“Wow,” said Juice WRLD, upon collecting his Billboard Music Award for top new artist only three weeks ago. “It’s crazy all the stuff that can happen in a year.”
Ample evidence of that insanity was on display Monday night (May 20) at Hammerstein Ballroom, as the maelstrom of color, melody, bars and angst that is Juice’s Death Race for Love Tour — in support of his recent sophomore LP of the same name — played the first of two shows in New York, the mid-point of its North American run. Not only is the artist born Jarad Higgins hip-hop’s breakout star of 2018, he’s one of the most notable success stories of the past year in any genre. The last few times he’d played the New York area, it was on multi-act bills — and they were nothing like this animal, unequivocally Juice’s first true showcase.
The eye-popping production was the result of what a few monster hits, two giant albums and a multimillion dollar deal with Interscope Records (that’s paid off in spades) can yield: With a stage design that super sizes the Twisted Metal-inspired aesthetic of the Death Race album art, the show is the classic take-no-prisoners demolition derby-styled video game come to life. There’s fire imagery, a monster truck stage left, chain link, silver skulls, daggers in hearts, and a giant video screen semi-circled by a lighting rig adorned with barbed wire. Between the fraught visuals and 20-something songs from Juice's body of work — already well-established, only two solo projects in, as the very definition of what’s come to be known as “emo rap." Careening from drug-numbed heartbreak and melancholy to angst-fueled rage, it’s hard to imagine a more male-energy show in 2019.
It’s also cannily structured production, seemingly designed for the ADD set. The Death Race show begins with an opening set from one of a rotating cast of “Lyrical Lemonade All-Stars” — curated by the tastemaking Chicago hip-hop blog of the same name — which on this night featured Charlotte young gun DaBaby, wilding out on top 40 breakout hit “Suge” and other songs from his recently released Baby On Baby set. Juice then begins the main event, in two parts. The other putative support act — the charismatic, gravel-voiced Ski Mask the Slump God — is sandwiched in between Juice’s Acts 1 and 2, providing a thrilling contrast in styles, and giving Higgins a nearly half hour intermission.
“Armed & Dangerous” began the night. From Juice’s debut LP Goodbye & Good Riddance, it’s the artist's rare song that talks about money — Juice’s comfort zone is feeling, not flexing. Clad in a black shirt and red pants, soon enough, he segued into songs from Death Race. That’s a change from the set list from early shows on the tour, when he front-loaded Goodbye songs: an indication of how, more than two months in, the new album has connected with fans.
There was “Fast," his upbeat reflection on how life has changed monumentally in the past year-plus, as well as “Feeling," followed by smoke flumes accompanying album opener “Empty” — both improbably jubilant songs that nonetheless allude to youthful anxiety and uncertainty, and the desire to medicate to deal with them. Then came the Latin-tinged, eminently danceable “Hear Me Calling." More than any of his peers, Juice has mastered the singalong hook, and if there was any overarching takeaway from this night, it was the idea that in recognizing and facing youthful despair, there is at the end of the day, hope, and even bliss.
The visuals were a constant. The four panel screens and central half-moon never stopped offering exclamation points on the song at hand. At times, the stage set recalled heavy metal shows of the hedonistic Eighties—Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee on a spinning drum kit wouldn’t have been out of place. But the vibe couldn’t have been more different—more on that later.
A few songs after, it was time to cede the spotlight to Ski Mask. The Slump God is, for all his acclaim, one of the more underappreciated stars of this hip-hop generation — though from the crowd’s reaction to his appearance on stage, he was utterly beloved. The fiery “La La” from last year’s Stokely led things off, Ski’s kinetic energy standing in stark contrast to Juice’s more plaintive affect. In a black tee and durag, Ski’s gritty rapid fire flow peppered the ay-yays and uh-huhs on “Catch Me Outside," slowed things down on “So High," and delivered Stokely’s wackiest and most fun track, “Faucet Failure.” If Ski Mask was technically a support act, on this night, given the reception he got, he felt more like a co-headliner.
