South Side Music Hall, Dallas
Friday, May 22, 2015
He's come a long way, that Earl. Out from under the wing of Odd Future head Tyler, the Creator, distanced from the macabre braggadocio and marauding sadism of his early Eminem worship, and out the other side of a coerced transplant from Southern Los Angeles to Coral Reef Academy for at-risk teens in Samoa, Earl Sweatshirt (birth name Thebe Neruda Kgositsile) has matured in all the right ways, with youthful charge intact, tucked firmly under his arm as he marches out from the underground and into the limelight. With an insatiable imagination and raw talent to spare, the upper echelons of hip hop notoriety seem, each day, less like a possibility for Sweatshirt than a foregone conclusion.
His poise is, and was, unflappable, even if his presence tends to be more charming than daunting, more humbling than intimidating. In this way, with his impish, jaunty composure, Sweatshirt brings to mind another gifted wordsmith in Bob Dylan, an artist to whom it's difficult not to draw comparisons when considering Sweatshirt's complexly stressed declamations. (Consider how often the young MC's exercises in knotted poetics mirror “It's Alright Ma”-era Dylan).
Sweatshirt's unflappability, however, was tested on Friday night when he visited Dallas for a performance at Gilley's South Side Music Hall. In what should have been a pre-concert duty, security stopped the show mid-performance to adjust and restructure the metal barricade separating the MC from his sweaty legion of moshing devotees. I mean honest-to-goodness restructuring, too: removing screws, refastening bolts, moving the entire apparatus several feet. In context, It was a long process — one marked by impatience from security and fans alike, with Sweatshirt all the while exhorting fans for help in quickening the procedure. It was just the sort of interruption that can ruin a mood, and suck all the momentum right from a performance.
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Only it didn't. And Sweatshirt, suffused in a scattershot of ricocheting blue strobes, relaunched like gangbusters, making the earlier concert kickoff (“Pre” off debut effort Doris) feel like a false start by comparison. What followed was a heady setlist of high-energy bangers and slow-burners, anchored almost exclusively in a balance of offerings from the artist's two proper studio albums (Doris and recent album I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside): “Guild”, “Huey”, “Mantra”, “Faucet”, “Grown Ups” and “DNA” among others.
But such is the assurance of this older, wiser Earl. The languid, drugged-down delivery, circuitous wordplay and esoteric fantasy remain, as evidenced by I Don't Like Shit. Upping the personal ante, darker and more tortured too, Sweatshirt's sophomore effort glimpses a young man wrestling to balance the demands of fame, ambition and an industry geared more toward the flipping of talents for radio singles than the cultivation of singular voices primed for bona fide careers. He isn't yet outright jaded (though he's not too far off), but Sweatshirt's certainly on the precipice looking down, fighting off paranoia and addiction with both hands. And he knows it. When, on the lurching shadow-scape of “Grief,” he mutters, “I just want my time and my mind intact/When they both gone, you can't buy 'em back,” it comes off not as a consideration but as a warning born of lived experience.
Friday night as Sweatshirt punched through those same words, backed by a ravenous chorus of shouting, reaching fans, the result was eerily poignant, like some mantra for a generation of souls for whom mental and emotional disassociation — whether by way of chemicals, culture shock, technology or the age-old route of poor relations — is a daily reality. This is what visionaries do, those rare, supremely in-touch artistic voices: They translate the personal into the universal, putting into words feelings or thoughts you always had but never knew how to express.
While the aforementioned energy was palpably infectious (some credit is due here to the hype-man appearance of Sweatshirt's friend and pro skater Nakel Smith) and Earl was in equally fine spirits (who knew the introvert was such an adroit showman?), it was hard not to sense that something was missing. Earl's genius, which it very much warrants being so called, rests on the two pillars of lyrical dexterity and a searingly elaborate, dizzyingly intricate flow. In a live setting, where the deluge of blitz and flash takes precedence over fine detail, Sweatshirt's unique gifts –– hinged on precision, arguably, more than anything else –– were severely obscured.
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Those bars of inextricably dense rhetoric that Sweatshirt's lauded for, the sort you can squint at for weeks, parsing out fresh double entendres, internal rhymes and astute references on each subsequent listen, were muddled. So, too, was the highly stylized cadence for which he's renowned, that stuttering, clattering, delightfully rhythmic shape his delivery typically takes. The breathy nature of rapping on concert mics, the on-the-spot troubleshooting endemic to venue sound and the fatal trappings of hip-hop-as-live-music all colluded to lessen Sweatshirt’s charge.
Still, at the end of the day, this was Earl Sweatshirt. Rap's oldest 21-year-old. And when a savant rolls up to show you what's what, even if he's having an off day or is subject to a regrettable set of circumstances, you take notice. Firstly, because this was an instance of historical stakes. Take into account Sweatshirt's now-mythic coming-of-age narrative, his silver spoon tongue and fierce dedication to hip hop as legitimate art form, and you have the makings of a potential G-O-A-T. And secondly, despite the technical hurdles laid before him, Earl brought what was truly a memorable experience, an event salvaged from its shortcomings by verve and brainy zeal.
For those reasons alone I imagine few attendees, if any, left dissatisfied. Sure, the prophet might not have shown up, as billed, but a prodigy did. So why split hairs?