Growing Pains

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Rapper Earl Sweatshirt brought his verbose, withdrawn brand of rap before a sold out crowd at the Catalyst on May 13. Photo by Montse Reyes.
Rapper Earl Sweatshirt brought his verbose, withdrawn brand of rap before a sold out crowd at the Catalyst on May 13. Photo by Montse Reyes.

When Earl hops on stage like he did May 13 at the Catalyst, the audience looks to him like a prophet. A crowd, made up mostly of teenage boys, hangs on his every word. They move when Earl asks, fall silent when he calls for it. They wait, packed in like sardines under the multicolored glow of the lights for familiar bits of Earl to peek out, the parts they’ve come to know from bars on his mixtape.

The elusive 21 year old first made a name for himself as one of the Odd Future (OF) crew — a pack of rowdy young boys bent on teenage destruction in the form of graphic lyrics and general irreverence. Earl, Tyler, the Creator and the rest of OF’s records were rallying cries for disaffected youth looking for a place to direct unbridled energy.

But since his debut in 2010, Earl — born Thebe Kgositsile — has left his brash verses behind. His newest release, the 30 minute long “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside,” sends Earl into a spiral of anxiety, grief and guilt facilitated by his profound capacity for introspection.

Listeners and critics alike attribute this to Earl growing up. Sure, he’s not the same brazen 16 year old who rapped about running red lights and throwing cops in the trunk of his car. But, a close ear pressed to his records reveal more than just time accounts for this evolution.

Earl demonstrates that youth is not as fixed and narrow of a category as we’d like to believe. He’s grappling with the same anxieties and insecurities that come with being a young person feeling underequipped to face the world.

The Santa Cruz stop of his “Not Redy 2 Leave” tour emphasized as much. The sold-out crowd arrived hours before he was set to perform, a line of teenagers wrapped around the block anxiously awaiting to see what kind of Earl they’d get.

Queens native Remy Banks opened the night in the smoke-filled room with a brief set that attempted to coax the tame crowd into action.

By this point, the crowd was primed for Long Beach MC Vince Staples. Spitting from the moment he stepped on stage, Staples blazed through his first track “Back Sellin’ Crack.”

He bounced up and down the stage with lithe arms swinging at his side, snapping back and forth at the waist when the songs got particularly intense.

Staples’ tracks hit harder than most. The bass thumps heavier. His delivery is acerbic, underscored by a bubbling frustration that reflects his upbringing in North Long Beach, where poverty and gangbanging are the norm.

The rapper addressed the social responsibility placed on artists, acknowledging that they are often looked to for commentary on social issues. Staples prefaced one of his more distressing songs with a simple request.

“If you’re from Santa Cruz and don’t fuck with the police,” he asked, “let me see you put your hands up.” The warped chirp of a siren and booming bass signaled the start of “Hands Up,” a venomous condemnation of police departments and the violence they perpetuate.

The crowd shoved and shouted alongside Staples, relishing in the opportunity to decry law enforcement. Staples builds on the emotional intensity of the music for his live show, giving audience members a space to physically manifest their own frustrations, whether they can relate to his Ramona Park upbringing or not.

It makes sense that Staples would join Earl on tour. Not only have the pair collaborated many times, but the dynamic between the two is seamless. It’s clear as the two stood side by side, ripping through a medley of their joint efforts that culminated in an a cappella finish to “Hive.”

Together they encompass what it means to be young, tackling the struggle of finding your place in the world and feeling like it wasn’t made for you to begin with. Earl is the head, busy with contemplation while Vince is the body, offering a visceral response to the demons chasing him.

They pack a one-two punch. Staples arrives, whipping the crowd into a frenzy to create a space for Earl’s cathartic performance to work.

His rendition of “Faucet” was particularly devastating. The air grew heavy and the audience still as Earl delivered dizzying verses about the pressure to grow up and a disconnect with his mother fueled by his missteps.

As the leader of the night, Earl dictated the ebb and flow of the space, disrupting conventions of your ordinary rap show along the way. He knew when to let up and lighten the mood with a joke or dance onstage and when to let the bleakness of his songs swallow the crowd whole.

Before “DNA,” he asked for the lights to be turned on, disrupting the mystique of a venue, just because he wanted to see the crowd. Just before the last verse he stopped the show and called for complete silence, asking the audience to think of someone they’ve lost.

“DNA” signaled the end of the album and a shift in the tone of the show. For the last bit of his set Earl laid into his older, more raucous material.

Maybe it was a reaction to the expectation thrust upon Earl that he remain as true to his earlier days as possible. Or maybe bearing regrets and insecurities night after night is exhausting and he needed a release. Whatever the case, the sweaty circle pits were now in full force and even the previously stoic Earl cracked a smile.