Earl Sweatshirt's Some Rap Songs.
Ever since he popped off at the green age of 16, rapper Thebe Kgositsile has demonstrably struggled with all that has come with fame, particularly the massive expectations of critics and cult-ish followers alike. Better known under his stage name Earl Sweatshirt, he has been made into a meme, a pariah, a prodigy, and even at times a let-down. Indeed, like many young artists, the construction of his narrative seems to have been entirely out of his hands, something to which he seems painfully privy. All these considerations aside, what lies underneath such talk can best be described as an avant-garde and innovative character, albeit a troubled one. Simply put, Earl is our era’s finest rappers and otherworldly artists. Seemingly unable to cope with the stress, he all but dropped from the face of the Earth after his 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, leaving fans desperately yearning for more.
Earl’s return, it seems, is not one reminiscent of a grandiose and imposing second coming. Instead, he seems more than willing to undersell himself. Out of the blue and with scant publicity, Earl dropped Some Rap Songs, a masterclass in minimalism and my favorite album from 2018. This spontaneous marketing strategy might sound strange, especially in a world where artists do the most to ferociously project their (often boastful) images onto any and all screens (cue J. Cole: “How many faking they streams?”). But for Earl, it really seems like the best and most fitting treatment of his own art, if for the sake of nothing besides his mental wellbeing. With all that being said, Earl went on tour this year to bring Some Rap Songs to the people, naming it “Thebe Kgositsile Presents: FIRE IT UP! A tour starring Earl Sweatshirt & Friends.” Being the stan I am, I bought my ticket to his March 26 show at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, MD. The show was, by all means, unlike any other show I have ever attended. Here’s how it went:
When Earl Sweatshirt steps out onto the stage, he’s so nonchalant about it that half the crowd doesn’t even realize it’s him. Indeed, with this concert it is clear there will be no fanfare. From the very start, it is clear to me that Earl is not looking for reverence, speaking to his rejection of the often-toxic cultural norms that pervade the industry. The resulting atmosphere was one of intimacy, despite the huge crowd. Earl is unapologetically himself, and he seems happy doing just that. Today, he looks a decade older than he did just three years ago, speaking both to the ways in which he has wizened as well as the obstacles he has faced between then and now—namely losing his father and struggling with anxiety and depression. “I’m just gonna rap for you guys”, he says shrugging. “All my songs are like one minute anyways.”
I feel like I am at a one-man cypher, truly mesmerized by his words. In this moment, I am having trouble discerning between Earl the rapper, Earl the poet, and Earl the philosopher. There is deep humility to this synthesis: Earl humbly gives and expects nothing in return, our spiritual guide and bodhisattva. In a strangely comforting way, there is little excitement to the whole affair. Instead, I can sense deep genuineness and contentment in both him and the crowd. It’s like watching a good friend casually rap before a room full of homies.
As good as he is at rapping, Earl’s production is almost better, something that cannot fail to strike me as my entire chest rattles with each distorted kick, my gut pulled in ten thousand directions by the aesthetics of his beats. Somehow, his music is at once murky and so, so vivid––a complete dedication to procuring an entirely unparalleled “vibe.” Hearing the full texture of his music over the massive speakers forces one to recognize it for the abstract, Lo-fi, dreamy treasure it truly is.
Although I certainly came for the bars, my favorite part of the whole concert actually did not involve him rapping. Earl caps the night off in the same way he does his album: with the instrumental track “Riot!,” a sad but distinctly triumphant nod to his uncle, South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela. Like many in the crowd, at this point I am shamelessly singing (screaming?) along to the melody. Earl notices our contribution and smiles wide. Amongst other things, “Riot!” seems to directly address his distant but undeniable South Africanness, something I find personally moving as a South African immigrant. This final track seems to encapsulate everything the album is about: the enormously devastating loss of his sometimes-distant father (South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile), simplism, and anxious but poignant soundscapes and bars.
Trying to take in what just happened as I leave the venue, I think about the Earl we knew before and the one who stood before the crowd that night. My mind in a daze, I realize one thing is abundantly clear: this concert was about music for the sake of music, and nothing else. It was fresh yet nostalgic, joyful yet cathartic. If Earl once lost his religion, he has found again it in this idea.
Blewett is an Undeclared Freshman and Indy Suggests Editor.
Photo Credit: Tan Cressida/Columbia Records.