Juicy Fest hits Sydney with nostalgia and a mixed bag of hip hop and R&B performances

T.I., Ashanti, T-Pain.

The three headliners for Juicy Fest 2024, the second iteration of what is – I’m guessing – now the signature hip hop festival for Australia and New Zealand. Signature because all these other attempts at building a stable hip hop and R&B festival for Australia and New Zealand have largely fallen flat – think Supafest, Soulfest, and I’m sure several others that I’ve forgotten about.

Does Juicy Fest have staying power? That’s the biggest question leading into the second year of this nostalgia-baiting festival, which relies on mostly 2000s bangers to draw a crowd. That and tiers. Hip hop festivals are always tiered quite oddly. For Juicy Fest, there was General Admission, VIP, and VVIP.

On entry into Accor Stadium for Juicy Fest’s Sydney leg, that’s the first thing I noticed. General Admission were given a fairly small allocation towards the back of the stadium, with no one in GA even inching past the sound tent. VIP were allocated the largest area in the middle, and VVIP had both a raised platform they could retreat to, and access to the very front of the pack. In addition, Very Very Important People could hide away in a nice, well-seated nook on the second floor of the stadium with live taco stations and a plethora of confectionary.

$200, the price of a GA ticket, seems much too steep a price if you have to remain behind the sound tent.

As for media? I really have no idea where we were allowed to go, and it seems none of the security did either. After waiting around 40 minutes for a media escort that never showed up, I strolled on down to the VIP just in time to catch Mario wrap up his set. Organisation counts for a lot at these big festivals; this wasn’t the best first impression.

After balking at the logistical nightmare that was picking up media accreditation, it was nice to see that the performers were sharp and up to task.

Mario, whose music I probably haven’t heard since I used to burn them onto CDs in high school, was a class act and as smooth as any R&B singer I’ve seen live before. His few hits were marched out in succession without resorting to the boring medley-style a lot of these types of concerts suffer from. “Just A Friend 2002,” “Let Me Love You,” “How Do I Breathe”. the 37-year-old singer wasn’t even of legal age when he was in the spotlight, so it’s impressive to see him still strut through these songs at this age.

Unfortunately, Mario was an exception for much of the day. Fabolous started strong with a string of the guest verses that made him one of the hottest rappers of the early 2000s. Everything from The-Dream to Lil’ Mo came out, but when it came to his own music, Loso was barely in the zone. “Can’t Deny It” (over 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az A Ridah”) and “Young’n (Holla Back)”, his first two biggest hits, didn’t even make it past the hook and even his most endearing commercial hit, “I’m So Into You” didn’t stick around long (it would have been cool if he bought out Ashanti for the original version).

It appears the man who was once DJ Clue’s go-to emcee would have been more at home at a solo show.

Mase was even more confusing. The sole 90s rapper on the line-up was, for a time, one of the most influential rappers in the industry. An emcee’s emcee. A personal favourite responsible for some of the biggest hits of the 90s. In 2024, at Juicy Fest, he is given what felt like 10 minutes on stage, only enough time to run through his verse from 112’s “Only You (Remix)”, a “Lean Back” freestyle, a quarter of “Feel So Good”, and “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems (with him rapping both Puffy’s and Biggie’s verses). Oh, and he said a prayer for us, because while there was no trace of the slick-talking, mic-dropping Murda Mase, Shiny Suit-era Mase and Pastor Mase are equally important.

Given New Zealand legs got more from Mase, it was a bit irritating that we didn’t get to hear tracks like “What You Want” and “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”.

While Trey Songz didn’t have half the swagger as Mario, his more modern, hip hop-influenced style of R&B got over well with the crowd. Tracks like “Na Na” and “Bottoms Up” picked the energy right back up, keeping it high for YG and Ashanti. The latter, surprisingly, proved the best performer of the night. While I think “Only U” is her only real big hit that has aged well, it was hard not to be impressed by her enthusiasm, choreography and charisma. A class act.

Getting into the nitty gritty of the night, T.I. came out as the elder statesman of the line-up. The Atlanta emcee is still one of the most important rappers to emerge after the 90s, using his uniquely elastic flow to craft anthems like “24s” and “Top Back”.

I remember there was a time when T.I. won “street anthem of the year” at BET awards every year in a row until I felt like they should just name the award after him. Here, he proved those “street anthems” haven’t aged a day, busting out with the intro for “King” before exploding into the first two verses of “Top Back”.

He made it clear he was going to take us all the way back to his first album, I’m Serious. Amusingly, he didn’t. There were no songs from the man’s first album in his setlist (not even “Dope Boyz”), instead jumping straight to “Rubberband Man” and “24s” from his highly influential Trap Muzik, before jumping to his third album with “U Don’t Know Me” and a smidgen of “Let’s Get Away”.

It’s clear the performers knew to keep it the radio hits only. Even T.I’s usual acapella of his verse from “Stand Up” was excluded. Although that wouldn’t have been a problem for Tip, as even when he was out of songs that weren’t massive hits in Australia (like “Whatever You Like” and “Live Ya Life” – the latter seeing one of his daughters fill in for Rihanna), he had his guest verses to run through.

Justin Timberlake’s excellent “My Love” and Robin Thicke’s not-excellent “Blurred Lines” came out before the Zone 1 representer jumped to “No Mediocre”. It was clear the man was working hard, and his only reprieve came from a short, surprising break where he brought his wife, Tiny, on stage to perform “Just Kickin’ It” from her days with Xscape. Family hustle indeed.

Closing with his new South African-inspired song, “Vacay”, it was clear the king still very much deserves his crown. The Amapiano-inspired track sounded just as a fresh as his new songs. And it’s very rare for a rapper at a festival like this to still be banging out hits that don’t sound like desperate attempts at keeping up with trends.

With Ashanti and T.I. picking things up for Juicy Fest, T-Pain came and really knocked things out of the park. The man is a consummate (and hilarious – I want to hang out with him) performer with a style that perfectly reflects his energetic personality. And yes, all the hits were there and then some, including some covers that showed off the man’s incredible range.

So does Juicy Fest have staying power? Organisational issues aside, it does seem like we finally have a hip-hop and R&B festival that’s pulling in good, well-balanced line ups. The problem here is that some of them felt like rushed snippets of what could have been good sets, with only the final three performers really bringing that stadium-sized energy a venue like this needs.

With Supafest, it didn’t feel like there was much attention paid to hip hop outside of the kind of music Kyle Sandilands would play. Juicy Fest is, thankfully, different in that regard. Finally, it feels like getting artists like Jeezy, E-40, Missy Elliot, Juvenile, Lil’ Kim, Rick Ross, Cam’Ron, and Jadakiss (or The Lox) out to Australia actually feels possible.

If they got Twista out here (last year – I didn’t go because he was really the only act I wanted to see and I thought he’d cancel for sure), then you know the curation is on point.

Mase Set List

Only You (Remix)
Lean Back Freestyle
Feel So Good
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

T.I. Set List

King Back (Intro)
Top Back
Rubberband Man
Ride Wit’ Me (Hook Only)
U Don’t Know Me
Let’s Get Away (Hook Only)
My Love
Blurred Lines
Why You Wanna
Fancy (Hook Only)
No Mediocre
Whatever You Like
Just Kickin’ It (Tiny)
Bring ‘Em Out
Go Get It (Hook Only)
Swing Ya Rag (Hook Only)
Big Shit Poppin’ (Hook Only)
Dead & Gone (Hook Only)
Live Ya Life (with his daughter)
What You Know
About The Money (Hook Only)

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.