In a strange way it was a blessing when Sunday afternoon’s severe thunderstorms put the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash on hold. The Douglas Park festival had barely started its second day—it was around 2 PM, and Maryland rapper IDK had just removed the Reagan mask he’d worn for his grand entrance—when a voice cut through on the PA telling the crowd that the music would stop till the weather cleared up. IDK’s fans chanted, “Fuck that shit,” but the subsequent four-hour delay—nearly half a day’s programming—wasn’t the disaster for the Summer Smash that it might’ve been for any other outdoor fest.
Saturday’s sets had been so sloppily scheduled that all three stages were sometimes simultaneously dark for 15 minutes or more, and Sunday’s weather essentially forced the organizers to get their act together. Almost everyone who was supposed to perform still did, albeit frequently with shortened sets—rap festivals have a definite advantage when it comes to turnaround time between acts, since so few people use live instrumentation.
The fest had the seat-of-the-pants feel you sometimes get from rap shows at nightclubs, and once I relaxed into it, I enjoyed it. You know the kind of gig I’m talking about: you go intending to catch one specific rapper, only to see three or four others first who weren’t even on the bill (after an hour-long DJ set or two, of course). In an intimate club with a receptive audience, this disorganization can be charming, and I’ve discovered more than one artist by getting ambushed by their set.
Lyrical Lemonade did better at translating this feel to its big summertime event when it was called the Summer Bash and happened at the Portage Theater. It also worked well at the first Summer Smash in August 2018, which was also in Douglas Park but had just one stage and one day of music. This year’s Summer Smash, though, hosted more than 70 acts on three stages, so it was harder to stop worrying about what you might miss and just go with the flow.
The schedule was only available via app, and it didn’t match the information posted on the grounds via screens embedded in a giant lemonade carton in the middle of the field (which only showed schedules for the two main stages). On Friday, the fest announced the 34 acts appearing on its third stage (including rising Houston rapper TisaKorean and Chicago radio legend DJ Pharris), though I didn’t find its set times in the app till Sunday. I’m not even going to get into the no-shows and last-minute changes, except to say that I feel bad for the Boogie Wit da Hoodie fans posted up at the second stage and cheering for him to come out, with no way of learning that he’d already performed on the main stage.
Somehow the haywire schedule worked to the Summer Smash’s advantage, though. Once I gave up on trying to follow my own timetable—which happened Saturday afternoon, around the time north-side phenom Polo G failed to show—a lot of my frustration went with it. The Summer Smash is the largest rap festival in the city, and I was at least mildly curious about 75 percent of the lineup. I already knew I couldn’t see everything, but rather than get hung up on whether I’d miss City Girls (I did, in fact, miss City Girls), I decided to focus more on what was in front of me. And more often than not, what was in front of me was enough fun to neutralize my FOMO.
It helped that I stuck with acts I knew wouldn’t disappoint. Houston’s Maxo Kream, who delivered one of the best sets at last year’s Summer Smash, masterfully raced through his unbreakable street raps. His latest single, last week’s “Still,” includes a shout-out to Fredo Santana (Kream broke the news of Fredo’s death last year), and he got the crowd to shout “RIP Fredo.” Harlem hero Cam’ron maintained a cool, in-the-pocket energy while breezing through his early-2000s hits, though he was on the wrong stage at the wrong time and most of the audience didn’t seem to care—the majority of the fans at Summer Smash were probably in diapers when Cam’ron broke out, if they were even born.
Summer Smash combined an eclectic bill of rappers with acts on the fringe of hip-hop, such as electronic trap DJ and producer Carnage. It booked a decent number of locals, though most were clustered at the beginning of each day (I heard Femdot, Supa Bwe, and the Cool Kids while I was waiting outside the gates Saturday). But the bulk of the lineup, like the bulk of the artists that Lyrical Lemonade covers or works with, were Soundcloud rappers. Two years after the New York Times documented this hip-hop subculture for a global audience, it’s become a remarkable commercial engine.
Sunday’s headliner, Chicagoland rapper-singer Juice Wrld, is emblematic of the scene’s rapid rise. Since he broke out last year, he’s dropped two solo albums, both of which peaked in the top five on the Billboard 200, and his full-length collaboration with Future debuted at number two. Last night, when he introduced his breakout song, “Lucid Dreams,” he counted to eight to demonstrate the number of times it had gone platinum. Like many of the performers, he took advantage of the pyrotechnics built into the stage, but his demeanor was still flat and uncharismatic, which says something about Soundcloud rap in general; many of its major players have little experience performing live, and don’t prioritize it highly. The backup musicians that Juice Wrld brought out (it was one of only two sets I saw that involved a live band) did little but punctuate his prerecorded tracks.
