Thebe Neruda Kgositsile has been in the rap game since 2007. At only 29 years old, he’s a veteran, and his show at Northcote Theatre proves just how much he’s a master of his craft. Kgositsile, or as he is better known, Earl Sweatshirt, rose to prominence as the prodigé of fellow rapper, Tyler, The Creator. Sweatshirt’s early days were spent as part of powerhouse rap collective, Odd Future, under the sculpting gaze of his contemporaries, including both Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean. It’s easy to see the lasting impact on his live work, bur dare I say that the student has become the master? Or, at the very least, the student has become a wicked good-time and unrivalled craftsman.
Despite his support cancelling due to illness, Sweatshirt is determined to give us our money’s worth. He comes on early, energised and with a drive I’ve never seen in another artist. I’ve seen Sweatshirt perform before, but it was outside at a large festival. Here, in such an intimate venue, you can really see that hunger in his eyes up-close. These are the venues he was born to play.
The projector screen behind him scrolls through everything from abstract, pulsating shapes, to Keith Haring style animations to old films, in a sketchbook style. Every song is a different visual track, each of them more beautiful and more alive than the last. The lights at the front of the stage face outwards, shades of orange, purple, blue and white, wash over us. It’s visually stunning, and borderline genre-bending, rivalling bands like Slowdive for visual prowess.
For hardcore fans and casual listeners alike, this current tour boasts some delicious treats from the LA-native. Within the first half an hour, Sweatshirt spits out two unreleased tracks. But you wouldn’t know that. His crowd is eating every crumb out of his hand, and whether or not they know the words is irrelevant. He’s filled the room with so much energy that no matter what, we’re going to be loving it.
But it’s not just the unreleased. I’m at the back of the room, groups of guys with cross-body bags and girls in tall platform sneakers crash into each other and cheer louder and louder for each song Sweatshirt pulls out. And, he pulls out a lot. His setlist for the night is nearly 30-songs long, and never does he let the energy drop. It’s an unbelievable display of musicianship, showmanship and self-discipline – I’ve never seen anything quite like it. But no two songs go harder than the back-to-back combo that is Geb into Sirius Blac. The crowd is already going nuts after Geb, with cheering and applause so loud I feel it in my feet. But Sirius Blac is next level. All I can see are hands, heads and drinks held up above the crush of people. It’s a tidal wave of energy, clinging onto every word.
Tabula Rasa is beautiful, the sound mixing bringing out the soulful vocals in a way that’s so sublime. A very different vibe comes over the room, it’s a crackling, electric stillness. Time stops passing as we focus on nothing except Sweatshirt. As it comes to an end, he addresses us directly. “Put your hands up if you’re having a good time!” We put our hands up. “Y’all up the top, looking like John Wilkes Booth, put those motherfucking hands up so I know you aren’t about to shoot me like y’all shot Abe Lincoln.” The mezzanine puts their hands up. “There you go.” And then he throws us into EAST. Our hands start moving in unplanned synchronous harmony, and it’s magical.
We follow him on a winding journey through his discography, and when we hit 2010 he takes to the mic; “If I don’t play this, everyone’s like Play it! So you all better keep the same energy.” We don’t even need to think about it, and yet again come crashing back together. We are a ferocious wave of energy, and Sweatshirt smiles as he raps – he’s loving it just as much as we are.
By the tail-end of his set, he’s clearly letting his guard down. He’s shown us what he can do, so he eases up and talks to us again. The way he addresses the crowd, it feels like we’re old-friends hanging out in someone’s garage after the party’s ended. “Do you remember when that one girl (Katy Perry) was like
Do you ever feel? / Like a plastic bag?
We start singing the rest of the cultural icon that is, Fireworks.
“No don’t keep singing! Just process that. Like that’s crazy. That’s a lot. Do you ever feel like a plastic bag? We’re gonna talk about that in a second.”
He’s so funny, in this casual, laid-back, deprecating way. And before we get time to talk about it more, “Y’all would open up a pit for anything, so open up.” And I have to quell my laughter as I prepare to wrestle for my patch of ground again.
NOWHERE2GO is an absolute crowd favourite. And honestly, we kind of look like plastic bags, drifting through the wind. Erratically moving, making waving patterns with our bodies. I didn’t think such a left-field gag would be so fitting for this crowd of rowdy misfits, but it was.
We’re out of breath, sweat running down our faces, but Sweatshirt doesn’t look any different, he’s not even out of breath. “Honestly, bars! Like, do you ever feel like a plastic bag? Bars, man. I could never write something that good.” And, to prove how very tongue-in-cheek that point is, we get treated to, Shattered Dreams. God, this song is delightful. It showcases Sweatshirt’s past as a poet, shows he’s his father’s son, show’s he’s everything to us.
The rest of the set is a blur. Finishing with his encore, a Mac Miller cover, an emotional tribute to the late rapper. New Faces V2, isn’t what I expected, but it’s an amazing finish. It’s vibey, it’s got this driving beat live. Immaculate.
Grinning, sweaty, with aching feet, I am desperate for the cold night air. But already, I’m aching for more Earl Sweatshirt.