Earl Sweatshirt ‘Fires Up’ Irving Plaza

The artist played his first New York City show in two years.


Earl Sweatshirt performs a show at Irving Plaza on March 30. (via Facebook)

By Kamau Littletree Holston, Contributing Writer

Thebe Kgositsile, better known as Earl Sweatshirt, returned to New York City Saturday to put on an unforgettable sold-out show at Irving Plaza, his first concert in the city in almost two years. Though Kgositsile hasn’t been in album-tour mode since 2015’s “I Don’t Like Sh-t, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt” run, he’s kept himself busy these past few years.

This past December, the wordsmith and former Odd Future affiliate released his third studio album “Some Rap Songs” to widespread critical acclaim; the record stands as a unique and avant-Hip-Hop meditation on fame, family and finding one’s self in a saturated arena of pop-rap and formulaic trap bangers. In January, Kgositsile released a short film to accompany “Some Rap Songs” titled “Nowhere, Nobody,” which sees the rapper delve deeper into experimental ways of communicating the lyrical motifs that often pervade his music — concepts like depression, death and growth.

Aside from his own music, Kgositsile has spent the last few years quietly collaborating with other artists and working on his own hobbies. In 2016, Kgositsile teamed up with Red Bull Radio to host “Stay Inside” featuring guests like Knxwledge, Standing on the Corner and Solange — the last of which he opened for on her 2017 “A Seat at the Table” tour and also contributed production credits for her most recent project “When I Get Home.” Despite Kgositsile’s last album title, the 25-year-old producer-rapper-radio host seems to be both enjoying life and going outside.

The energy at Irving Plaza was already palpable by the time Kgositsile arrived onstage Saturday night, partly due to the buoyant performances put on by opening acts Na-Kel Smith and BbyMutha. For fans who had the opportunity to see Kgositsile perform in years past, there was a stark difference between the energy of past shows and this one, namely symbolized in the tour’s name “FIRE IT UP!” While Kgositsile’s last tour came from a place of solitude, depression and a clear aversion to the outdoors — feelings which fans believe were definitely reflected in his onstage energy — this tour sees Kgositsile back with a vengeance — healthier, happier and even better than before.

Though Earl’s “FIRE IT UP!” tour came directly off the heels of “Some Rap Songs,” this didn’t stop the MC from opening his set with three fan favorites from his 2013 debut studio album “Doris.” After getting the crowd warmed up with a few bars from “Molasses,” Kgositsile quickly transitioned into the abrasive, bass-heavy “20 Wave Caps,” before ending the “Doris” medley with “Burgundy.” For longtime fans and Kgositsile purists in the audience — attendees whose presence seemed to surprise the singer — there could not have been a better way to open the show than with nostalgia-laden tracks from over half a decade ago.

Kgositsile seemed genuinely happy and visibly more confident in his ability to keep the energy going. He started with a three-track medley from “Some Rap Songs,” featuring “December 24,” “Ontheway!” and “The Mint” alongside Navy Blue, who came onstage to rap his verse. Kgositsile continued his “Some Rap Songs” medley with the next three songs from the album, “The Bends,” “Loosie” and “Azucar,” and concertgoers struggled to keep up with Kgositsile’s continuous lyrical onslaught while battling the inevitable dehydration and cottonmouth that plagues rap concerts.

Excited to hear material outside of “Some Rap Songs,” the crowd came to life again as Kgositsile followed with “Huey,” “Faucet,” “Grief” and “Off Top,” before bringing out Da$h for “Grown Ups” and Wiki of Ratking for “AM // Radio.” Two longtime collaborators and friends of Kgositsile, Da$h and Wiki turned their energy levels up to 11, pouring their hearts and souls into every lyric and encouraging the crowd to rap every word along with them. At this point in the show, the camaraderie among fans and artists alike was too palpable to ignore.

Kgositsile followed up his ode to “I Don’t Like Sh-t with “Pre,” the opening track from 2013’s “Doris” and another throwback to his post-Odd Future days, then immediately brought the audience back to the present with “Nowhere2go,” the lead single from “Some Rap Songs.” Call the move symbolic or unintentional, but there was something almost surreal about seeing Kgositsile trade raps like “bruh the broad aryan / know the squad loiterers” — referencing his ex-girlfriend Mallory and the 2012 Odd Future-led variety show “Loiter Squad” — for introspective bars like “I redefined myself / first I had to find it (uh)” from “Nowhere2go” and “there’s not a black woman I can’t thank.”

Before delving back into “Some Rap Songs,” Kgositsile took some time to shout out the dedicated fans in the audience with a few unreleased deep cuts. For those Kgositsile fans in the audience who have been able to keep up with his unreleased YouTube live recordings, low-key SoundCloud accounts and sporadic non-album music, this was truly a treat. After performing two unreleased tracks from his post-“I Don’t Like Sh-t,” pre-“Some Rap Songs” era — 2016’s “Wind In My Sails” and mid-2017’s “Head Heavy” — Kgositsile showed more love to the internet heads in the audience with “Quest/Power,” a pre-“I Don’t Like Sh-t” track that helped separate the longtime fans from his newer ones.

At this point in the show, Kgositsile had twice warned his audience that the next song would be his last, but there was still no end in sight. While it was difficult to discern whether or not Kgositsile was treating the audience with music not originally on the setlist because he was so happy with Irving Plaza’s energy or if he was just joking around for the sake of it, it seemed like he was having a blast. Finally, after the third time Kgositsile mentioned the subsequent song would be the last, it really felt like the show was coming to a close.

Wrapping up his ode to “Some Rap Songs” with “Shattered Dreams” and “Cold Summers,” Kgositsile brought back out Na-Kel for “DNA” off of “I Don’t Like Sh-t” to close out the show. In an extremely heartfelt moment, Na-Kel, after wrapping up his verse from “DNA” that dealt with losing a close friend, he thanked Kgositsile for the opportunity to open the show and for all the friendship he’s shown him over the last decade. After a tender “I love you, bro” was exchanged between both Kgositsile and Na-Kel, they closed out the show with “Riot!” which samples an original composition by South African jazz pioneer Hugh Masekela, a close friend of Kgositsile’s late father Keorapetse Kgositsile.

Refusing to end on a solemn note, Kgositsile encouraged the crowd to turn up with him one last time for the night, to which he received chants to play popular track “Hive.” He exclaimed “I’m not [trying to] turn up to my music!” before encouraging his DJ to play something to get the crowd going. At this point the show seemed like it might go on longer before the DJ growled into the mic — leading Kgositsile to finally end the show. Clearly caught off guard by this classic New York City radio DJ move, Kgositsile joked “this man really growled into the mic y’all […] we gotta get outta here. Yeah that’s it, I can’t believe you just growled,” and the concert ended soon after.

With all the love and positive energy in the building Saturday night, fans of the new-and-improved Kgositsile might be expecting more positivity and less self-deprecation from his music in the future.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 8, 2019, print edition. Email Kamau Littletree Holston at [email protected].