growth Earl has experience as an artist. He isn’t caught up in the same mosh rap hype of getting the crowd absolutely gassed, but wanted to give clear expression of each line and make the focus on the deliverance of the music in accordance with SRS’s overall tone. He dipped back into his old discography with plenty of ease—receiving mass audience sing-along for songs like “Huey”, “Hive”, and “Grief”, giving the audience the adrenaline rushes they so desired from a lot of Earl’s old angst. The transitions between his older material and SRS was seemingly transition less—showing the overarching stylistic similarities Earl has promoted throughout his music. That was another interesting aspect of the performance, physically seeing the way Earl carried himself—an artist has been through more than any teenager with more talent than half the industry. He has been through more than a lot of artists his age, and only time will tell us of his successes, but Earl seems happy. He didn’t for the longest time, just angry and pissed off at the world more than anything. But he’s found his friends and he’s on tour with them—after our show he was off to Vegas and seemed more excited about getting faded on the Strip with his crew than he did about his hometown and the show. But I don’t blame him—I’ve only been in LA for 2 years but after spending his entire chaotic life here, I can understand the excitement of seeing other parts of this country and the world. Life isn’t meant to be doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results—that’s insanity. Thebe Kgositsile pivoted his life into what he wanted it to be and that’s more important than anything else. Some Rap Songs is a reflection of progress, mental growth, and the constant change of life and going with it rather than getting left in the past. I don’t know what’s next for Earl, but I doubt he’s decided either.
- Mitchell Alcoser, DJ