Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash 2021 Aimed For Mosh Pit Utopia
The first thing I saw inside the gates of the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash was a memorial: a painted mural of Squeak PIVOT, Juice WRLD, and King Von, three musicians with little in common besides their city of origin and their untimely deaths. The second thing I saw was a kid with a patchy goatee exclaim “They sell edibles here?” at the sight of delta8 joints and brownies for sale at one of the vendor tents. Summer Smash understands the ethos of its college-aged target market, smuggling gray market vape cartridges in their Vlone tees and Perc 30 basketball jerseys: Things are bad, let’s rage while we can. Or, to quote a beloved Gen Z children’s song, “My world’s on fire, how about yours? That’s the way I like it and I never get bored.” Yes Virginia, they do sell edibles here.
Last weekend was the third installment of Summer Smash in Chicago’s Douglass Park, a festival co-owned by Cole Bennett’s music video company and brand Lyrical Lemonade and Berto Solorio’s promotion company SPKRBX. Lyrical Lemonade has built a dedicated fanbase thanks to Bennett’s distinctive neon animation flourishes and ear for young talent; the 25-year-old videographer filmed the clip for Juice WRLD’s breakout hit “Lucid Dreams” and has kept launching stars since. The brand’s blog continues to spotlight upcoming and unsigned artists, a vital curator for a generation of hip-hop that begins with the “Soundcloud rap” wave immortalized in XXL’s 2016 Freshman Class.
It’s rare to see a hip-hop focused festival beyond the Rolling Loud franchise, especially in Chicago, but the niche is working for SS. Solorio told the Chicago Tribune they sold tickets for 30,000 attendees a day, a racially diverse mix of college-aged partiers and a few chaperoning parents. I was atypical for several reasons: wearing a mask, hanging in the back of the crowd, and old enough to remember where I was on 9/11. While waiting in line for a food truck at one point, I saw a mixtape CD laying in the dirt; it may as well have been a fossil.
Most of the rappers on the bill didn’t rap their verses so much as hype up their own pre-recorded tracks. Baha Bank$ opened the fest on the Lenny’s Tent side stage by performing her twerk anthems accompanied by two back-up dancers in matching jewel tone costumes. Speaking after her set, she gushed about the importance of doing her first festival set at home. “It was really life-changing for me, because I am a new artist, so it was definitely crazy to go and perform in front of my city,” she said. “The crowd was really feeling me, and I feel the love and support, and that’s something that I didn’t feel in the beginning, but it showed here.”
Bank$ was one of a dozen or so Chicago rappers on the bill, signs of the festival organizers’ roots in the city. Femdot rapped his dextrous verses without any backing vocals and led the crowd in a Pivot Gang chant in tribute to Squeak, who was murdered just a few days before the festival began, causing his friend and collaborator Saba to withdraw from the lineup. Supa Bwe introduced his last song by yelling “Fuck 12, fuck CPD!” with knowing venom, then brought out local hero Twista to perform his 2004 track “Overnight Celebrity.” “Chi-town legend!” a white woman in the audience yelled as the guest emerged. Twista is ancient history to this crowd, so I was pleasantly surprised at the rapturous response.
If you were in college in 2016, this was basically a nostalgia festival the same way Just Like Heaven is for blog-rock fans. Friday in particular felt like a time capsule from the recent past: Lil Yachty played Lil Boat-era confections and hits like “Broccoli” and “I Spy,” while Swae Lee opened with Sremmlife bangers “No Type” and “No Flex Zone” and continued through a stacked set of Rae Sremmurd songs and solo features. Between songs, Swae called out all the college kids in the crowd to encourage them to “stay on the right path.” He also said, “Music is the vaccine,” some nice-sounding nonsense that is, I guess, marginally better than spreading vaccine misinformation?
A$AP Rocky’s headlining set opened with a video montage of Black Lives Matter flags, burning cop cars, and photos of George Floyd. Did any of this sociopolitical imagery manifest in Rocky’s new tracks? Not really! But the Harlem rapper was exceedingly comfortable onstage, even spontaneous, dropping a Famous Dex track in honor of his collaborator’s hometown and singing “L$D” at the crowd’s request. It’s been a decade since I downloaded LiveLoveA$AP to my iPod, and Rocky unfortunately seemed ready to leave that material in the past with a set focused on newer material from the Testing era onwards. I was disappointed that the crowd voted to hear 2019 single “Babushka Boi” over mixtape cut “Brand New Guy” as the final song. I can’t be out of touch, it’s the children who are wrong.
