Earl Sweatshirt

The Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto ON, August 16

Photo: Matt Forsythe

BY Luke FoxPublished Aug 17, 2015

If you associate Odd Future's now-defunct collective only with goofy stage shenanigans and cockroach regurgitation, then you haven't keyed into the world of Earl: a small, dimly lit realm swirling with claustrophobia, paranoia and a kind of vigorous lyrical introspection that is so personal, a legion of me-generation kids swear they can relate.

The showmanship of Thebe Neruda Kgositsile — the smartest, saddest and most interesting OF alumnus — is as minimal as the beats he picks to rap over or the titles he gives his songs, almost all of which are one word long. A half-hearted crotch grab here, a smattering of stage-pacing there, but mostly the enigmatic emcee and reluctant rap star stands centre stage and spits excellent bars excellently over bottom-heavy instrumentals. He's precision trumping personality; the yin to Tyler, the Creator's yang. Beating up the beats like they stole from him. The wintery catalogue of Earl Sweatshirt is not exactly happy fun times summer party music, but you wouldn't know that from gazing at the crowd.

All-agers queued up early and deep for Sunday night's (August 16) Toronto gig, which was delayed since April. (Earl's original date, intended for The Opera House, was nixed due to illness and exhaustion.) A "We want Earl!" chant sprung organically before 10 p.m., after the throng supported Queens, N.Y., opener Remy Banks' handful of rhymes and endured an overlong and rather dull DJ set of trap and lo-fi instrumentals.

Getting their wish, the devotees, most too young and/or too eager to enter the 19-plus zone at the back of the Phoenix, crushed the dais and rhymed along to almost every verse, even those from tracks that haven't officially been released yet.

"Canadians are weirdos," Earl told the New York Times a couple years ago. "They are so nice — overbearing nice, like grandmother nice. Toronto is like a city of grandmas" — stagediving, hands-in-the-air grandmas, who bounced on command, screamed "Fuck the freckles off your face, bitch!" with gusto and would salivate at the idea of Earl reciting the phone book for two hours.

Decked out low-key in blue jeans and an army-green T-shirt, Earl was backed only by an emotionless DJ and hype man Nakel Smith, who helped punch up Earl's couplets. Smith, the trio's most energetic member, ramped up his vigour by the 50-minute set's climax, tearing off his shirt and launching his body into the welcoming mass.

So many rappers write call-and-response hooks that make the transition to live performance seamless. Earl's art is better suited as music to write suicide notes to — or, perhaps, to talk you out of writing one. So his show is for those already inside his world; there is little interest in recruiting those who don't get it. "Burgundy," "Guild," Huey," "Mantra," Faucet," "Off Top," "Grown Ups" and "Chum" bled into each other fast. Like his two headphone-designed studio albums — this spring's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside and 2013's Doris — Earl's set was knotted tight, free of frills or gimmicks or banter or vomiting or pantsing.

But by the time he launched into lively new track "Hell," our host's T-shirt was stained in a deep V of sweat. Earl prefers to stay inside his basement, but he's trying.

He topped the night off with "Quest/Power," which he called his last and favourite song. "I been grown, boy," he spits. The guy is only 21, but we were inclined to believe him.

There was fervent demand for an encore, and Earl did return to the stage, but only to nod trancelike to more DJ beats, staying mum.

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