Concert review: Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples at Park Street Saloon

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

In some ways, Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples came across like the hip-hop Odd Couple during a Thursday performance at a crowded Park Street Saloon, with Sweatshirt, who closed out the evening, playing the laid back, rough-around-the-edges Oscar to Staples' more tightly wound Felix.

It's a feel that carried over into everything from their appearance (Staples, his hair cropped tight, opted for jeans and a well-tailored sweatshirt, while Sweatshirt sported longer hair and a three-day facial scruff) to their respective flows. While Sweatshirt's voice sometimes trailed behind the beat, like a teenager lingering a few steps behind his or her parents on a family shopping trip to the mall, Staples delivered his verses in a slightly nasal, military-crisp cadence.

The sleepy-eyed Sweatshirt, on the road for his first extended trek since he canceled a summer 2014 tour citing exhaustion ("I am physically and mentally at the end of my rope," he wrote on Twitter), appeared reinvigorated here, showcasing his malleable approach on both older songs and material off the recently released I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside - a title that seemed particularly prescient as he eased into the opening bars of "Grief."

"Good grief/ I been reaping what I sow," he rhymed over a cloudy, claustrophobic beat. "I ain't been outside in a minute/ I been living what I wrote."

Throughout the evening, Sweatshirt embraced the idea of performance as catharsis - "Did you have a perfect week?" he asked the audience at one point, "Take that shit out [on the song] right now!" - and he delivered his hazy, conversational ruminations atop his darkest collection of beats to date. Witness the steady dripping "Faucet," which opened with the rapper urging the stage manager to "take me to the dungeon" by turning down the lights low enough to match the murky musical backdrop.

Occasionally this darker element wormed its way into Sweatshirt's words. Such was the case on the piano-dotted "DNA," which found the rapper laying out funeral directives that read like a passage from a living will: "And the pants better be creased on my corpse," he rhymed.

Of course, even at their darkest, weirdest, and most insular, the songs included clever turns of phrase, inventive flights of fancy and surreal asides. "My team is magicians," the MC boasted on "DNA," "we think of the shit that we want then we get it."

Staples, in contrast, carried himself like a man who's had to scrap and claw for everything on his plate.

Songs like "65 Hunnid" and "Blue Suede" played like lost scenes from "Boyz n the Hood," with the Long Beach, California-based MC wondering if he'd even be fortunate enough to outlive a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers. On "Fire," in turn, he fretted about the various ways fate had forced his hand, making escape from his situation unlikely even in the afterlife, since, in his words, he was "probably finna go to hell anyway."

Staples, whose voice was slightly higher and more pinched than Sweatshirt's (on the handful of cuts the two performed together, including a deliberate "Hive," the latter's voice hit like the blunt end of an axe in comparison), never shied from turning the camera on himself, delving into his complex relationship with his father on deeply autobiographical tunes like "Screen Door" and "Nate," a soul-kissed number that stretched the meaning of the term "role model" to a breaking point. "As a kid all I wanted was to kill a man," he spit. "Be like my daddy's friends, hopping out that minivan."

Considering the circumstances, it shouldn't have surprised that the lone time Staples urged the audience to get their "Hands Up," he was referring to issues of police brutality rather than ushering in a feel-good track.

Indeed, for both rappers the music appeared to function as a means of survival, whether it was Sweatshirt outrunning the demons in his own head, or Staples dodging the ones that swarmed him in the streets.