On Wednesday night, everyone who went to see Earl Sweatshirt perform at the El Rey Theatre got a free cartoon-y mask of the rapper’s visage. It was for a photo shoot -- a sea of Earls staring back at the El Rey stage.
But a lot of people kept them on throughout the night, and there was something kind of appropriate about that. For a long time, as his Odd Future cohorts rose to cultish prominence in L.A., there wasn’t much Earl to go around (the teenager born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile was, famously, at a boarding school in Samoa). Now that he’s back, and finally has a major-label full-length album out (“Doris”), fans want as much of his face as they can get.
Wednesday’s show was a lot of things at once. It was a victory lap for a very talented rapper on the occasion of his challenging, thoughtful LP; but it was also a wild-out house party for the extended Odd Future family, whose concerts owe more to the flailings of hardcore punk shows.
“Doris” is a heavy, brooding LP where Earl dissects his own familial attachments and doubts about all the public interest in him -- even in his absence. But Wednesday’s show felt more like that 2:30 a.m. hour when the party is about to go wonderfully off the rails.
Though nominally an Earl Sweatshirt headline show, he spent much of it flanked by now-famous peers like Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean and the newly credible Mac Miller. Instead of a pure showcase for Earl, the show felt more like an hourlong round of congratulations for making it this far.
There was Ocean, swapping verses with Earl on “Sunday,” a bad-dream track about the mire of a failing relationship -- “Nightmares got more vivid when I stopped smoking pot / And loving you is a little different, I don’t like you a lot.” There was Miller, suitably awed to be trading barbs with Earl on the bloodshot-eyed single “Guild.” And as always, Tyler and Earl getting deliciously misanthropic on “Sasquatch,” when they plot to kidnap One Direction fans by luring them with a truck full of puppies.
Even in absentia, Earl had been regarded as the best pure MC in Odd Future, and he affirmed that take at the El Rey -- while just at the cusp of leaving his teens, Earl’s mic work had the precision and care of a veteran. He left the eye-popping fury to Tyler and soulful austerity to Ocean, sometimes looking like a watchful observer at his own concert.
But when he locked in on “Burgundy,” where he admits “them expectations raising because daddy was a poet,” (the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, to be exact), you could hear the seriousness of his introspection, and the rap-craft that makes people want to wear masks of his face.
This being an Odd Future show, half the charm is in watching the goofy, manic chemistry between these old friends. One still has to suspend disbelief at the sheer amount of gay slurs that get tossed around a crew with two members with open same-sex attractions. But when Odd Future is on, there’s nothing else like it in contemporary hip-hop. The reintroduction of Earl to the fold should give them momentum to spare as they move deeper into their solo and group careers.
But in the meantime, L.A. has a major new rap star on its hands. With “Doris,” he lived up to his own hype with quiet grace, and on Wednesday he and his friends made it all really fun to watch. That’s certainly an occasion to tie on an Earl mask of your own.