McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

(Photo: Peter Hutchins)

There are few rappers, alive or dead, surrounded by as much myth as Thebe Kgositsile, otherwise known as Earl Sweatshirt. Once a child rap prodigy, his work both within the collective Odd Future and outside of it (he released his debut, Earl, when he was just 16) only hinted at the brilliance that would come later. Rap fans know the rest, though: shortly after Earl, he vanished, leaving behind a sea of rumors, until he returned two years later, confirming that he’d been sent to an at-risk boys’ boarding school in Samoa. The horrorcore veneer that inspired his first mixtape was largely stripped away by his time gone, and he returned with 2013’s Doris, a sluggish, anxiety-riddled record flooded with guest stars and jumbled examinations of coming back to unfathomable fame, a spiral that has deepened since with 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and last year’s Some Rap Songs, the latter of which was released after the death of his father, the poet Keorapetse William Kgositsile.

Though I’d heard reports from the Doris tour that Earl is a great performer, I wondered what it would look like in 2019, when he’s making music as stylistically strange as the bare bones Some Rap Songs. The mildly aloof Earl I imagined didn’t exist: instead, he and his DJ, Black Thought, were onstage an hour before he was even scheduled to go on, helping DJ for his opener, Liv.e. Whereas other rap shows might treat this as something to make a big deal of, he went unacknowledged, blending into the background. Once it was his turn, he was more punctual than any performer I’ve experienced, starting his set at 10:03, seven minutes earlier than his scheduled 10:10 set time. He then promised to play for one hour, before delivering an almost exact hour of fairly constant rapping, minus breaks for banter and water.

In terms of actual performance, Earl’s demeanor matches the pace of the music itself. In a black XYZ hoodie, he paced the stage, delivering a word-perfect version of each of his songs while exuding less energy than I’ve seen from any performer in quite some time. What’s fascinating is that, for Earl, this works: he’s here to rap, not to party, and it would be too disorienting for him to rap at such a sluggish pace but spend his time jumping around the stage. It was the most low-key, unadorned hot-ticket rap show I’ve ever attended, with Earl performing with nothing but Black Noise, a few of his friends (including openers Liv.e and Mike), and the colored house lights. Midway through a projector began projecting something on the stage, but it was nearly impossible to make out what. The Crystal Ballroom remains a perplexing place to see live hip-hop, with questionable sound and a tendency for deep bass to become soupy, making me wish this was happening down the street at the Roseland, which puts on fantastic hip-hop shows.

The crowd didn’t care how it sounded, or how much energy he put into performing; large swathes still bounced around, rapping along to every word. Though Earl has changed since Odd Future’s heyday, the fan base is still heavily populated by young men, who packed in sardine-can tight to the degree that they appeared to be moving as one mass when jumping up and down. I was put in the Ballroom’s VIP section for this show, which made the difference between me standing in the back of the room, and being able to see the show; Earl fans are remarkably rowdy, and I am no longer the 20-year-old I was when I, willingly, put myself in the middle of the crowd for Odd Future’s Portland debut in 2010, still a contender for the worst crowd I’ve ever experienced. This show seemed devoid of the reckless rowdiness of that show, but I saw multiple instances of security helping get kids out of the front of the crowd, which is always a worrying sign.

Between songs, Earl was occasionally chatty and engaging, making fun of the crowd all waving their arms in the same exact way when told to move their arms “however you want,” to being hit in the face with a joint thrown by a showgoer: “If you want me to keep rapping at maximum capacity, please don’t hit me with floating objects,” he said, before cheering on the crowd’s enthusiasm at his ranting, “Now you have to listen to banter!” Between songs, he was all smiles, beaming even as he faced boos for having to end the show: “I just played you a lot of songs, Portland!” It’s hard to tell how he feels about his success at this point, but he seems to have gotten comfortable with it, even if it’s clear that he has little interest in milking his level of fame beyond letting it grant him the opportunity to rap for sold out crowds. When Odd Future were on the rise, the myth of Earl felt larger than life, and Earl’s promise felt jeopardized in some way by his absence. The reality we got is much more satisfying than whatever people imagined the post-Earl mixtape rapper to be like, and even if he’s not an energetic performer, it’s fantastic to see him looking so at home onstage.

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