BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL
For the Sun-Times
AUSTIN, Texas -- When the young L.A. rap collective Odd Future became the center of attention two years ago, Earl Sweatshirt gained notoriety for what he wasn't more than what he was. In fact, he was out of the picture, sent away to boarding school in Samoa by his mother, so popular imagination filled in what fans didn't know about Tyler the Creator's enigmatic, brainy alter ego.
Now 19, Earl--born Thebe Kgositsile--is not only out of school and back on the rap scene but coming out from Tyler's shadow with a solo album expected this year. A brief SXSW set on a tiny outdoor stage last night gave glimpses of some of that new material and added a few snapshots to the emerging portrait of Earl.
Amid a thicket of cellphone cameras brandished by a small but hungry crowd, Earl, his DJ and a hype man shrugged off six cuts in barely 20 minutes. In a baseball cap and hoodie, the slight MC spun knotty, vivid verses like these from "Hive": From a city that's recession-hit ... desolate testament, trying to stay Jekyll-ish ... Here I sit, eye in the pyramid, spit it like truth serum in that beer and then poof, disappear again.
A reference to Eazy-E's record label on another track claimed the mantle of West Coast gangsta-rap forefathers N.W.A. ("If this was '88," Earl said, "I would've signed to Ruthless"). While they lived to shock, the casual, specific brutality of a track like the self-titled "Earl" would have even creeped out Eazy: "Earl puts pieces of decomposing bodies in plastic," the youngster rapped distractedly.
Though he skipped "Chum," a revealing new single about growing up fatherless, further personal snippets blinked by like pages in a flip book. I'm half-privileged, think white and have n---- lips, he rhymed in "Blade." A tad different, mad smart and act ignorant.
Most everything was delivered in a monotone cadence over minimal beats--sludgy, sustained bass notes more often than snapping drums. The combined vibe was one of being barely there. "Act like you're excited or something," Earl admonished the fans at one point. They might have said the same to him.
Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago music critic.