“Grades aren’t important” was the graffiti scrawled on the backdrop behind Earl Sweatshirt. Somewhere 5,400 miles away the rapper’s mother was fuming. Cheryl Harris is a law professor at the University of California, an expert on legal issues surrounding race and equality. You can bet the prof didn’t raise her son to think good grades don’t matter – nor to stand on a stage rapping about drugs and sexual violence to a moshing audience of mainly white youths.
Earl, real name Thebe Kgositsile, is a member of LA shock-rap collective Odd Future: he caught the ear of its leader Tyler, The Creator with a solo mixtape made when he was 15. But the tyro’s career was derailed when his mother, evidently not a shock-rap fan, sent him to a school for troubled teens in Samoa. A “Free Earl” campaign started; there were weighty articles in those rap bibles the New Yorker and the New York Times.
When the rapper returned to action a cult surrounded him as rap’s Next Big Thing. He proceeded to deliver a downbeat, introspective and unheroically titled solo album, last year’s Doris, the work not so much of a young pretender as a genuine outsider. “Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks,” as he rapped in “Chum”, one of the tracks he played during a brief but impressive set at the Brixton Electric.
On record Earl affects a stoned drawl (“When I wake up I’m just drifting … ”), but live he was assertive and energetic, attacking his verses with the sort of hunger you don’t get from the munchies. The beats were more direct too, slowed-down boom-bap with old soul samples and horror movie chords; “Whoa” sampled the Wu-Tang Clan, a major influence.
Objectionable subject matter wasn’t hard to find: the opening song, “Kill”, was an Eminem-esque exercise in over-the-top depravity. But lyrical artfulness complicated the picture. Earl is the sort of rapper who boasts of kicking “gluteus maximus”, while his absent father – the distinguished South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile – would surely have winced at the deftly cutting vagueness of “Chum”’s opening: “It’s probably been 12 years since my father left, left me fatherless.” High marks for the show, though I’ll knock a star off for the brevity and a slightly restrained sound level.