Earl Sweatshirt – Powerstation: October 21, 2023

Earl Sweatshirt

Earl Sweatshirt closed out his current tour at Auckland’s Powerstation. The 13th Floor’s Jeff Neems and Chris Zwaagdyk were there.

Hopefully, someone will buy Earl Sweatshirt a belt for Christmas.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t really need to see half the underpants of a performer on-stage.

Because one of the key takeaways from last night’s show by the Chicago-born and Los-Angeles based rapper is his pants sag down beneath his ass. I’m assured by young people that’s just his style, but as an audience member it feels strange to watch a bloke having to constantly adjust his trousers.

Anyway, enough about Earl’s sartorial challenges or preferences.

Earl SweatshirtThe 29-year-old, whose real name is Thebe Kgositsile, shot to fame about 10 years ago as part of the controversial rap collective Odd Future, having been invited to join by cult rapper and TV star Tyler, the Creator. After issuing a mixtape as 16-year-old, Earl’s career has blossomed (bar a few years at a boarding school in Samoa, of all places), and he has just released his fifth album Voire Dire – the title a legal term meaning “to speak the truth”, inspired by his mother Cheryl Harris, a noted law academic.

Earl played to a largely packed Powerstation last night, producing a somewhat bizarre and rambling show which started with his DJ Black Noi$e belting out a series of drum’n’bass and remixed rap cuts (one tune by Guilty Simpson was a stand-out), and finished with the pair and an unidentified third person – presumably a tour manager or roadie – swigging expensive vodka straight from the bottle and singing along to trap-stye rap music recorded by other people.

Earl SweatshirtNow, an admission – I am well outside the Earl Sweatshirt audience demographic, which is essentially people young enough to be my children. In fact, one of my children – a 19-year-old daughter – even came with me for the show, and it was her peers who were lining up two-abreast outside the venue long before the doors opened. In 20+ years of going to shows at the Powerstation, it was easily the longest pre-gig queue I’ve seen. The young’uns were amped for Earl.

Credit where it’s due – Earl can rap, in what is an unusual and at times jarring style. He raps out of time with the beats and most of his songs last barely two minutes – sounding more like a meandering stream of lyrical consciousness than the familiar format of verse/chorus/verse/chorus. It’s not a style I’m particularly fond of, but I try to be open-minded enough to dig it.

Perhaps the major problem with his performance style is his vocal delivery is actually quite hard to understand. Although it would be unfair to call him a mumble-rap artist, he makes the classic young rapper mistake of wrapping his hand around the head of the microphone, muffling his own voice so badly it at times becomes unintelligible. Aforementioned 19-year-old confirmed that was her view too, so it wasn’t just me. After a while, every set of raps started to sound the same – sadly failing to really enhance what were some fantastic sample-laden beats, cleverly punctuated by understated horn lines, guitar licks and vocal loops which were often reminiscent of J Dilla, Madlib or even Pete Rock. Credit to Voire Dire producer The Alchemist – the beats really kicked ass.

Between songs, Earl had the usual line of banter – he loved NZ, loved the crowd, everyone should look out for one another, and make sure you have a good time and drink some liquor. The between-song banter became more entertaining and humourous as the set wore on.

Earl Sweatshirt

But, to be perfectly honest, after a while it got pretty boring musically – and not even the beats and clever backdrop graphics could save it from being, well, a bit dull. No call-and-response with the crowd, no tales of upbringing or what actually inspired the tune, no wild stage-diving or throwing liquor into the audience – and even the person in the crowd with the handmade “Lemme Rap” cardboard sign couldn’t get an invite on stage to add something different to the show. Earl’s presence on stage  basically wandering about, rapping a few lines, and then standing back and admiring his DJ’s admittedly excellent skills. Hardly energetic or inspiring by rap music standards.

Earl SweatshirtThe one thing Earl kept reminding us was that this was the last gig of his tour, which presumably motivated the increasingly rapid consumption of the vodka, to the point where the gig basically became little more than a boozy rap-and-beats jam session for a trio of wasted mates.

But the kids loved it, and at one point there was a punk-esque mosh going on beneath us, while the Powerstation’s mezzanine floor fully shook with hyper-excited young folk jumping up and down frantically on the spot and screaming parts of Earl’s lyrics. They couldn’t get enough of it.

Which, if you’re Earl Sweatshirt, is probably “mission accomplished”.

I took the time to check out several tunes from Voire Dire before I headed along to this show, and while they’re pretty impressive on the recording, their quality was somewhat lost in the live setting last night.

Perhaps a show at the start of the tour might be better?

– Jeff Neems

Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Chris Zwaagdyk:

Jeff Neems