The Pit is Open
There’s a line of girls waiting to take Instagram shots in front of a poorly graffiti’d mural of Nip, Mac, XXX, and Peep. One forms a V with her fingers and sticks her tongue between them while crouching in front of X. There’s fake bulletproof vests and large balenciagas everywhere I turn. The first stage you get a glimpse of when you walk in is the “Verizon Stage.” There’s an absurdly long line at the merch tent where they’re selling Gildan hoodies with a skull printed on the front for $120. If you enter the Monster Energy drink tent, you may consume as much free Monster as you wish, but you can’t leave. Beer is 17 dollars.
The bulk of the crowd seems to be between the ages of 13 and 17 and I can’t tell if all music festivals have been like this and I’m just getting older or if the crowd is actually getting younger. There were at least 30 children who I was concerned must have been separated from their parents.
It’s as if the DJs who were forced to stall for late artists have only heard 3 songs in the last four years — Faneto, an XXX and Ski Mask song where the hook goes “FUCKED UP! FUCKED UP! FUCKED UP! FUCKED UP! FUCKED UP! FUCKED UP! FUCKED UP!,” and “Mo Bamba.” The crowd assembled for Pop Smoke legitimately turns up when the DJ drops “Old Town Road.” “Open the pit” is the phrase of the day. They open wide, but usually only 5 people end up jumping in on the drops.
We were forced to sit through a Machine Gun Kelly set because Lil Tjay was late, and he spent it headbanging while strumming an electric guitar, playing the drums to a mashup of 10 second snips of Meek Mill, Slip Knot, and “Faneto,” and of course, climbing the speakers to hang upside down. Nav calls himself a legend for throwing his Louie glasses in the crowd and his DJ boldly proclaims that no one had ever done that before. Teejayx6 brings out two kids wearing airplane neck pillows, one of whom is revealed to be the “ight Im’a fuck wit chu” meme kid.
Most of the artists lip sync and Juicy J is the only performer I see with dancers on stage. When the large crowd for Uzi hears he missed his flight and Chance is going on instead, there’s a stampede of 1000s who jump over and knock down barriers to escape Chance. A “my friend is going to pass out!!” rings out as a mostly limp body is dragged by three people over a barrier.
The only real performance of note was Young Thug’s of course. He was around 30 minutes late and the DJ who was trying to hold the crowd over played the FUCKED UP! song twice in 8 minutes. The crowd was responsive both times. Thug came out to Ecstasy and thank god MGK didn’t make another appearance. He’s wearing a police vest adorned with many shiny objects and a red Louie plate on the back that reads “This is the only fake LV I own.” His golden dreads are perfectly assembled underneath his red cap and a red bandana hangs out of his left pocket. He is an astoundingly good performer and looks like a style icon.
The crowd goes crazy for “Hot,” but I am the only one who yells “Smoke way more weed than a guy in LA,” when the DJ fades the sound during “About The Money.” The mics cut off about 25 seconds in to “Lifestyle” as Thug is going way over his allotted time, and Thug doesn’t put up a fight, already annoyed that nobody was singing along. Videos of Keef’s performance looked great too, but I’m long-gone by his late Sunday night set time. Don’t these kids have school tomorrow? — Harley Geffner
GOAT Talk of the Century
The bar for an exceptional performance was absurdly low on day one. Every rapper I saw on stage halfheartedly lip-synced the majority of their songs. A few occasionally rapped a capella or yelled along with their backing vocals, their mic volume so low that you had to be next to the speakers to hear a few strained syllables. Some were better and/or more entertaining actors than others. Playboi Carti bounced around the stage, seemingly ecstatic that no one (maybe himself included) has realized that he’s mumble rap’s Zoolander. (“Magnolia” is his Blue Steel, obviously.) Blueface spent more time busting down and asking the audience if they wanted to see him Crip walk than he did rapping or Crip walking. When he tried to chime in over his backing track, he was out of sync. In his defense, though, the recorded bars were offbeat.
Then, there was Young Thug.
If you want to read about the genius of Thug’s melodies and vocal inflections, the elasticity and eccentricities of his voice or the emotion therein, the brilliant subtleties of writing, and his enduring influence on the genre this horrendous decade, read Jeff’s piece here. On Saturday night, 30 minutes after his scheduled set time, Thug sauntered on stage, red rag hanging from his front pocket, and confirmed everything Jeff argued. More importantly, he showed the young (no pun intended) audience true showmanship.
Near the top of his set, he rapped the entirety of “Ecstasy” (So Much Fun). He didn’t sound as polished as he does on the record, but that’s the point. Every break or change in his voice, every moment that didn’t sound the same as it does in your headphones—they drew you in. This was a human on stage, not a hologram pretending to be one. Did Thug lip sync? Seldom. His vocals were louder than those of his backing track throughout, and the latter seemed to service the former. If you want to see how well he pulled this off, find footage of him performing “Just How It Is” (the best song on So Much Fun). There are moments where discerning which syllable belonged to the man on stage and which were recordings was a Sisyphean endeavor.
Instead of running through So Much Fun, Thug bounced around his vast catalog. He confounded recent converts who’d never heard “With That” and “Check” from the masterpiece that is Barter 6. (POW correspondent Harley Geffner, however, almost spontaneously combusted in ecstasy.) Then he went into “Best Friend,” during which the audience assisted en masse. Thug tried to close with the rap song of the decade, “Lifestyle,” but festival organizers (or someone) cut him off mid-song. Maybe they were complying with a city ordinance. Maybe they wanted more people wherever Lil Uzi Vert was shuffling. Maybe they didn’t want Thug to raise attendees’ expectations for a rap show any higher. – Max Bell
Event staff refused to reveal the location of the “artist area.” They undoubtedly wanted to foil my double proposal to Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat. (The three of us are planning the ceremony after Megan gets her degree.) But I found it. After renouncing satan in the name of our lord and savior—Da Baby, of course—security let me into the artist area. There were Star Waggons [sic], influencers influencing, artist-only food trucks that would not accept cash or credit (carnival tickets only), and a red, radiant neon sign for Packwoods.
