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SXSW 2013: Earl Sweatshirt makes his festival debut at Scoot Inn

March 14, 2013|By Randall Roberts | Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Earl Sweatshirt in the recording studio. The young rapper made his festival debut at South by Southwest in Austin on Wednesday.
Earl Sweatshirt in the recording studio. The young rapper made his festival… (Odd Future )

He took the stage an hour later than scheduled during his South by Southwest debut, but those who had been waiting to see Los Angeles rapper Earl Sweatshirt up there long ago proved their patience. Though only 18 years old, Sweatshirt, part of the Odd Future collective, has been the focus of much attention over the last few years, a lot of it while he was away at boarding school in Samoa.

During his yearlong absence, the kid born Thebe Kgositsile became rap’s prodigal son while the Odd Future collective stormed the rap world with its chaotic, punk-influenced approach. He returned home a year ago, and has spent that time finishing high school, recording music for a forthcoming Sony Music-backed record and, from the looks of his new video for “Whoa,” working on his abs. 

Just before 1 a.m., beat producer Flying Lotus, who has been working on tracks with the rapper, stepped up to a microphone and said, simply, “Introducing Earl Sweatshirt,” and then there he was in the flesh, skinny like in the video, a little nervous -- but that soon passed -- and ready to showcase his new tracks.

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Over the next half hour, Earl proved why not only rap fans, but advocates of the English language, should be so excited. The son of a South African poet father and a mother who’s a successful attorney, the lyricist was born with a gift for both words and verbal argument, which he displayed in the new music he performed. (His middle name is Neruda, after the Chilean poet).

The best, produced by Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, was called “Burgundy,” and featured Earl rapping raw about the fear that has accompanied his whirlwind few years. “My priorities are [messed] up, I know it/I’m afraid I’m gonna blow it/And the expectations raising ‘cause daddy was a poet,” giving voice to the age-old story of prodigious youth and oversized expectations. 

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"Chum," which he released as a single last year, was a slow burn track brought to life by Earl's already accomplished phrasing, patient and thick with percussive syllabic runs and internal rhyme schemes. And "Whoa,' released on Tuesday, already had hard-core Earl fans chanting along. He spit words about rapping and troubled youth in the third person: "Spraying then hide away in the shade of his maimed innocence," and rhymed it with a line about traveling with weed and his writing: "Suitcase scented with haze and filleted sentences."

Earl's forthcoming album, called "Doris," has been pushed back a few times already this year; originally rumored to come out in April, then May, it's now rumored to be coming out mid-summer. But in the scheme of things, that's not much to endure. We've waited this long for the rapper's arrival; what's a few more months in the life of an 18-year-old? 

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Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit 

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