And then of course, he remembered X. If tributes to XXXTentacion tribute have become de riguer in hip-hop shows from younger artists over the past year, they still feel as sincere as ever. We’re less than a month from the one-year anniversary of the tortured star’s brutal murder, but it’s clear that neither friends nor fans are ready, yet, to let go. Jahseh’s signature “Sad” gave way to the mosh pit-filling assault of his definitive collaboration with Ski, “Take a Step Back.”
That remembrance led quite naturally, to “Legends." Juice returned to the stage for an in memoriam — his Death Race homage to those we’ve lost in recent years, from kindred spirits X and Lil Peep, to others, displayed on the video behind him: Mac Miller, Nipsey Hussle, even previous-era icons Prince, David Bowie and Amy Winehouse. Whatever age we lost them at, they were gone too soon, and the very young crowd at Hammerstein seemed to get it. It was beautiful.
Next up, what you might call the “druggy” section of the set — if there could be such a thing from Juice, the bulk of whose songs speak quite openly to the desire to blunt heartbreak, anxiety and growing pains with lean, molly, coke, or whatever drug is at hand. He’s never glorified it, but he also doesn’t sugarcoat his truth, as “Wasted," “Black & White” and “Lean Wit Me” (performed in purple lighting, no less) perfectly illustrate. Judge if you must, but it’s the honesty in these songs that had a couple thousand at Hammerstein singing along with every word.
“HeMotions” is the title of the third track on Death Race, and as apt a term as any for the bread-and-butter of Juice’s music: male-centered feels. To borrow from Mariah Carey, Juice has us feeling “hemotions” deeper than we’ve ever dreamed of, and in a bigger and more lucrative way than the Chicagoan — still only 20 — likely ever imagined only a couple of years ago. In a crowded emo-trap field, it’s hard to say if Juice is the most solipsistic Gen Z-er in hip-hop, but there’s none more affecting or, at the moment, successful. Is his frequent wallowing in male grievance anachronistic, in these days of long-overdue public discourse around #MeToo? Well, XY energy remains XY energy, and it is in some respects, evergreen — fertile emotional soil just needing to be tilled by a new generation, whether with guitars or with beats and bars.
Masculinity also seems to be, in Juice’s hands, less toxic than as handled by some others. Certainly the makeup of the Hammerstein crowd attested to his connection with fans of both genders — easily 40 or 50 per cent of the crowd was female. A friend who came with me to the show wearing a Limp Bizkit tee asked me if I had ever gone to the Family Values Tour — the Korn-led 1998 trek that arguably marked the pinnacle of nü metal — and whether tonight’s crowd was reminiscent of that. I had — I once spent days on the road on a promo tour with Korn — but emphatically no, the vibe between the two is very different. Juice WRLD gives voice to young dudes, evolved for the 21st century.
The breakout song that called out heartbreaking girls, “All Girls Are the Same” followed, and finally, to end the set, the brilliant “Robbery." If “All Girls” and “Lucid” are what put Juice on the musical map and sent his career on an improbably stratospheric trajectory, “Robbery” is perhaps his most perfect single to date. Mining heartache once again, he sings, “She told me, put my heart in the bag/ And nobody gets hurt," it’s as moving as any emo-punk standard, and when it concludes “It was a gift and a curse," you hope that life nowadays is, for Juice, more of the former. It certainly should be.
And of course, what to return to the stage for an encore with, than the ubiquitous “Lucid Dreams” — at this point, a next-gen classic — and finally, because you should always leave them on an exhilarating note, “Syphilis.” I’ll always be more down with sex than with guns, but Juice reflexively conflates the two on Death Race’s hardest-hitting track, declaring “On my gun is a dick, I’m gon’ fuck your face with it.” Vulgar, sure, but a banger that sent a sweaty two thousand into the New York City night well sated — though not before some words of young wisdom from the night’s hero.
“Y’all, everybody has aspirations,” he shared. “Follow your dreams, and you will end up where you want to be in this life!”