The Packwoods logo is identical to the Backwoods logo, albeit made to look as though it’s dripping wax. (Backwoods is owned by a multinational corporation, so that cease and desist should be in the mail soon.) I briefly spoke with a sedate someone in a red “Make Blunts Great Again” snapback in the Packwoods branded smoking area who dazedly tried to repeat the web copy I’ve copied here: “Our original Packwoods blunts are filled with two grams of lab-tested, hand broken, premium flower with high potency concentrate, dusted in kief, rolled up in a 100% tobacco free wrap with an engineered glass filter.”
It sounds like one hit of a Packwoods blunt would send you back to third grade and maybe make $uicideboy$’s music palatable. The POW gang was either too late or didn’t look influential enough to get our hands on a single Packwood. As a consolation, Packwoods offered chocolate made to look like weed. The ersatz nugs had no THC—or CBD, and that shit is in everything—and tasted like chalk. I would’ve gladly eaten a Packwoods blunt with a fork and knife instead.
You don’t need an entire essay about why a company like Packwoods sucks every kind of tip (glass and not). But here are a few reasons. They’re trading on the cache of a brand that rappers made famous and using rappers to market it. They’ve taken blunts and made them convenient, lame, and less human. For me, part of enjoying a blunt comes from the ritual of gutting the cigar and rolling/licking the brittle wrap yourself and sharing your handiwork (or not-so-handiwork) with your friends. The POW gang shared a spliff in the stadium bleachers to get the taste out of our mouths. – Max Bell
By the Numbers: Most Repeated On-Stage Gimmicks
1. Three counts before beat drops as predictable as LeBron James’ inevitable baldness.
2. Shouting “Open it up!” again and again and again to prompt mosh pits instead of allowing them to develop organically.
3. Demanding people turn on and raise their phone flashlights (also read: modern lighters) for songs that didn’t have the emotional resonance to merit the gesture.
4. Dancing to distract from lip-syncing.
69. Bringing out a little person to be twerked on for a demeaning and clearly pre-arranged show break. Shame on you, Mozzy.
A Small Potpourri of Things Not Litty
- White girls at the foot of the stage screaming that word white people should never say in any context.
- White girls who couldn’t name a single member of Migos clapping half-heartedly and offbeat when a DJ played “Fight Night.”
- Hearing every single DJ on day one play “Mo Bamba.” In case you forgot, the music video for that song came out in January of 2018.
- In the men’s restroom, one man clocked another man in the snot box so hard that he blacked out, cracked his head on the piss-soaked floor, and had to be carted out on a stretcher. (This incident was vividly relayed by POW field correspondent Evan Gabriel just before Young Thug’s set).
- $16 Tecate.
- There was no corn at the BBQ vendor. The menu said there was corn. — Max Bell
In Lieu of Bottle Service
I’m sitting directly behind AZChike in a white Sprinter van as we wiz past clustered bungalow houses just shy of the USC campus. Chike keeps working a red bic over the end of a blunt. “Ay we could really stop at a liquor store and grab a bottle right now,” Chike half-jokingly hints to our driver. The van is 4 rows deep. AZKilo is seated next to Chike in front of me. I’ve squeezed myself into a single seat in the very last row, attempting to keep a low profile.
“Who the fuck was that lame ass dude that tried to say he was with us back there”? Chike muses aloud to no one in particular. The entire van, our driver included, erupts in laughter. I briefly chuckle before gazing out the window, realizing I was never actually invited into this van. Still, no one seems to care. Next stop: Zen Stage.
As we exit the van, we’re all greeted by ALLBLACK, who’s walking with his niece and just finished performing. He shakes everyone’s hand before telling Chike that he and his crew are always the best dressed. Amid the chaotic corporate thirst and huge egos of the day, it’s a brief moment of bonding between artists through mutual respect, and it’s fun to witness. It’s also true. AZSwaye and AZKilo join Chike on stage, also donning face masks. The sun is almost down. Strobe lights flash and DJ Ash B’s warning sirens. The trio look like a horror film collective, henchmen here to decimate, jostling around stage and bellowing commands. “Who here fucks with AZChike?” the South Central native roars. And then the drums to “Licked Up” drop.
The Zen Stage gets swallowed by dark blue and neon green and blue lights flashing to outline the AZChike logo, which narrowly resembles the anarchy symbol. Above this, animated pink skeletons dance. As if on cue, various groups of teenage girls crowd together and begin stomping in direct correlation to the beat, the TikTok dances already seem programmed into their DNA.
Chike’s most recent project, Rich & Ratchet, is a field manual for turnt-up party antics and shit talking. It’s striking how melodically minimal a lot of the beats are. The emphasis is fully on percussion. And maybe this is just the point. Even when the song starts with just claps, like on “Skin Care,” the crowd can already gauge how much to move and when the beat will drop. This gives Chike immense crowd control. The performance ends when Chike brings out Rucci. Despite a mic shorting out, they perform “Light It Up,” and the entire arena explodes into a single monotone wall of ecstatic cheers. On stage, the words “This is the future” continue flashing in neon pink. — Evan Gabriel