The medical and music industries might be currently debating whether there’s a safe way to throw shows during a pandemic, and Georgia’s live performance venues, nightclubs, and bars are closed through at least the end of the month, as ordered by Governor Brian Kemp. But Atlanta rapper Skooly, whose first taste of Billboard success was 2009’s “My Patna Dem” (as part of the group Rich Kidz), still had a new album to promote.
On Thursday, Skooly invited fans to Starlight Drive-In to preview Nobody Likes Me hours before its midnight release. One of Starlight’s screens showed a short documentary, as fans listened the album in its entirety through their car radios. Skooly announced the event Monday, the same day the state of Arkansas hosted America’s first pandemic concert, with capacity reduced by 80 percent. The promo flyer acknowledged the awkward timing for an album drop: “Come enjoy new music from Skooly the safest way possible: from your car.” But the release party didn’t feel like a pandemic event, not with the large show of support and near-complete lack of face masks.
By 8 p.m., fans driving Honda Civics, Dodge Chargers, and an Hyundai Infiniti G37S with a “HUNCHO” license plate spent up to 20 minutes waiting to drive barely 500 feet to Starlight’s entrance. One security guard wore a Skooly-branded balaclava. But when a driver asked him for instructions, he peeled it off halfway to actually speak. Another unmasked member of Skooly’s street team handed out commemorative Styrofoam cups and popcorn boxes. People pulled into the lot and formed makeshift rows across parking spots facing the single screen airing the documentary. It was up to the crowd to keep a safe distance, whether between cars or from other human beings.
And when left to their own devices, in the 90 minutes they spent waiting for the event to begin, the crowd didn’t. People wandered around the lot. They sat on their car hoods and rooftops, taking in the clear skies. They mingled to cars blasting Skooly’s breakout hits from when he was part of Rich Kidz, and making the 25-year-old rapper “the living thread that connects trap and ‘ringtone rap’ to the viscous sing-song variety of today,” as Briana Younger wrote for Pitchfork in 2018. At sunset, the scene—mostly 20-somethings who likely remember when Rich Kidz was discovered by T.I.’s Grand Hustle at Club Crucial ten years ago—was as breezy and relaxed as an American Eagle ad.
Skooly also didn’t acknowledge the current health crisis. The venue choice also didn’t feel like a concession, not when 2 Chainz—who signed Skooly to his T.R.U. imprint in 2015—specializes in this sort of publicity stunt, like the Pink Trap House for 2017’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music. In the short documentary, seemingly before shelter-at-home policies began in Georgia, family friends in Bankhead, where Skooly grew up, vouch for how he was the first to make trap music go melodic—a gripe of his since he went solo five years ago. The sullen Nobody Likes Me is another bid for this former child star to be taken seriously as a grown artist and 2020 XXL Freshman Class contender. He breaks apart the pop-R&B-rap fusion that made him famous at 15, going toe-to-toe with Lil Baby one moment (“Neva Know”) and crooning to a harp in another (“Genocide”), as if to show versatility.
After the screen faded to black, the true celebration began, as Skooly popped up below for an impromptu meet-and-greet. A video camera trailed him as fans cheered him on. A few yards away, near Starlight’s still-closed snack bar, about two dozen fans—almost none of them masked—started singing and dancing to songs spanning his career, like his feature on the late Bankroll Fresh’s “Take Over Your Trap.”
This was a sign that Skooly doesn’t need to seek out validation in his hometown. But it also confirmed our current state with coronavirus. On paper, socially distanced concerts are a necessary compromise for a live music industry that essentially shut down when the pandemic began and for artists who rely on money-making tours in the age of marginal streaming royalties. But with all this fanfare, Skooly and his followers made clear they didn’t want a new normal. The night’s biggest selling point was recalling a time before self-quarantine. It was pure nostalgia.