I only saw one set Saturday before the storms hit. As Joey Purp performed an unreleased song, I watched a 19-year-old in a LeBron James high school jersey bust a standing backflip, then take off sprinting away from the stage. Shout-out to that man for the perfect visual encapsulation of the audience’s priorities.
The festival announced an evacuation due to weather around 3PM. On my way out of the grounds, I walked past Cole Bennett sitting in a golf cart, hunched over his phone while fans stopped to take pictures with his TikTok-famous female companion. I made it to the el before the rain started coming down, but the masses were shipped off to two nearby buildings for shelter, where they partied and chanted for Kanye’s DONDA album. The gates re-opened at 5 as the sun streamed down onto the fields, and the crowds re-entered under the watchful eye of CPD.
The real chaos came later that night, when the crowd swarmed a centrally located bar, harassing staff, stealing items, and breaking shit. “I’ve never felt so set up for failure as a bar manager, and I know that my bartenders feel the same way because it was completely unsafe,” a veteran festival bar manager told Block Club Chicago. “This was hands down the least organized, the least safe [festival]. It was abundantly clear on the first day that there was a lack of security.”
In response to the complaints, the Summer Smash team issued a statement calling the festival a “major success” despite the incident at the bar. “No festival staff or attendees were injured in this incident, and no funds were lost,” the statement read. “If any bar staff chose not to return on Sunday, each still was paid in full for their services for the entire three-day weekend.” By Sunday, that bar had been removed entirely, severely reducing the size of the premium VIP area in the process. Kids were hopping over fences into VIP indiscriminately anyway.
There is a spectre haunting our youth — the spectre of Travis Scott. The rapper/producer/human brand extension didn’t perform at Summer Smash, but his influence was everywhere. Scott wasn’t the first to bring the mosh pit to rap shows, but he did help push it to destructive, injurious extremes. At times it seemed every other attendee was wearing an Astroworld tee or shirts from another brand collaboration. Beyond merch, Astroworld tracks were ubiquitous in the between-set DJ mixes and even in the sets of collaborators like Don Toliver. Gunna’s DJ asked the crowd “Can we go to Astroworld?” before dropping “Yosemite.”
Queen Key was the first performer after the gates re-opened Saturday evening, filling the stage with a bunch of family and friends, back-up dancers dressed in all white, and guest appearances from fellow Chicagoans Lil Zay Osama and Kidd Kenn. Pop drill tracks like “My Way” and “Hey” hit hard. In an apparent effort to squeeze in as many acts as possible to make up for the rain delay, people soon began performing on both main stages simultaneously, a DJ on the left stage yelling “We want the music” as Key was still actively performing on the right. It may not have been noticeable from the pits, but the intrusive boom of kick drums from the stage next door was a persistent problem through Saturday afternoon and Sunday.
Rocky played it cool on Friday, but Lil Baby wanted the audience to see him working, stripping down to a sweat-soaked tank top over the course of his Saturday headlining set. Baby’s music is not known for Kanye-style art-damaged ambition, but his set leaned into Yeezus Tour spectacle, including a troupe of female dancers and a throne to rap from. He even brought a mohawked kid onstage to gift them a luxury backpack. Not that he needed stunts to win the crowd over; during his Drake collab “Yes Indeed,” the DJ cut the track for the whole crowd to yell “Wah wah wah, bitch I’m Lil Baby!” At times his singing clashed with his pre-recorded vocals, but that wasn’t enough to dampen hits like “We Paid” and “The Bigger Picture.”
The first thing I heard inside the gates on Sunday was “Who here likes fucking tight pussy?” asked enthusiastically by Boston’s Guwop Reign. It was a gross thing to hear amplified across the festival grounds, but Guwop is only 17. I had a harder time finding excuses for the DJ shout-outs to deceased serial abuser XXXTentacion as part of “the other lost legends,” or for Lil Uzi Vert calling attention to someone in the crowd and saying he wouldn’t continue the show until they flashed their breasts. Uzi quickly abandoned the idea and dismissed it as a joke, but I overheard a group of teen girls scoffing at the incident on the train later that night.
