It was still light out and the line to enter the Knockdown Center in Queens had come to a standstill. Security was backed up and high school kids dressed to clout ideal were already restless— an ordinary start to any SoundCloud rapper’s concert.
These fans, many in Juice WRLD Tour graphic tees, designer fanny packs buckled across their chests, were actively posting photos of the brick smokestacks that rose about the former glass factory turned art gallery/concert venue. This backdrop to the concert was as much a clout ideal as the fans’ expensive street gear. The factory is located at the end of a long avenue at the border of gentrified Brooklyn and Queens. It’s a hip, gritty neighborhood with rapidly changing demographics, an image mirrored in the increasingly white attendance at hip-hop concerts, particularly at the concerts of SoundCloud rappers.
Before the bulk of the fans had passed security, the show had already begun. The concert was opened by a rotating cast of DJs hyping the crowd to hits like Playboi Carti’s “wokeuplikethis*”, Drake’s “Nonstop,” a Tekashi69 medley, and cuts off of the newly-released Astroworld. This opening soundtrack gave the crowd the feeling of a big party. People danced and strangers mingled all across the spacious factory. Mosh pits swelled, spewing beer and smoke that was equal parts weed and Juul into the air.
The DJ openers successfully hyped the crowd so that by the time opener Blake took the stage, it didn’t matter that his songs went largely unrecognized. His hit “Flexin” sustained the momentum, a feat attributable to its producer’s unique pairing of a rock-pop guitar riff with the classic blasted-out SoundCloud bass. The biggest moments for him instead came when he paid tribute to New York by playing A$AP Rocky’s song “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2.”
The opening crew of DJs returned periodically to keep the crowd warm between sets, including a surprising yet brief set by NY’s own Funkmaster Flex. Once a gatekeeper to the charts, Flex went largely unrecognized by the audience (except for stray parental chaperones struggling to snap a picture of him on their phones)– a sign of the times.
After Blake, Lil Mosey came on and jumped straight into his hit “Boof Pack,” followed by a new, unreleased song. He was one of the more anticipated headliners and seemed emboldened by the pre-show chants calling him to the stage. The sixteen-year-old confidently directed the crowd to dance, chant, and rap through the chorus of his songs.
Like every performer that night, including Juice WRLD, Mosey paid tribute to the late XXXTentacion. Whether it was the more brash, aggressive SoundCloud screeds, or newer hits like “Moonlight,” the crowd was immediately reinvigorated at the start of any XXXTentaction track. This concert revealed how deeply he influenced the SoundCloud generation, and presaged a Tupac-like reverence that is sure to become the norm whenever XXXTentacion’s music is played at live shows.
Lil Mosey was followed by YBN Cordae, YBN collective’s lyrical rapper. He fit the show less in content than in style; his affect and command of the crowd were completely out of sync with the other performers. YBN Cordae’s was precise and technical, a throwback to a type of concert Queens doesn’t see anymore. Smooth, spacious beats and deft lyricism left the crowd a little confused about how to dance. The room found harmony again with his performance of “Kung Fu,” a bouncy, stylish trap hit produced by DayTrip.
The final, surprise act was Kodie Shane. Her set was pop-friendly and thematically diverse, and peaked with a colorful rendition of the sugary “Drip On My Walk.” Unfortunately, she also faced the ire of a crowd fed up with a numerous openers and long performances. By the time she took the stage, concertgoers were idling around the huge venue space and at one point booed her, asking for Juice WRLD to replace her.
When Juice WRLD finally arrived, the crowd immediately forgot their frustration, in part because he rewarded their patience by opening with the hit “Lucid Dreams.” Shortly afterward, he followed it with “All Girls Are the Same,” another dejected rap about love lost. This kind of woozy heartbreak might suggest a denouement rather than a jumpstart to the set, but it’s a song that (surprisingly) performs just as well with screams and mosh-pits.
Juice WRLD’s set was an interesting visual counterpoint to the subtler forms of virality that he’s cultivated as a SoundCloud rapper. Juice WRLD is unique in that he has, so far, eschewed brassy, visual forms of Soundcloud virality. No crashed sports cars on Instagram, no face tattoos, and he rocks only lightly colored dreadlocks. His conceits to that culture are largely confined to artistic collaborations. These collaborations, in turn, are done without conforming to conventional SoundCloud rap aesthetics. For example, the Cole Bennett-directed music video for “All Girls Are the Same” forgoes the colorful, zany effects and cheesy transitions Bennet has popularized, replacing them with monochromatic long shots meant to portray Juice WRLD’s depressed mind. The set became an embrace of the punk, SoundCloud culture, where even depression can become something to bounce to. Juice WRLD’s performance managed to affirm darkness in his music and animate the crowd to the melody of his suffering.