Author: Duke Denham
Photo Courtesy of Washington Square News
A couple weeks back, Earl Sweatshirt rolled through Showbox SoDo with Los Angeles rapper Mike and Neo-soul artist liv.e. Despite the issues I encountered throughout the night, the trio still provided a night of varying styles of quality music.
First up for the night was Mike who provided a brief but pleasant twenty-minute set. Sonically and aesthetically, Mike’s music shares a lot in common with Earl’s music. The production behind Mike is glitchy and minimal in ways that Thebe’s production can be as well. Both even rap in a similarly scattered flow too. Besides the lack of visuals, I found Mikes set to be a fine opening that warmed the crowd up.
Next up that night was liv.e. Liv.e also put on a relatively brief set. However, for the moment she was onstage, she was excellent. Liv.e possesses significant vocal talent and has the ability to hit vocal melodies that aren’t necessarily technically challenging but are extremely pleasant and catchy to the ear. Her visuals and production conjured a potent, hazy, and relaxing vibe too. The crowd also seemed to really like her set. Before five minutes, Earl Sweatshirt’s DJ arrived onstage to play a few instrumentals then quickly transitioned to the man himself.
To be honest, I didn’t quite receive the concert experience I was looking for. One major appeal of Earl’s music is listening in on him uninhibitedly recount some of the most emotional, frantic, and troubling events in his life with bold one-liners and vivid, surreal imagery sprinkled in. With that said, not being able to understand the words that Earl is rapping will definitely diminish the enjoyability of the music. However, this is the exact position I found myself in that night. For most of Earl’s set, I was near the front of the stage, the area in most venues where sound quality is the worst. On top of this, a constant wave of pushing and pulling from the crowd further hindered my ability to focus on the performance he was giving.
Despite the issues I had with fully experiencing the set, Earl Sweatshirt’s music doesn’t naturally fit in a concert setting to begin with. Hearing Earl somberly confess to turning to alcohol to deal with the death of his grandmother on songs like “Grief” is best suited for a late night in your bedroom, not a concert venue with a sea of drunk people next to you. However, there isn’t much he can do about this issue. Removing the lethargic pace, easygoing hand gestures, and subdued delivery that make up most of Earl Sweatshirt’s onstage presence in favor of a more raw, aggressive delivery and boisterous, hyped attitude that’s typically seen in a Hip Hop show wouldn’t fit his music in the slightest. Plus, there’s something very unsettling about hearing Earl detail an extremely revealing, reckless past two years of substance abuse with such casualty on songs like “The Mint.”
Regardless, I believe Earl Sweatshirt’s best bet at turning his music into an immersive, captivating live experience is through the visuals. A two-minute video loop of surreal, hazy clips of people smoking, nature, and clay statues played throughout his entire set without variation. Tailoring the visuals to help accentuate the unique tones and vivid lyrics in each song would’ve helped transform Earl’s music into an experience more suitable for a concert setting, in my opinion.
Despite all of the issues that I had, I still thought the show was well done. Firstly, not every Earl Sweatshirt song is a despondent, unfiltered expression of grief and unfit for concerts. A clear exception in my mind is his song “Pre,” a song featuring entrancing lead synths and a deep, booming bass that got everybody bouncing. Besides, at the center of it all, Earl Sweatshirt himself was wonderful. On a technical level, he nailed it. For his entire hour set, I don’t recall him ever missing a beat which is impressive considering how complex and wordy his flows can be. Although some may have viewed Earl’s overall presence and vocal delivery that night to be understated, this doesn’t imply that he was inattentive to the crowd or apathetic to the songs he was rapping. In fact, at one point, he mocked someone in the front row for looking like Larry Bird after he splashed water on to the stage. Moments like these got everyone laughing and connected the rapper to his fans. At the core of a good concert, a musician performs with conviction and emotion and connects with fans on a deeper level. Sound issues, the nature of the music, and lackluster visuals are secondary to a superb performer with fantastic fan chemistry. On those fronts, Earl Sweatshirt delivered.
DUKE DENHAM | I wish I just stayed in the back | KXSU Music Reporter