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On a rainy Halloween night, deep in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an unsuspecting synagogue enclosed by an archaic fence has been transformed into an imposing gothic chamber. Bright purple neon lights accent the walls and windows. Crowds of kids complete their party rituals while waiting in a disorderly line. Another cluster is trying to find a way around it. Security does their best to maintain control. They’re all swarming a venue where Lancey Foux will perform for the next few hours to celebrate his new album, LIFE IN HELL. Before the rainfall gets any heavier, I’m let inside.
The East London artist first landed on my radar during the tail end of 2019, when he released his breakout project, FRIEND OR FOUX, a rollercoaster record imbued with the Auto-Tuned pop melodies of Atlanta but still grounded in local elements of U.K. grime and drill. Early on, Lancey was pigeonholed as a transatlantic Young Thug or Playboi Carti “clone,” but FRIEND OR FOUX has a singular personality and vision. Space-like beats are launchpads for Lancey’s psychedelic introspections and colorful cadences, and Lancey tells an ambitious coming-of-age story over the course of 20 songs.
In the years since, however, the “clone” critics have been right. As Lancey’s star has risen, his recent mixtapes and singles have felt more like content to keep the brand going, sticking to tried and true templates instead of venturing out to new territories and ideas. There’s been a song or two with a fun hook that gives me hope. But for the most part, like 2021’s LIVE.EVIL, Lancey seems comfortable coasting on monotonous melodies that don’t challenge your ears, like he’s lecturing an 8 A.M. intro-class.
It was difficult to find stillness during the frenzy of Halloweekend to actually sink into his latest album, LIFE IN HELL, billed as his magnum opus so far, and teased for over two years. Tonight will be my first chance to experience it properly, and what better way to listen to it than inside a synagogue with a bunch of Lancey devotees? As soon as I step inside, there’s another line holding fans who wish to plunge into a shadowy basement. I walk past them to get a closer look at the main stage where a larger conglomerate huddles up, watching strippers perform. To the left, bartenders are being pestered for the free drinks that are being handed out. This all looks like a muddle that I’m not ready for yet, so I retreat upstairs to the VIP section for safety.
Great news: there’s bartenders here too. But before I can order my usual Moscow mule, I’m greeted by a curated drink menu that lists four emotions to choose from.
Anxious is my default state so it’s an easy choice. But as is my journalistic due diligence, I will be cycling through all of them tonight.
The VIP section has pillows scattered across the floor while the air consists of cloud smoke from various vape pens and spliffs. New York aristocrats are striking their best poses in front of the requisite #35mm cameras. In true horror film fashion, I hear muffled sounds from the basement and follow them down the back stairwell. In a dimly lit hallway there’s a stack of staticky retro TVs, and at that moment I realize that this is the underground show that the attendants are waiting in line for. Let the journey begin.
We’re all packed like sardines in a room where you can smell the sweat of the person next to you. Purple Avatars act like demons as they fluster innocent fans in silence while the rest of the group stares in confusion. Then in an instant the mood changes to upheaval as the demons turn to revelers and start a moshpit to “WORLD ON FIRE.”
The chants on the hook instantly light the crowd up and I’m immediately swallowed up. Before we have time to catch our breath we’re sucked into a small door that leads to an adjacent, more spacious room and the revelers transform into ballet dancers as they groove to “TOO HARD TO KILL,” one of the ballads off the album. As they finish and bow, end credits flash on a projector screen aimed at the audience. “SINNER, SAINT.” “MISCREANT, MARTYR.”
The final stage: Inside a chamber, another Avatar kneels on a tiny pedestal with their head down and a mic in hand. So still that their shape looks more statue than human.
But as hypnotic hi-hats start to build up in an elongated African drum pattern, BNYX’s robotic tag blares and Lancey Foux finally rises up. “I’M ALIVE,” the spell bending outro that’s made the rounds online since the infamous Donda sessions, galvanizes the whole space. Dancers circle around Lancey as he screams every line like an incantation, each “ME!” reverberating the speaker. The song trails off and just for a nanosecond there’s silence until fans hound Lancey to snap a picture like they’ve seen a UFO. Then, in a flash, the dancers make their final transformation to bodyguards and rush everyone back upstairs to return to the main assembly.
An hour later Lancey ascends to the center stage for the main act. At this point he’s already made his mark on me, and I’ve used the last 45 minutes to test out the rest of the liquid emotions. The rest of the night is a blur, but as I leave, I make sure to grab a white tank from the merch table.
Headphones on, I’m out. On the walk back to the train I play LIFE IN HELL in full from a new vantage point. This is the world-building that I’ve known Lancey’s been capable of. He voyages towards the dark core of his psyche, then emerges from it as if he’s undergoing an existential crisis in real time. This isn’t factory fodder to serve as background music for some 19-year-old’s “Soundcloud 2.0” playlist, Lancey’s forcing you to take a whirlwind through chaos. Soundscapes don’t feel like they’re made in a DAW but as if a kid is having way too much fun customizing the script in Roblox. Lines are delivered with so much conviction that it feels like he’s brainwashing you to join his cult. “LIES WILL SET YOU FREE” is a paradoxical odyssey that makes all the sense in the world if you’ve ever experienced chaotic love. Collaborators aren’t there for clout points but to expand the record’s outer regions. Jah$star pops in for such a demented verse that you’ll think he’s a berserker. Ahead of the album’s release, Lancey noted, “I remember listening to ‘Damaged Goods’ by Gang Of Four every day, but it wasn’t because of them – it was the emotion and the energy in the song.” As I hop off the J train and into quiet Bed-Stuy, I suddenly realize the white tank isn’t hanging off my shoulder anymore. LIFE IN HELL completely unplugged me and for a moment the minutiae of everyday life ceased to matter. Before the outside world can pull me back in I hit play again. Reality can wait.