Live Review: Earl Sweatshirt at KOKO, 25/08/23

10 years on from Doris, Earl Sweatshirt celebrates one of the most important debuts in hip hop

“Make some noise for f*cking 10 years of Doris,” says a gratitude-filled Earl Sweatshirt as he opened his headline show at KOKO, London. The anniversary of his debut album serendipitously falls during a season of celebrations honouring the 50th anniversary of hip hop ­– a point which Earl drives home throughout the show, “50 years of hip hop, man” he repeats pensively.

It’s a moment the artist visibly does not take for granted. Having cultivated an eclectic fanbase since his early Odd Future days, authenticity and staying true to his own path has remained paramount for Earl, and celebrating a culture-shifting album with a community of people who have allowed him to be himself is a clear win for the rapper. In between songs, he shares conversational quips with his DJ, almost as if this show is an intimate listening party with close friends instead of a grand headline celebration.

Intimate and introspective is a fitting vibe for Earl, whose pen is equal parts pensive and playful, challenging and soothing. Doris was released when the rapper was only 19, and featured complex personal themes – drug use, difficulties faced during his time in LA, cold relationships ­– as well as the youthful DGAF energy that Odd Future projects came to be known for. With production from Neptunes and Tyler, The Creator, and features from Vince Staples, Frank Ocean, Mac Miller and Wu-Tang’s RZA, it was a debut showcasing range and originality, and rightfully earning the attention of the hip hop community for his skilled lyricism.

All of this was let down slightly by the chopped-through setlist and a few audience members who didn’t pass the vibe check. Aptly kicking off the Doris anniversary show with ‘Pre’, the braggadocious opening track on Doris, the crowd began the night on high-octane, bar-for-bar energy, which failed to wane during more the somber moments of ‘Burgundy’ and ‘Sunday’. (The intro to ‘Burgundy’ ironically captures this dissonance, “don’t nobody care about how you feel… we want raps”.) Having previously had to tell the crowd at the Brooklyn celebration of Doris a few days before to stop moshing, there’s an unease in the air as the young, excitable audience tries to open a pit in the middle of KOKO. 

Earl whizzes through each song quickly, leaving gaps for an audience with too much pent-up energy to continue participating in slightly misplaced behaviour. At one point the rapper has to stop performing a song halfway to call out someone who tries to crowd surf. He deals with it hilariously, though, stating “not to be that guy, but you kinda suck, bro” and “boo! This guy stinks!”. While the audience settles, Earl continues to celebrate Doris in his DIY, intimate cypher manner ­– “I’m trying to find a witty way, but I can’t, so just drop [the track]” as he transitions into ‘Hive’.

The rapper quickly finishes Doris, plays some new upcoming tracks, then allows his DJ to play out the rest of the set with some of Earl’s favourite hip hop songs over the years. It’s fitting that this setlist includes The Alchemist, MF DOOM, Common, Kanye West, So Far Gone-era Drake, 2Chainzz and Rick Ross, whose influences one can hear throughout Earl’s diverse cross-genre discography. “You know how I feel about you, London,” he reminds us at the end of the show. “Get home safe por favor.”

It feels like a lacklustre ending to a highly anticipated evening, but I know that my teenage self was proud to have been there, rapping along to a generational talent’s work 10 years later. I’ll reopen my Odd Future-dedicated tumblr account just for her, and for this moment in hip hop history.