Earl Sweatshirt and I have a history — a three-day history. I have spent the last three days obsessed with Earl Sweatshirt, waiting for his call to record an interview before his show and then again when I thought we had rescheduled. I’m not saying this to give him, ahem, “grief.” In fact, I think it’s all a bit poetic.
His latest album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album By Earl Sweatshirt, dropped without notice in March. His most recent lyrics tend to circle around an inability to connect or be understood. And, in his recent televised performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he had experimental musician Gary Wilson come onstage in a wig, Hefty bag, and robe to wrap duct tape around his face at the end of his set. There’s a theme. While it’d be rude to suggest there’s only one level to Sweatshirt’s latest work, it’s undoubtedly a strong message or mixed message.
Here’s what I thought I knew about Earl Sweatshirt going into his show with Vince Staples on Monday night at Club Red: He doesn’t use big words (and is proud of that). He doesn’t like shit. He doesn’t go outside. He’s somber and cerebral like his lyrics. His performance style, based on what I saw on Kimmel, is mellow and reminiscent of beat poets who rhythmically tap their hands and hold their chests.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, almost wrong.
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Sweatshirt may not be the most animated rapper, but he had his helpings of HAM during songs like "Hell" and "Drop." What was sensed as being somber turns out to have been sincerity, and that’s what seems to carry his sharpest verses through the hazy clouds that rose to the Club Red ceiling. And: His idea of an encore meant chicken dancing (we saw a neck bob that would put P. Diddy to shame) around the stage with his hoodie hanging like a cape from his head and smoke obscuring his face. That message was clear: You can sing about serious shit without taking yourself too seriously.
Let’s rewind to the beginning of the show. Fellow Odd Future member Vince Staples opened for Sweatshirt. His performance style is polished, consistent. He actively worked his soles across the stage. Sweatshirt is a bit more of a floater who would wind up during songs and then randomly combust. He has a strong presence, no doubt, but he’s overly cool about it.
Staples put on a damn good show with spirited movements and swooned the crowd between songs, but Phoenix was being one of those succubus crowds its known to provide. However, just when it seemed this review would require the tired “Wake up, Phoenix!” lecture, Earl Sweatshirt came onstage with Staples and the crowd snapped out of its slumber and started singing every word of "Wool" verbatim. It was surreal. This was the norm for the rest of the show. The crowd even jumped the gun on a song ("Pre"), which seemed to amuse Sweatshirt. He tried to quiet the audience before "Hive," but the packed room went ahead and started coherently singing the song on beat anyway. (He restarted the song in protest.)
Phoenix is crawling with Earl Sweatshirt fans that can rap on demand. Who knew?
Even Sweatshirt called himself a proud father of the audience for memorizing every song on his two-month-old album, which he performed in full. The rest of his set list contained highlights from his star-studded debut full-length, Doris, including the songs that featured RZA ("Molasses"), Frank Ocean ("Sunday") and Pharrell ("Burgundy," as producer). Perhaps none of his songs received such an insane response as when he launched into "Couch," an aggressive track on his 2010 eponymous mixtape that featured Tyler, The Creator. The mixtape was really the catalyst for the 21-year-old artist’s fame. The son of a law teacher at UCLA and an African poet who left him when he was still in elementary school, Sweatshirt was sent to a boarding school in Samoa for at-risk teens shortly after he dropped his first mixtape. His fame grew while he was away and the rest is history.
But, really, if this show indicated anything, it’s that it’s time to focus on Earl Sweatshirt’s future, and, if you aren’t already listening, to start.
What: Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples at Club Red on May 18
The crowd: Glass-eyed Earl Sweatshirt fans in 2013 tour shirts. There were a few Hawaiian shirts and some bucket hats that would occasionally bob along in a hip-hop concert’s version of a moshpit (mush pit?), but mostly the crowd was your typical Tempe concert bros who like to like hip-hop and yell through their conversations during songs.
Overheard: “Take it back to 2010!” – This was repeated by a fan who wasn’t going to be happy until he heard a song off Sweatshirt’s 2010 eponymous debut mixtape.
Bias: I briefly considered using #ihateshitidontcallreporters in an homage to Sweatshirt over the weekend.
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[Didn’t recognize first song.]
“Oh, You Scared?”
“Lift Me Up” (unreleased song)
“Guns N Roses”
Earl Sweatshirt & Vince Staples