On October 30th, Earl Sweatshirt brought his unique brand of nihilistic minimalist hip hop to the Neptune Theatre in Seattle. The 19 year-old emcee has nothing to do with paying homage to hip hop pioneers or to radio hip-pop songs with R&B hooks.; this is nothing but beats and rhymes–a post nuclear winter where hip hop is reconstructed as a “don’t give a fuck” middle finger to everything that came before and whatever follows.DJ/producer, Syd Tha Kyd warmed up the stage with a string of club bangers that got the teenage crowd bananas in the pit, pressed together and hopping in unison. One half of the Los Angeles-based trip-hop/soul project, The Internet, Syd is a fellow member of the OFWGKA collective. The area behind the main floor was wide open. Was this a VIP section? Nah, it’s where the folks that are over 18 went to escape the teen sardines. It was a high school dance with weed in the air, but I wasn’t the reluctant chaperone hanging off to the side scoping the scene; I was there to nod my head and witness the distorted odd future of hip hop.
Earl popped out with his partner Vince Staples, who looked like he was only 16 with a pencil drawn mustache. The subs at The Neptune were bumpin,’ as the duo ran around the stage in skater clothes and baseball caps. Backed by a large banner with the title of his recently released, debut solo album, “Doris,” spelled out in kindergarten-esque finger painting, Sweatshirt stepped to the stage with strictly rhymes and little stage fanfare. Like the he says on his track “Burgundy” (produced by The Neptunes), “Niggas want to hear you rap. Don’t nobody care about how you feel, we want raps, nigga.” In a world where Kanye cancels tours just because his enormous video screen has been in a traffic accident, this is a breath of fresh air.
Earl Sweatshirt is this generation’s Redman, because he rhymes about absolutely nothing, yet somehow, leaves us caring about what he’s saying. It’s that Seinfeldian exploration of nothingness. It’s the process that becomes more important than the product. Earl has his own style–an abstract, surreal, laid-back L.A. vibe. It makes you want to lounge and enjoy the craft of hip hop: beats and rhymes, period.
In between songs, Earl and Vince Staples would lean up against the DJ table, commiserating about who knows what. The show maintained a flow like a dam, and as soon as the beat for the next song kicked in, the chaos would begin again. Sweatshirt barely spoke to the crowd, but he really got them into the mix when he commanded them to repeat his chorus, “I’ll fuck the freckles off your face,” everyone dutifully singing along to the surrealist misogyny. Once he dropped into his first single, “Hive” (featuring Staples), the crowd went bananas, moshing crazy-like and whipping their cellphones out like Mac light sabers. [Note to the youth: put that shit down and see the show without a screen.]
The performance was interrupted by–believe it or not–a white dude yelling racist comments. Our fearless Monster Fresh photographer Chandler Coles headed in to brave the pit and get the proper shots. He was standing next to a guy who yelled out that Earl Sweatshirt was “a big lipped n****r!” (Really?!) Earl looked dumbfounded. Once you add in the white capped bros that were climbing up and stage diving, Sweatshirt and Staples became visibly annoyed. After an hour-long performance, the teenage rapper announced that he was leaving, pointing out the fact that, including his breakout mixtape from 2010, he only has two albums, so no one should have expected a two-hour set. But, it was easy to detect an air of discontent on what he was, otherwise, celebrating as Vince Staples’ last show on the tour, due to Canada putting the smack down on Staples coming into their country (“Nigga got cases,” Vince joked). Audience behavior like this makes you embarrassed for Seattle; our white NW outpost of rain and grunge is begging for a redefinition that, I guess, is gonna have to happen another night.
I saw a girl escorted out of the show hanging around a bouncer’s neck like a teen Weekend At Bernie’s doll. She was outside after the show with a guy who was asking all passerby’s, “Do you know this girl?” In a way, this situation kind of represents Earl, himself, in that, even in his air of nihilism, there is still some level of heart and compassion. Dig into his rhymes and you will find something original, undefinable, and, dare I say, heartfelt.