Juice WRLD is a bonafide phenom. After exploding onto the national scene with his massive 2018 singles “All Girls Are The Same” and “Lucid Dreams,” the Calumet, Illinois rapper born Jarad Higgins went from being just another “Soundcloud rapper” to being one of the biggest names in hip-hop and one of the surest draws on the festival circuit. Kids swarmed his stage like a Biblical plague of locusts at his Rolling Loud set last October and nearly stampeded when news of his guest appearances during other artists’ sets circulated between the two stages.
Naturally, I was excited to see him perform in a more traditional concert setting as the headliner on his own Death Race For Love Tour at Hollywood’s Greek Theatre, named for his recently-released sophomore album. It’s also why I was disappointed when the concert devolved into a thirty-minute tribute to late rapper XXXTentacion midway through Juice’s set, mainly at the hands of X’s surviving crewmates, friends, and benefactors, Ski Mask The Slump God and DJ Scheme. What should have been a celebration of Juice’s impressive talents and extreme success was marred by the apparition of a troubled young man whose issues outweighed his own talents, drawing attention from Juice himself. Ultimately, Juice WRLD is a precocious, gifted performer whose immature mistakes detract from an otherwise excellent live experience.
To give you an idea about just how big Juice WRLD really is: While I was enjoying the concert, I naturally posted a few videos to social media. Within minutes I’d received a DM from a teenager asking me if I could go on Live just so he could participate from a distance. This kid asked me, a total stranger, on a total longshot, whether I’d send him more videos of the performance. The sheer eagerness and audacity almost made me do it, but there are always signal issues at these things and it took at least 10 minutes to upload each 30-second clip, so there was no way I could live stream the whole show.
It would have been worth it for that kid though. From the moment he touched the stage, which was made up to look like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Juice’s energy was electric. The aesthetic basis for his Death Race album comes from both the film Death Race (itself an update of grindhouse classic Death Race 2000) and the first-generation Playstation staple Twisted Metal, right down to the demonic ice cream truck that took up one side of the stage, inspired by the game’s unofficial mascot, Sweet Tooth. The other side was occupied by a muscle car with a giant skull fixed to its grille. It’s sort of ironic that the not-even-legal-drinking-age Juice WRLD is so inspired by a game that came out before he was even born, but as a product of the nostalgia-fueled internet, it makes a lopsided sort of sense.
It might be why his boisterous energy is so opposite of what generally expected from his demographic. Where the archetypical Soundcloud star is a zombified plant, too new to stagecraft to find the animation needed to engage with the crowd, Juice was a living pinball, soaked with sweat despite the nighttime chill of the open-air venue, scarcely needing the support of his gas-masked backup dancers (called his “Evil Twins” by his DJ) or the giant, LED-covered “Juice Bot” that took the stage alongside him at points to hype up the crowd. The most striking aspect was how much larger than life Juice WRLD seemed, even when he was the smallest person on stage.
But then, halfway through the set, before he’d really gotten in any of the hits — he’d performed “Wasted” and “Hear Me Calling” but not really any of the other well-known hits — he disappeared, replaced by DJ Scheme and Ski Mask. To be sure, Ski Mask is a spitfire performer in his own right and the crowd responded with a frenzy. Still, it seemed after every song he and Scheme implored the crowd to “throw their X’s up” for XXXTentacion, and he even spent as much time dancing to X’s well-known hits like “Look At Me!” as he did performing his own rambunctious hits like “Catch Me Outside” (side note: I might have been one of maybe a dozen people in the crowd who would recognize that the beat from “Catch Me Outside” originally came from Missy Elliott’s “She’s A Bitch” — or even been alive when the song came out). When he physically left the stage to trek up to the venue’s C-tier audience seating to cavort among the fans, the kids went bananas, but I was left cold.
I empathize with Juice and Ski, I really do. XXXTentacion was, to them, a friend and collaborator above all else and they are well within their rights to remember him how they see fit. But shoehorning a solid thirty minutes of XXXTentacion songs into Juice’s set when Juice himself has enough minutes of music to fill Avengers: Endgame’s prodigious runtime sells the fans who came to see him short and it puts the fans who can’t celebrate X’s less-than-savory reputation in a tight spot. During a short tribute video to lost and beloved musical figures, I couldn’t help but be repulsed by the association of Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle — who had their faults, to be sure — with XXXTentacion, who beat a woman half to death and bragged about it. No matter what else Mac and Nipsey had been in life, they were never unrepentant abusers who manipulated their fans with gaslighting behavior both online and in real life.