How do you describe Earl Sweatshirt (real name Thebe Kgositsile)? Sure, you could look at his catalog of albums or his connection to Tyler the Creator’s Odd Future and make a judgment call. Or you could go into his past and question how, in 2010, a 16-year-old artist with a smoker’s voice rapping about death, depression, and internalized rage ever even made it into the consciousness of a subconscious corner of hip hop. If you dig deep enough, you’ll probably point to his familial upbringing in which his mother, Cheryl Harris, is a renowned UCLA law professor, and his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, is a South African National Poet Laureate, and make conclusions about the origins of his lyrical depth. How you choose to describe Earl Sweatshirt is how you enjoy him. For me, and for his loyal following at his recent show at Fillmore Silver Spring, he is a vibe to a voice of an antithesis in music valuing unhindered morose honesty.
If you look at the current Billboard Top 200 Albums, you’ll see that Juice WRLD’s Death Race for Love and Ariana Grande’s thank u, next dominate the current soundscape. Distinct but similar, these albums latch onto heartbreak and turbulence to transition to some form of self-affirmation. These albums exist as if to say “these feelings are real but they mean something greater.” Earl’s catalog, beginning with 2010’s Earl followed by 2013’s Doris, 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and 2018’s Some Rap Songs, has none of that. Each song on each album is a snapshot that goes refreshingly nowhere, capturing an artist who doesn’t pretend to know what’s going on or what to do about it. Some Rap Songs saw Earl lean heavy on vocal distortions and low-fi production that melted together to create something with no real beginning or end. It just existed in the moment and spoke to numb mindfulness pushed by an artist who doesn’t strive to be anything.
Earl’s performance at Fillmore Silver Spring encapsulated that honesty. Even before he began his set, he came out and nonchalantly told the crowd that he had, “Received some bad news earlier.” No one seemed to ask what that bad news was; his fans, rabid with anticipation, took something that would normally be cause for questions as mere fact. As he flowed between songs, you began to understand why his longevity is all but confirmed. Earl finesses lyricism like few of his peers do, rowling between punchlines where there should be none and streaks of hair-raising vivid imagery. With each song, Earl built an atmosphere that filled every crevice of the Fillmore; an atmosphere where his fans hung on every word and let him speak to pressures and declarations they could not speak to themselves. At that moment, he became an orator of a lexicon many shy away from.