Juice Wrld owes some of his success to Cole Bennett, who launched Lyrical Lemonade as a hip-hop blog while in high school in 2013 and has since turned turned it into a mini empire. All weekend teens clustered around a large merch tent that was selling $40 Lyrical Lemonade T-shirts, or lined up to spend $7 on cans of Lyrical Lemonade-branded lemonade (dear reader, I abstained). Bennett also shoots and edits videos under the Lyrical Lemonade name, and the clips he’s directed for Soundcloud rappers such as Smokepurpp and Ski Mask the Slump God (both of whom performed this weekend) helped make him a star while elevating the scene. Bennett’s video for “Lucid Dreams” kicked Juice Wrld’s career into hyperdrive.
Throughout the weekend, Bennett stayed busy behind the scenes, but Saturday I saw him walk onstage at the end of Lil Tecca’s (perfectly short) ten-minute set and again during Blueface‘s performance. The only person who elicited more excited screams from fans was Chance the Rapper, who was spotted alongside the second stage waiting for Megan Thee Stallion on Saturday evening.
Of all the Summer Smash artists in Bennett’s music-video Rolodex, Blueface seemed best equipped to entertain; he knew just when to bust out his nimble crip walk, or to gyrate his hips and provoke a wave of shrieks. And unlike the other rappers who took out their phones to shoot photos or video onstage, Blueface could make the crowd feel included. Though Lil Nas X sucked up a lot of oxygen this year, Blueface has figured out how to maintain momentum when other artists go viral, which is key to career longevity. Things move so fast in this subculture that Lil Yachty, one of Saturday’s headliners, seemed straight-up tired while plodding through his catalog.
Chicago rapper Famous Dex is likewise a major center of gravity in Soundcloud rap—on Sunday evening, I saw kids literally sprinting from Trippie Redd’s second-stage set to see Dex on the main stage. And while Dex is an ingenious rapper, he’s got a checkered history; in September 2016, video of him beating his girlfriend leaked online. While it cost him a position in the XXL‘s 2017 “freshman class” issue, it’s hardly killed his career. His 2018 debut, Dex Meets Dexter, hit number 12 on the Billboard 200, and in April he headlined the Riviera. Dex has apologized for the assault, but always in ways that seem calculated to make him look good (that is, if you can conceive of a No Jumper interview as making anybody look good). I believe in restorative justice, but to work it requires a community pulling together—and I haven’t seen much evidence that Dex or the people around him are interested in doing the hard work necessary. Giving a quick sound bite to radio host Peter Rosenberg doesn’t count.
The Summer Smash initially booked Kodak Black too, but organizers had the good sense to replace him with Gucci Mane last week. Kodak was arrested on weapons charges last month at Miami’s Rolling Loud festival, and he still faces charges for allegedly raping a woman in South Carolina in 2016—one of many accusations of violent behavior toward women that have been brought against the Florida rapper over the years.
And let’s not forget that XXXTentacion, the Soundcloud-rap poster boy who was shot to death last year, went right on getting more popular even after allegations of his abusive behavior toward his ex made big news. His breakout hit, “Look at Me,” was inescapable at this year’s Summer Smash. His collective, Members Only, closed their second-stage set rapping over it, and disorientingly enough, Lil Tecca’s DJ warmed up the main-stage crowd by spinning the same song slightly out of sync.
I often wonder how or whether festivals can use their outsize platforms to meaningfully address issues of abuse and violence. Not booking an alleged abuser is one way to withdraw support for a culture that allows such violence to continue, but it won’t stop a DJ from playing “Look at Me.” Engaging with audiences about abuse is hard enough, but when they’ve come out to let loose to their favorite songs, it feels impossible.
Irreverent Portland rapper Aminé, who played late Sunday, modeled one way of dealing with a difficult subject in front of thousands of rowdy teenagers. He says the n-word several times in his hit “Caroline,” and when he got to the first one, he replaced the whole line with “If you’re white, don’t say it.” The same words appeared on a gigantic screen behind him for most of the song.
Aminé’s set was one of my favorites of the weekend, though while I waited out Sunday afternoon’s storm at nearby Collins Academy High School, I didn’t think I’d see it. I didn’t expect to see North Carolina rapper DaBaby either, and his set likewise re-energized me after the long, uncertain wait. Wearing a headset microphone, DaBaby stormed the stage with the energy and focus of a spin instructor, belting out his hit “Suge (Yea Yea).” I forgot about my back pain and my lack of sleep—festivals can make a lot of aggravation worth it when you’re surprised by those moments of bliss you didn’t know you’d get. v