Thebe Kgositsile and Earl Sweatshirt Become One at Emo’s

L.A. rapper shakes off some of the melancholic

Born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, an identity that may come to carry as much meaning as its origin, Earl Sweatshirt remains known for disconsolate lyricism surrounding personal battles with depression, the death of loved ones, and the burdensome nature of mere survival. And yet, the rapper’s performance Wednesday at Emo’s proved anything but melancholy.

Earl Sweatshirt at Emo’s, May 1 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Chicago born and L.A. reared and based, the 25-year-old Odd Future collective member began with a RZA collab from his debut studio LP, 2013’s Doris. “Molasses” drips a gritty commentary on everything from his struggles with marijuana to women over a reformative, jagged jazz creation taken from Lennie Hibbert’s 1969 track “Rose Len.” The rapper’s sadness clings to him like a cloak, but his delivery makes it seem more like a cape.

As such, a crowd of some 500 strong hung onto the edge of every word while spitting it right back in his face – out of true respect, of course. The tour title alone – Thebe Kgositsile Presents: Fire It Up, A Tour Starring Earl Sweatshirt & Friends – and this year’s third album, Some Rap Songs, shows he’s moving away from the foundational aspects of all that comes with being “Earl Sweatshirt.”

“Earl is not my name,” he explained during “Veins,” with its gurgling distortion. “The world is my domain, kid.”

The MC soon shifted sounds, new tracks “Ontheway!,” “The Bends,” and “Azucar” flowing one into the other seamlessly and leaving little time for the audience to even realize he’d moved on. Splintered guitar plucks, abyssal bass, and the old-timey samples that consume the new, 25-minute album are a diversion from the dark production surrounding sophomore release I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Earl’s gloomy, monotone vocals, however, incorporate the same aptitude.

During this part of the show, the beats were so loud they often swallowed his words. Earl had a more prominent influence in the creation of the sounds off his latest work, on which he produced more than half of the tracks. That’s a skill deserving just as much time in the limelight as his poetic statements.

“Bend, we don’t break/ We not the bank,” he intoned on “The Bends,” a promise as much to himself as his audience. He’s been through the ringer, but he won’t let it squeeze him into dust.

He kept his presentation simple, sporting a white graphic T-shirt, sipping on a red Solo cup, and pacing in front of a screen flashing visuals of an orange sunset with black trees, a lit match, a sparked joint, and two images of himself: one as a child, and one depicting him contemporarily. Otherwise, an Earl Sweatshirt show is just him, his sounds, and his words.

He payed tribute to his dynamic essence in “AM//Radio” and “Off-Top,” tracks stuffed with murky undertones, bellowing electronic chords, and a general sense of fear, uncanniness, and the darkness that chewed up the rapper previously. Sweatshirt also left enough room for some of his famous freestyling. When those bars emerged, the crowd went silent: still, wide-eyed, open-eared.

When Thebe Kgositsile speaks, we listen.

And so it went for 50 minutes, concluding with the reverberating instrumental “Riot!” which samples a brassy tune from South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela. Friends, collaborators, and up-and-coming Cali rappers/openers Black Noi$e, Mike, and Liv.E joined him onstage as he thanked the crowd, the crew, and bid everyone adieu.

As the music faded, the screens dimmed and the crowd shuffled out into the beyond. If Earl’s message can be boiled down to a mere sentence, it’s this: embrace the power of your past while greeting the (odd) future with open arms.

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Earl Sweatshirt, Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, Odd Future, Lennie Hibbert, Hugh Masekela, Black Noi$e, Mike, Liv.E

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