Before Lil Uzi Vert took the stage for his first (and likely only) virtual show on Thursday, he shared a short message for fans.
“Lol shit about 2 be so weird,” he wrote on Instagram. For emphasis, he added a shrug emoji.
The odds were stacked against Uzi from the start. Performing high-energy songs in an empty room with no audience is a challenge he’d never faced before. But the return of traditional concerts is still a distant dream, so Uzi and other rappers are beginning to experiment by selling tickets to virtual shows.
In late July, Tekashi 6ix9ine announced that he had signed a $5 million deal for a virtual performance of his new album. Before all traces of the event disappeared from the internet, he was charging $6.99 for each ticket. Then Megan Thee Stallion announced she would hold a virtual concert of her own with Live Nation this weekend, with tickets selling for $15 each.
This new virtual rap show model kicked off on Thursday night with Uzi’s $15 concert on TIDAL. At 6:15 p.m. ET, he stepped onto a circular stage that evoked the same UFO imagery that dominated the album rollout of Eternal Atake. Performing songs from the project for the very first time, Uzi opened with “Baby Pluto,” and for the next minute and a half, he bounced around the stage with an impressive amount of energy for someone performing in an empty room (even dropping a couple signature shoulder rolls and sparking up a joint onstage). Beyond the immediate gratification of finally seeing Uzi onstage again, though, it became apparent just how unfamiliar and challenging an isolated environment is for a performer who depends so much on the energy of a crowd.
There is a precedent for successful performances that take place in studio settings with no audience. (A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s recent at-home show or any episode of COLORS are examples that immediately come to mind). But Uzi isn’t that kind of artist. His success as a performer depends on his ability to orchestrate the energy of an audience. What happens in the crowd at a Lil Uzi Vert show is often just as important as what’s taking place onstage. Ten months ago, at Rolling Loud New York, I remember the asphalt shaking as thousands of people thrashed into each other during “Money Longer.” I couldn’t even hear Uzi’s live vocals over his backing track, but it didn’t matter. He had complete control of the crowd, in a way that rivaled peers like Travis Scott.
“I’m not going to keep doing this,” Uzi revealed. “If they don’t have real shows soon, I’m clearly going to throw my own real show.”
Thursday night was different. Without the presence of a live audience, Uzi was playing without his most important instrument. He was a pitcher with no catcher. And throughout the show, his backing track was turned up just as loud as it is during regular performances, which drowned out his live vocals for most of the night. In a full arena, this usually goes unnoticed, but it was more glaring here, with nothing else to focus on.
To Uzi’s credit, he jumped around the stage and shoulder-shimmied with the same enthusiasm as he would in front of 30,000 fans at a festival, even debuting a couple new dance moves. But after watching him perform songs like “Lo Mein,” “You Better Move,” and “That Way” for the first time, all I could think about was how much better it will be whenever we finally get to hear Eternal Atake in a room with thousands of people. “Myron,” in particular, sounds like it’ll play well with festival crowds. This show, which only lasted for 45 minutes, was a nice appetizer, but it had no chance of substituting for the real deal.
Uzi understood the limitations of the virtual setting. Midway through the performance, he even stopped and admitted that he didn’t want to keep throwing shows like this in the future.
“I’m not going to keep doing this,” he revealed. “If they don’t have real shows soon, I’m clearly going to throw my own real show.”
Ten minutes later, the TIDAL livestream ran into technical difficulties. The screen glitched and shook in a way that seemed like it could be a special effect at first. But it persisted. While Uzi powered through more songs, people at home started tweeting things like, “Yo anyone else having bad glitches with this uzi live lol.” When it didn’t stop, some of the tweets became more hostile: “@TIDAL your video quality SUCKS on this lil uzi vert live ! started glitching halfway through and not an issue with my internet.” The glitches continued until a few minutes before the show ended.
Anyone who has watched a free livestream is used to technical difficulties by now, but fans who just shelled out $15 for a virtual ticket have less patience for hiccups like this. With a premium price comes premium expectations. As the live events industry continues to crumble in the midst of the pandemic—Live Nation reported a 98% drop in second-quarter revenue this year—a new business model like this is an exciting glimmer of hope. But if Thursday night’s show represents a blueprint for paid livestreams to come, let’s hope kinks like this are ironed out soon.
Thursday night’s show was as weird as Uzi promised it would be. Watching him perform an arena-ready song like “XO Tour Lif3” inside an empty Philadelphia building, without the presence of a crowd, was surreal. Without an audience to perform for, Uzi was isolated onstage, frequently pulling his Chanel beanie over his eyes as if to shield himself from the awkward reality of performing in front of a half dozen cameramen and no one else. If it weren’t for a pandemic, it’s difficult to imagine Uzi ever doing a show like this. But this is the strange reality we’re stuck in, so he took a risk.
Ultimately, it was better than nothing. We’re all starved for any taste of the live concert experience we can get, so it was exciting to see him perform songs like “That Way” for the first time. And despite his unwillingness to ever do anything like this again, Uzi was mostly good-natured. Between-song banter with his DJ was a reminder that he’s one of rap’s most endearing personalities, and at one point, he even looked into one of the cameras and told his fans at home: “There’s a lot going on, but I just want to make sure you’re good.”
By the time he left the stage, the majority of Uzi’s concert-starved fans appeared to be satisfied. Tweets like, “I needed this virtual concert,” overshadowed complaints about technical difficulties and the $15 price tag. Pushed far outside his comfort zone, Uzi made an effort to please his diehard fans in a less-than-ideal setting, and he more or less accomplished this goal (while collecting a bag in the process).
When my TIDAL stream blinked off, though, I couldn’t help but think about being with thousands of people at Rolling Loud last summer, as Uzi gleefully incited a near-riot during “wokeuplikethis.”
Nothing can replace the real thing.