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The 25-year-old rapper's introspective lyrics and mellow flows don't always translate live, but they worked on this night
EARL SWEATSHIRT with BBYMUTHA and (LIV).E at Rebel, Friday (April 5). Rating: NNNN
Not to lay too heavy a title on him, but Earl Sweatshirt is one of the most unique and influential MCs of this generation. His morose and poetic lyrics exist in their own category, and his spongelike appreciation of music both present and past has helped evolve his sound from album to album. But it seems that every year he’s faced extra-musical challenges, including a stint in a youth program in Samoa, the death of his grandmother, his father and close friend/collaborator Mac Miller. So it’s been heartening to see him take time for himself, cancelling European dates due to mental health needs and producing albums geared toward those who get what he’s doing.
Going his own way has paid off – his work with artists like Solange and the devotion of his hardcore fans is evidence of the respect he commands in public and peer circles. Originally scheduled for the Phoenix Concert Theatre, this show moved to the larger capacity Rebel due to high demand.
Having never seen him in concert before, I came into the show in Earl’s corner – and he came through heavy, proving that introspective and often mellow flows can shine in a live capacity. Makes sense since he’s been touring for years.
MIKE wasn’t on the bill as originally advertised – the hotly tipped New York rapper and Earl-sonic compatriot is joining the tour in Seattle – and the Rebel openers set the stage with a different energy from Earl’s sweet sedative. Dallas artist (Liv).e expertly rapped and sang laconic hip-hop, reggae and soul vocals over muffled backing tracks with a charm that made it work completely. Dressed in a white hoodie and pyjama pants, she was clearly having a lot of fun, and that spread to the crowd.
Chattanooga rapper BbyMutha followed, and there was a lot going on in her set. She was dancing up a storm, rapping in an unmistakable Tennessee drawl over techy beats while four screens cycled through dizzying, eye-catching visuals. Her charisma held it all together and kept the crowd hyped. That said, it might not be wise to end an all-ages show set by saying “we should all have an orgy.”
After a short wait, Earl came out accompanied only by his DJ, and after a friendly Toronto greeting he launched into Molasses from 2013’s Doris. Many in the crowd sang along to the dense album cut, a reminder that a smaller discography makes it easier for people to memorize your lyrics. The bulk of the set, though, came from his last two albums, 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside and its recent follow-up, Some Rap Songs.
Though Earl’s flow remains a hypnotic monotone, age has deepened and strengthened it perfectly. For the first half he rarely stopped to take a breath, but by midway he noticeably slowed and took more time between songs. If it was fatigue, it’s understandable since he had no hypeman and his DJ only occasionally chimed in with vocals. He even switched things up from the recorded versions of songs like Grief and Nowhere2Go without ever losing the beat.
Earl kept telling the audience to “go crazy” and then shyly backing off, but though he’s aged out of his Odd Future horrorcore punk rock beginnings, there was still some crowd surfing going on. There was even a post-performance party onstage with his openers.
This was a night of positive energy that flew in the face of anyone who expected a mope-fest.
@nowtoronto | @theflans