By Jack M. Angelo, Senior Content Producer
There are a lot of rappers in the mainstream who “can’t rap,” with basic flows and lyrics that manage a third grade reading level on a good day. Many of these artists have no intention of being “lyrical” and seek to create a vibe more than present a message. However, there are and always have been rappers in the underground who remain lyrical and dexterous. Often these rappers do not get very popular due to their inaccessibility, seemingly blissfully unaware that their fast rap and big words are not adequate replacements for songwriting and structure.
Joyner Lucas has an incredible flow and a fantastic pen game when it comes to rhymes. He often peppers his raps with important commentary on social issues, including race and mental health. He has an incredibly ravenous legion of fans awaiting his every release and clamoring to see him live across the country. Achieving this took more than a decade of work and music on the part of the young Gary Lucas, but the passion of the young rapper combined with that of his base has led Joyner Lucas to a slow but steady rise in popularity over the last few years. This rise has resulted in a cross-country tour this spring and summer, which landed at Washington D.C.’s Union Stage on June 5.
After some mediocre openers, the audience was thirsty for their savior Joyner Lucas to come out. Before they were satisfied however, they had to watch something first. The set began with a video apparently written and produced by Joyner himself, featuring him as a boyfriend at a dinner table with his girl’s white family, explaining what he does for a living. Upon being pressed for more information, Joyner’s “girl” explains that they have gone over this already: Joyner Lucas is a musician, and he’s a big deal. After being grilled by the mother and father over whether he has worked with certain artists (Justin Bieber, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Saget), Joyner says that he is only “kind of a big deal,” alluding to the name of the tour, “The I’m Kind of a Big Deal Tour.” The family in the video then implores Joyner to go “downstairs” where they have a stage and an audience ready to receive him, after which Joyner made his entrance.
The 29-year-old Massachusetts native opened his set with a remix of Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” laying a verse of his own over a hit beat from another artist, a common practice of Joyner’s. These “freestyles” often contain his fastest flows, and they are some of his most popular songs, helping Joyner reach more people in recent years due to the more accessible production. Accessibility however, does not seem to be a concern of Lucas’s, whose lyrics and flow are clearly his main focus. Throughout the show, many of the fans in the audience kept up with some of these flows, demonstrating their level of passion for his work.
With all of his talent, Joyner Lucas should be next up in the rap game, but the nearly 30-year-old rapper’s rise to prominence has been slow. This could be attributed to his niche style of rap. Lyrical rappers have rarely occupied a mainstream spotlight, especially Black ones, and tend to enjoy a much more successful career in the underground scene. However, Joyner Lucas’s slow ascent could have less to do with his music than his personality, which can often come off as abrasive, narcissistic, and superior. Despite the fact that this show was attended by a couple hundred people at most, Joyner Lucas’s security team of two large men were never further than 8 feet from Joyner, even when he was performing on stage. At one point in the show, Joyner Lucas came out into the crowd, with his security team following closely behind him, preventing anyone from getting too close during this segment. This level of security seemed unnecessary at a show of this nature. Joyner also left the stage several times to play videos during the show, often dealing with larger social issues. One video featured a Black man explaining racial microaggressions in a humorous way. Joyner’s peripherals are likely an attempt to make the show more dynamic, but could serve to further divide the artist and audience.
That said, Joyner Lucas clearly wants to make a difference with his music. His song “I’m Not Racist” got a lot of press earlier this year when the video dropped, featuring a White man in a “Make America Hate Again” hat and a Black man sitting in a room arguing with each other about race. At the end of the video, the two hug and seemingly squash their differences. Joyner explained that the label did not want him to put out this song and video because it was “too controversial.” “This is what I would want to happen, this is how I’m trying to change the world,” Lucas explained.
Toward the end of his set, Joyner Lucas decided to call out his photographer for seemingly no reason. Joyner pulled photographer Trevor Finney next to him on stage and explained that they have been working together for a while. Joyner had apparently sent an unreleased song to Finney, asking for his opinion. Finney said the hook was a little obnoxious, but Joyner released the song anyway. He then proceeded to perform the song, all while putting Finney down for having expressed his opinion when asked. The crowd shouted the objectively repetitive and somewhat annoying hook right at the clearly resigned photographer, who Joyner forced to remain on stage, and continued to berate.
In contrast to that display of human decency, Joyner Lucas seemed genuinely thankful to everyone who came out to see him that evening. He declared his aspirations, saying the next time he comes back to D.C., he will be performing for 2,000, 5,000, and then stadiums full of people, explaining that this audience will be able to say they were there at the beginning.
In an era where personality often trumps skill and hard work, and Kanye West is busy showing what happens when an obnoxious personality goes unchecked for too long, it is hard to say whether there is much room at or near the top for a Joyner Lucas. Perhaps if Joyner were to play into his persona of braggadocio, it may be more magnetic, but as of now, Joyner Lucas mostly comes off as unapproachable, This will ultimately hurt his aspirations for fame and glory in rap, despite his immense well of talent. Joyner Lucas is absolutely one to watch in the next few years, and hopefully his come up brings some humility along with it.
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