Earl Sweatshirt looks so young. His baby face bears a sparse mustache I associate with high school boys trying to prove they’ve hit puberty, and he’s swallowed by an oversize Yankees jersey. Maybe it’s just because I’m so close to the stage, and to other people he seems older than his nineteen years.
The crowd is probably younger still. It’s teenagers who have come out to Webster Hall on this Thursday night, discussing unfinished homework and train schedules. Ratking, who open for Earl, seem to be aware of this trend and address it directly. “I’m straight New York, what a lot of y’all pretending to be,” raps Wiki, one of Ratking’s members. Another song begins with an extended repetition of the lines, “Evian and a North Face / Evian and a North Face,” two tokens of the aspiring middle class whose children seem to make up this audience.
It’s strange to be back here. Almost exactly four years ago, I saw some indie band here with a boy I liked. That band’s name is lost to my memory, which is probably for the best. So many times we go to concerts for other people’s benefit: to get Instagram likes, to impress someone we want to be friends with or sleep with or maybe even both. In this way, we’re part of the performance.
Tonight is no different—everyone has a phone in the air. When Earl leans down to the crowd to touch hands he’s ignored by a girl whose fingers are instead wrapped around her iPhone, picking a filter. Concerts often seem to exist outside of time or place, and the flash of screens offers a reminder that things have, in fact, changed. That maybe I have changed.
After Ratking is a DJ set by Taco Bennett. He’s a fellow member of Odd Future, the hip-hop collective that brought Earl to the spotlight in 2010, most notably for the video “Earl,” in which the then-fifteen-year-old makes a smoothie of cough syrup and pills while rapping about rape and murder. In an attempt to establish credibility, he went too far—showing himself to be the insecure teenager he was trying to distance himself from.
And it’s the kind of thing that gets you in trouble. After “Earl” was released and set the music world abuzz about Odd Future, the wunderkind at the center of it all was sent to reform school in Samoa. Doing time might seem like a perfect way to roughen up one’s image, but Earl’s imprisonment was at the hands of his disappointed mother, more of a scolding than incarceration. During his time away, Odd Future and its fans started a “Free Earl” campaign, creating websites and t-shirts for the cause. Earl’s mother even received death threats from crazed fans.
Earl returned to the scene in 2012. He distanced himself from the violence he rapped about on “Earl,” citing his work with abused children in Samoa as having changed his worldview. He didn’t seem to be trying as hard to prove himself—2013’s “Doris” addresses his family issues and personal insecurities instead of making claims of violence and illegal behavior.
Like any teenager, parental influence has played a large part in the narrative around Earl’s success. His mother is a law professor at U.C.L.A., while his father is the former poet laureate of South Africa, Keorapetse Kgositsile. “Earl Sweatshirt” is a nickname for the slightly-harder-to-pronounce Thebe Neruda Kgositsile. On “Blade,” Earl explains, “I’m half-privileged, think white and have n***** lips / A tad different: mad smart, act ignorant / shit, I’ll pass the class when my dad starts giving shits.” His rhymes reflect this upbringing: while other rappers’ lyrics might stem from criminal experience or rough childhoods, Earl’s often have a sarcastic condescension that’s both aware of and disparages his advantages and education.
The hype around Earl has kept the crowd on its toes for almost two hours of opening acts. Finally, the main man comes out. He’s jovial as he addresses the crowd and banters with Taco and Vince Staples, who remain on stage with him. He is constantly in motion, with the restlessness you would expect of a teenage boy. “Look at these jerseys we got,” he announces, beaming. All three are wearing Yankees jerseys and caps. Earl and Taco are “Brad Pitt” and “DiCaprio,” respectively, while Staples’ jersey bears “Ramonna,” a park in his hometown of Long Beach, California. A posse of friends or managers stands slightly off stage. One of them, a twenty-something white guy, decides to launch himself into the crowd. The scared teenagers back away, perhaps not knowing how to support him. They drop him, but not before he accidentally kicks a girl in the face. Despite the failure of his first leap, the guy keeps jumping anyway, perhaps expecting them to learn. They’re not exactly willing. Belligerent might be the word. They’re pushing and moshing in the front where I have somehow found myself. I have to fight to keep my spot; even still, alcohol-stupid teens keep trying to get in front of me, sticking their elbows in my back.
Having a vantage point is necessary because so much of Earl’s performance is visual. The bass is up just a little too high, his signature monotone slightly muffled by this imbalance as well as his excitement. Behind him is a giant banner graffitied with words like “food,” “documentaries,” and “learning,” which are struck through. “This shit took me the whole fuckin’ day,” he explains proudly, like a kindergartener bashfully presenting a drawing to a parent.
The people with the best line of sight are the adults in the balcony, standing with a drink in one hand and phone in the other. The main ballroom, where most acts are held, is stylishly disheveled; even so, the first time I came here, I was shocked by the apparent decay. Now I understand that any place charging $7 beer is declining in appearance only.
I’ve returned here thinking that I know so much. Several friends live nearby and over the years I’ve learned about the best cheap food or which train to take uptown. I’ve been regarding the rest of the audience with disdain, but I realize that we’re not so dissimilar. I still go to school in New Jersey. I still think I’m cool for going into the city on a Thursday night (they have class tomorrow; I do not). NJ Transit is still slow and overpriced and fosters conversations with acquaintances that become friends by the time we pull up under Penn Station. The only difference is that I have a wristband, which I decline to sell to a girl who offers me $40.
I don’t know what feeling older means, really. Maybe it’s just that everyone else feels younger. I have no desire to be one of the well-dressed adults standing like polite guests at a cocktail party on the balcony above. I’m sweating through my shirt, the perspiration mine as well as others’. If I wanted to be comfortable and stationary, I would listen to these tracks at home, where the sound is balanced and Earl’s words are crisp. There’s a camaraderie that develops when you’re packed in so close with others, when you are forced to sway as a giant organism rather than a lone dancer. If we’re uncomfortable in this mass, it’s not from animosity but because we’re all angling for the same things: a good photo of Earl, to be able to say we were here, to ride back on the train and in the tired hours of morning rest a head on someone’s shoulder.
And right now, we want one more song. It’s the end of the concert, and a chant starts up: “Chum! Chum! Chum!” referring to the song that is perhaps Earl’s greatest hit to date. It was released as a single at the end of 2012, and addresses the problems that led to his stint in reform school. Instead, Earl performs a new song. It feels appropriate for the soon-to-be ex-teenager—four days after this concert, he will turn twenty. We’re going back to New Jersey to finish homework and deal with minor dramas; he’s touring the country and giving interviews. He’s separated from us by bouncers and boundaries and recognition, but you can’t help but realize that Earl’s got as much growing up to do as the audience chanting his name.