Benny The Butcher was the closest thing on the lineup to an underground rapper in the crate-digging tradition, which isn’t surprising — it’s hard to mosh to dope game tall tales and dusty beats. But the Buffalo rapper still got the crowd’s arms waving to the beat, especially on “Dr Bird’s,” the posse cut the Griselda crew performed on The Tonight Show in early 2020.
On my way backstage, a group of three teens glommed onto me to get past security. One of them, an Asian 20-year-old with a Jack Harlow haircut, quickly told me he makes music videos for artists. I explained that this was just the press tent, but the crew went off to network just the same. The entire Lyrical Lemonade brand began with some kid shooting music videos. What better place to link and build?
While milling about backstage waiting for an artist that ultimately ghosted me, I missed Waka Flocka Flame, who is basically classic rock in this setting. Sensing my disappointment, Jonathan, 24, and Gabby, 19, co-workers at a local Buffalo Wild Wings, reassured me that he played all the spine-pummeling hits: “Grove St. Party,” “Hard In Da Paint,” “No Hands.” This did not make me feel better about missing it, but I was relieved that we all had the same definition of a Waka Flocka hit.
24kGoldn was the only performer I saw all weekend backed by an actual band with guitar, bass, and drums, and frankly it didn’t add much to his songs. He was also one of the few to directly address the pandemic, telling the audience we have “been through something together, now we can celebrate getting out of something.” His polish paid off, as the crowd swelled in anticipation of the Juice WRLD tribute on the same stage right as he was concluding with his biggest hit, “Mood.”
Mike P, Juice WRLD’s touring DJ, opened his memorial with audio clips of news broadcasts announcing the rapper/singer’s death by accidental overdose at age 21. It was an unremarkable set, just four or five of the Juice’s biggest hits played in a row, but his near-martyr status among the audience made it momentous. I got the sense that a Juice tribute could headline a festival, and I wouldn’t be surprised based on how his music is being plundered by Hollywood types. Considering the close bond between Juice WRLD and Cole Bennett, it was a fine tribute, and an example of the power his music still has over his fans. But it’s macabre to see Juice shirts that read “Legends Never Die” for sale all weekend in the merch tent, next to the dozens of LL-branded festival tees.
Rumors circulated that Sunday’s special guest was Trippie Redd, J. Cole, or Kanye West, but when Bennett announced Lil Durk’s appearance, people sprinted to the stage to catch a glimpse. It was Durk’s first performance in his hometown in years, due to the city’s ongoing blackballing of drill rappers, and Durk acted like the star he is. “This one of those moments you gotta stand up like you muthafuckin’ Jay-Z in this bitch, for real,” he said while soaking up applause.
Durk was a strong performer, confidently switching between rapping and crooning and jumping into the photo pit as the DJ played his late friend King Von’s “Crazy Story 2.0.” He skipped his collab with Drake, last summer’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later,” in favor of harder, more current anthems like “Hellcats And Trackhawks” and “Back In Blood.” Sunday was plagued by Young M.A and the Kid Laroi’s cancellations, but booking a hometown Lil Durk set more than made up for it, an accomplishment that strengthened the connection between the festival and Chicago. Chance The Rapper also apparently came out to play “No Problem” — speaking of 2016 throwbacks — but I somehow missed that, scurrying away to the food trucks after the excitement of Durk’s set.
To begin the final headlining set of the weekend, Uzi ran out onstage and arched backward as the pyro effects lit up, posed like an anime supervillain. Rocky and Baby emphasized the extras in their sets, but Uzi was his own special effect, his every sprint and shimmy captured on the giant video screens. He lost the cameras for a minute after his first song, only to reappear standing atop the tech tent. “Y’all came here to rage, we gon’ rage,” he bellowed, his mic sometimes struggling to convey the signal through the noise. Then he dove off the top of the tent into the arms of the audience as the next beat dropped. The Philadelphia-born rapper played a few older tracks like “Money Longer,” but most of his set was focused on the iridescent tracks from last year’s Eternal Atake and Lil Uzi Vert Vs. The World 2. Between songs, Uzi seemed pleasantly surprised by the excitement of the crowd. “I saw that flip bro!” he cheered from the stage.
“XO Tour Llife,” a song about getting fucked up to deal with your problems even though you know that’s a problem, was the perfect way to end the weekend. Uzi played it twice, and the second time he let us sing it, thousands of people belting “Push me to the edge/ All my friends are dead!” in unison. The crowd kept singing the chorus after the lights came on, their phones buzzing with notifications from the festival app, urging us to get home safely.