I bought a ticket to Earl Sweatshirt at The Novo, but he’s not the artist I’m going there to see.
Over the past decade, the name Earl Sweatshirt has appeared on a string of boundary pushing, ever-changing albums.
“Tryna refine this shit, I redefined myself”
Rap’s strangest prodigy morphed into a dark misanthrope before the eyes and ears of a generation of fans, growing and developing (for many who first began to listen to him in his Odd Future days) right alongside them.
“Show you right, it took some passages to get grown”
It’s a progression that always felt incredibly natural. Listening through Earl Sweatshirt’s body of work is not dissimilar from watching a timelapse video of a person aging. He emerges on occasion, giving a snapshot of his state of being, before disappearing again. You can see elements that carry through - things like his natural talent with the English language, or his tendency to peer into the darkest corners of his mind (and of humanity) - but it’s the differences that strike you most, those ongoing changes as boy becomes man.
Due to the youth-driven fan base that followed Odd Future, that boy-to-man transition has very closely mirrored many of Earl’s fans’ own lives. It’s a shared development that’s lead to a serious sense of connection for many fans, all the way back to the first “Free Earl” chants during the OF days. That connection has lead fans to expect a lot from each Earl release, hyping up seemingly anything and everything the man does. Earl’s certainly aware of his status and position - he’s had a difficult relationship with the attention, often expressing feelings of being overwhelmed by the wildly high expectations he’s seemingly always faced.
“I need a city to hold down (hold down) / You niggas gave me a coast”
It’s a strong following with strong expectations - near deification of the man. This kind of god status is always problematic; it’s plagued artists like Jerry Garcia, Kurt Cobain, and Bob Dylan. Compounding that issue here is the fact that Earl Sweatshirt isn’t even a real person. At the end of the day, Earl is just the name that the artist Thebe Kgositsile puts out music under. Slowly, as Thebe has grown over the last 10 years, he’s separated more and more from that persona.
That growing split is more evident that ever on his latest project Some Rap Songs. On SRS, Earl Sweatshirt appears not as the man himself but something closer to a rising current that Kgositsile is drowning in, another one of the burdens he bears.
“Why ain’t nobody tell my I was sinkin’? / Ain’t nobody tell me I could leave”
Once again, it seems natural that the man has progressed, distancing himself from what the boy created. It’s reflected in his concert billing too. For the first time, this isn’t just Earl Sweatshirt in concert. It’s Thebe Kgositsile Presents: Earl Sweatshirt & Friends. The name calls to mind some sort of puppet show or play, characters on a stage. When I’m at the Novo on April 24th, I’ll be watching not just for the character, but the actor beneath - the creator of his own cage, the drowning man - as he wears the face so many fans have come to praise and admire. I’m eager to listen to some Earl Sweatshirt music live, but it’s the creative output of Kgositsile that I truly respect and that compelled me to buy a ticket.
“Earl is not my name / the world is my domain, kid”
— Samuel Feehan, Intern