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.
However, my amusement that Juice also took a second to shout-out Kurt Cobain while dedicating his song “Legends” to late musical icons quickly overrode my offense at the earlier faux pas. It reminded me that Juice — and his fans — are kids, doing their best to pay homage to their inspirations — even the ones whose prominence preceded their lives by a good four or five years. These kids are pretty much the products of the world the prior generations left to them — unsupervised hours on screens both big and small, the constant bombardment of ‘90s nostalgia via Buzzfeed quizzes, and a social media landscape lacking the social graces of even a high school lunchroom.
Of course teen fans would reach out to strangers online for a video of their favorite artist. Of course the two little boys pulled onstage to dance with Juice would have to be told to put their phones down and enjoy the moment as they bopped along (offbeat) to the (wildly age appropriate) Juice and Future hit, “Fine China.” Of course, the girls behind me would practically pop my left eardrum doing their best concert screams during renditions of “All Girls” and “Lucid Dreams.” They’re kids doing what kids do. As far as they’re concerned Juice is their Cobain, because he has all the signifiers and sounds, even if they’re mostly just cribbed from the real thing. They weren’t around for the real thing, so this is their real thing.
It’s easy to forget the naivety of youth as a professional critic a good fourteen years older than the performer himself — especially when that performer delivers precocious, polished renditions of his biggest hits. Vocally, his songs range from plaintive whines to aggressive wails and the prospect of duplicating those sounds live seems daunting, like murder on the throat, yet he ripped off a version of “Robbery” that was just as good as the one that currently has over 75 million views on Youtube.
That’s why it was good to be reminded of the eagerness, sincerity, and angst that comes along with being 20 and figuring it out. Juice (and Ski Mask) has plenty of time to learn how to manage the balance between remembering his friend and respecting the tastes of an audience that may not approve of how his friend behaved in life. Juice’s fans have time to work out the complex emotions and decision making that come along with loving a complicated, problematic artist’s songs, which might have deeper emotional meanings to the listener tied to the sometimes painful experiences of growing up.
Juice himself embodied that balance of naivety and learning when he rambled his way into an impromptu freestyle session during the latter half of his set. He jauntily boasted that he could “out-freestyle any of ya’ll’s favorite rappers.” I loved that cocky energy, so full of youth and verve. I also recognized thanks to years of experience that Juice doesn’t have yet, but likely will gain over a long, prosperous career, that it probably wasn’t all that true. And it didn’t matter at that moment, because for all he knew, he was right.