At The Doris Anniversary Show In LA, Earl Sweatshirt Was Free
Before Thebe Kgositsile even touched the stage to perform Doris in his hometown of LA, the crowd unanimously chanted the Odd Future rallying cry from the years leading up to the album’s release: “Free Earl!” Doris is forewarned by the years the rapper known as Earl Sweatshirt spent at the Coral Reef Academy in Vaitele, a small town outside the capital of Samoa.
Less than two months after the March 31, 2010 release of his debut mixtape, Earl, and within days of the title track’s music video, Earl was sent by his mother to Second Nature’s wilderness therapy program. After its completion, his still-wary mother sent him to the Coral Reef Academy, where Thebe had to earn back privileges like outside phone calls and solo bathroom trips to gain the right to return home, when his therapist deemed him mentally prepared.
When Earl came back to California on February 8, 2012, he’d missed the initial moments of his own celebrity. His beginnings had already been codified into lore, which now serves as the existential roots for fans’ idolatry in a post-Doris landscape. FREE EARL inspired a cult-like movement within the Odd Future camp, with fans convinced that artistic creation cannot be inhibited in the face of family intervention. With Earl gone and Tyler at the helm, thousands of teenagers would amass at OF shows to orchestrate chaos and scream the chorus to “Radical”: “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!”
Instead of skating and driving around Fairfax with his friends, Thebe spent a year and a half dissecting himself in utter solitude. His mother couldn’t fathom who he was becoming; Thebe was still coming to terms with his mother and father’s separation and living in a fatherless, single-parent household devoid of a male role model. And then his grandmother passed away, further warping his new music — infusing it with even more grief and instability, inundating his psyche with an attempt to find meaning in his tangled family affairs. Earl was lost, with strained relationships in every direction.
Doris exists as the polished thesis to Earl Sweatshirt’s discography. Aptly titled after his grandmother, his official debut album is the vocation of a young man past ego death, his nihilistic, horrorcore-driven id left only under the guidance of his spiraling superego. Earl raps with bleak confidence, motivated solely by a search for solace — the voice of a generation of angsty young people clinging onto music for an emotional outlet as they unpacked their own trauma and affairs. After Doris, fans rendered Earl Sweatshirt a vestige of their own psychic agents, all rapping and producing with dissonance.
The stroke of midnight Saturday night marked 10 years since the release of Doris. Ten years since fans finally found their own voices vicariously through Earl, whether it be when Earl relinquishes the first verse of his first album to Ska La’Flare in a moment of unsolicited arrogance or when he stamps himself as the adopted, prodigal son of MF DOOM, born from South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, on his most cathartic song to date, “Chum.” Ten years since the once-indie hip-hop head teens found an artist willing to prove technical brilliance against the backdrop of an outsider coming of age. Ten years since Earl Sweatshirt found his place in the world, developing burgeoning relationships with Mac Miller and Vince Staples and Uncle Alchemist, setting the stage for the folks that would carry his life forward.
It’s an odd feeling to hear “Free Earl!” being chanted so many years later. Doris calls to mind all the trials and tribulations of adolescence, but it also reminds us of the bittersweet carelessness of youth. Vince Staples snarks at the underbelly of success on “Burgundy,” quipping to Earl: “What’s up, n***a? Why you so depressed and sad all the time like a little bitch? What’s the problem, man? N***s want to hear you rap. Don’t nobody care about how you feel, we want raps, n***a,” before Earl reminds us of his grandmother’s transition to the afterlife. Tyler, The Creator had also had enough of the introspection, cutting the record on “Whoa” to remark: “Nah, no, nah, nah, fuck that. N****s think cause you fucking made ‘Chum’ and got all personal that n****s won’t go back to that old fucking 2010 shit about talking ’bout fucking everything all — no, fuck that n***a, I got you, fuck that.”
This duality of Doris, intimate in private but rambunctious in public, explains the audience of the album’s anniversary concert. Minus a select few, fans are no longer as radical as they once were. The crowd was explicitly grown: 20-somethings and older, finally of age to buy their own drinks and relieved of the urge to mosh.
When Black Noi$e took the stage after Domo Genesis’ opening set, the moodiness of “553” set the tone for the anticipated nostalgia waiting to burst to the 808s of “Pre” and its thick, elongated baseline. Bodies immediately rocked to the sinister beat, Earl’s own gruff rendition of Madvillain’s “Supervillain’s Theme.”
Earl’s older now. He’s no longer pinned down by his thoughts; his emotions aren’t as raw as they once were. Saturday night, fans took the place of Vince Staples’ pitch-corrected narration on “Burgundy,” repeating the same slights as Vince, empathetic enough to understand the irony of a young artist being pushed by his friends to bury himself in his work: “I want bars, 16 of ’em.”
Times have changed since 2013. During RZA’s hook on “Molasses,” he audaciously claimed, “I’ll fuck the freckles off your face, bitch,” but hindsight is 20/20, so much so that onstage Saturday night Earl adlibbed a rhetorical jest: “That’s a sex crime, bro, I don’t know.” He’s old enough to laugh at his once questionable character, but he has no intention of recanting his former self. It’s as if Earl had picked up an old journal of his and was determined to set himself free from the material once and for all.
As he ran through “Sunday” and “Chum” — especially the latter, a rarity in his setlists — Earl‘s passion for the lyrics stayed at an arm’s reach. For Earl, as for the majority of his fans, the lyrics hold sentimentality that can neither be forgotten nor recaptured. The show was more of a celebration of Doris than it was a re-creation of the era — a celebration of how far the cast and crew of Doris have come.
When Earl brought out Domo Genesis for “20 Wave Caps,” Vince Staples for “Hive,” and Tyler, The Creator for his retrospective raps on “Whoa,” he could not walk a single one of them off the stage without a grandly emotional bear hug. Alchemist even stepped in so that Earl could blow out the candles on Doris’ birthday. In one of the darkest periods in Earl’s life, he made an opus that would sell out the Novo in LA a decade later. Pride flushed the stage along with the spotlight.
By the time Earl began performing new releases — including “Making The Band (Danity Kane),” “2010,” and a couple of unreleased tracks rumored to be on an upcoming project with the Alchemist — fans received a glimpse of who Earl Sweatshirt has become over the years. Whether it’s veering into sample drill with the aid of Evilgiane and Clams Casino or providing meditations on a changing world, Earl Sweatshirt seems more at peace, a blanket statement applicable to most of the now-grown attendees.
A week after the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Earl Sweatshirt’s performance seemed like an unofficial celebration of that milestone in LA. Earl mentioned hip-hop’s 50th multiple times, joking with Black Noi$e about Doris’ part in the genre’s history: “Ten years! 20%.” He ended the show with a DJ set in his own 29 year-old interpretation of the moment — Ne-Yo, Rick Ross, Peso Pluma, multiple Drake tracks, Funkadelic — concluding with Meek Mill’s eternal crowd-pleaser “Dreams And Nightmares.” How far has Earl traveled beyond the emotional turmoil that yielded Doris? The tone of the DJ set spoke for itself: playful, casual, free.
More Doris 10th anniversary shows:
08/22 – Chicago, IL @ House Of Blues
08/23 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
08/25 – London, UK @ KOKO