Earl Sweatshirt delivers vehement, unifying performance at Regency Ballroom

Samuel Albillo/Staff

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On Friday at San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom, Earl Sweatshirt fiercely cemented his triumphant return to music following a three-year-long hiatus with a live show that reflected the compelling vicariousness of his most recent album.

Earl Sweatshirt is a storied Los Angeles rapper with an enigmatic online persona and a reclusive, Frank Ocean-esque approach to creating music and remaining out of the public eye. His deceptively simple 2018 release Some Rap Songs exuded this identity by sounding inaccessible and reserved while simultaneously excessively revelatory.

Based on the content of his latest music, the fact that Sweatshirt is on tour comes as a surprise. The 15 ephemeral tracks that comprise Some Rap Songs sound like they were made to be heard in isolation rather than in a large social setting. Nevertheless, Sweatshirt harnessed the seemingly infinite energy of his overzealous crowd to create a unique experience for hardcore fans that packed the Regency Ballroom’s floor and balcony.

Following short opening sets by New York rapper MIKE and Dallas musician (Liv).e, Sweatshirt took to the stage not his own music but instead a collection of booming, upbeat trap songs that sounded like the antithesis of his relatively insular repertoire. Sweatshirt’s appearance alone caused the audience to go into a frenzy, moshing and shouting at him to show their roaring approval of his arrival — treating Sweatshirt like an old friend they had not seen in years.

After this introduction, Sweatshirt and his DJ immediately went into the song “Molasses” from Sweatshirt’s 2013 debut album Doris to vigorous cheers from a crowd that seemed to have been impatiently awaiting the moment for ages. As Sweatshirt moved through the smooth song’s verses and iconic hook, fans chanted the lyrics back word-for-word in a move that set the tone for the remainder of the set.

Sweatshirt eventually moved to the newest songs in his catalog, including “December 24,” “Ontheway!” and “The Mint” from Some Rap Songs. Near the end of “December 24,” the crowd shouted the line “Bad acid did damage to my mental” along with Sweatshirt as if they went through similar experiences Sweatshirt was rapping about.

As “The Bends” came on, fans in the crowd screamed the opening line “Bend we don’t break, we not the bank” and every other line of the song thereafter in a way that made it clear that they came prepared to hear Sweatshirt spit each word of each song to perfection. Sweatshirt took this challenge seriously and indeed rapped every bar of every song he performed without the help of backing vocals in a stark contrast to most contemporary rap concerts.

This concert truly felt like a live version of Some Rap Songs — its bare-bones setup featured one looping video of historical and contemporary art pieces that spoke to the laser-focus of the performer that stood before them. Although Sweatshirt was the sole inhabitant of the stage along with his DJ and booming mounted speakers, the rapper’s words filled the room and entranced the crowd, who was transfixed on him for the entire duration of his set.

Throughout the concert, Earl Sweatshirt fans from several walks of life came together to bathe in the rapper’s words and absolve themselves of the hardships and tensions they faced that turned them toward his music in the first place. Sweatshirt engages with his mental health in a unique way that is equally personal and relatable. This is why it felt as if the fans were cathartically liberating themselves from their demons while hearing a role model battle with his own problems onstage through songs like “Grief” and “Mantra.” Sweatshirt transformed his own feelings of depression and emptiness into a visceral, surrogative experience that allowed his crowd to openly feel comfortable in their own adversity.

The instrumental “Riot!” from Some Rap Songs played in the background as the set came to a close — Sweatshirt used the opportunity to shout out his associates and expressed gratitude for his chance to make music and to be alive in the socially and politically divisive times we find ourselves in today. In a final celebration of life, Sweatshirt’s DJ once again played a mix of trap songs that served as a platform for fans to let out the rest of their boundless energy until the venue eventually closed the show.

Justin Sidhu covers music. Contact him at [email protected].