“Y’all ‘bout to cry with me, or what?” Earl Sweatshirt asked last night at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg. He was introducing “Chum,” a rumination on life with too many ugly temptations and no father, from his transfixing 2013 debut album, Doris. But when the crowd – rowdy fans of Odd Future, the rap collective for which the 19-year-old Earl provides the quick-witted conscience – loudly showed their support, he shot back, “You just cheer for that? You weak, dog!”
Earl, playing his second New York show of the week to end the East Coast leg of his tour, maintained a similarly haphazard balance of confrontation, self-awareness, and silliness for his entire hour on stage. “Chum” proved to be a highlight, with Earl delivering his most slippery and scrupulously honest lyrics at the edge of the stage, bathed in a cool blue light and gesturing precisely with his free arm.
Most of the night he teamed with the gregarious rapper Vince Staples, who served on Doris as a kind of friendly foil for Earl to step out from behind and deliver his intricate rhymes. Together they traded off opportunities to brandish their skills, rapping entire verses a cappella, and teasing everyone else. “I wanna see who’s a loser and who’s not a loser!” Staples told the sold-out crowd, who jammed the main floor and were eagerly stage diving, but weren’t always receptive to the dense songs, which the rappers doled out in fragments. “My n—- picked a love song to stage dive to,” Earl marveled when “Sunday,” a slowly uncoiling track he recorded with Frank Ocean, was interrupted.
But the messiness and small miscues gave the show an intimate feel – that coupling of weakness and strength that Earl thrives on. Lyrically, he impressed, delivering his rhymes with exactness and force. But some of his artfully produced music, played off of a MacBook Air, disintegrated into washes of overpowering bass. It was as if Earl and Staples, who roamed the stage dressed in baggy jeans and simple white T-shirts, had simply invited everyone into their basement. Schoolboy Q – a rising star whose highly anticipated new album, Oxymoron, comes out Tuesday – appeared near the end of the set to perform his mini-hit “Man of the Year.” But the show didn’t end with a big climax or an encore. Instead, Earl and Staples drifted into a crowd of friends at the end of the stage as “Praying for a Brick,” a deliberately dopey track by prankster rapper Lil B, played. When a roadie came out and closed the laptop, the music just stopped. It was, somehow, a perfect ending.