When Juice WRLD released ‘Goodbye & Good Riddance’ at only 19 — his first major label album drop — listeners latched onto him and critics didn’t know what to do with him.
But that was the stereotype of critics, wasn’t it? Haughty and old-school, turned off by any new age experimentation.
They grappled with Juice’s youngness, his teenage angst and fumbling but intriguing delivery. Some were irked. Some were endeared. Some felt the full-blown potential of Juice was yet to come.
Juice’s brand of rap was sulky and melodic, urgent yet indolent, pleasantly primal and distantly relatable. Most likely, you didn’t live your life like Juice did, drug-fuelled and desolate, but you indulged him the pain and confusion that underpinned his lyrical escapism.
Because much like his contemporaries, Juice’s music focused on themes of death ideation and self-medication. He sang about abusing benzos, pain medication, recreational and hard drugs, as well as his own aliveness and mortality.
His breakout hit ‘Lucid Dreams’ dealt with the end of a love-hate relationship and the despondency that came with such a loss (“I take prescriptions to make me feel a-okay, I know it’s all in my head … You were my everything, thoughts of a wedding ring, now I’m just better off dead.”)
In his world, Juice made it okay to be vulnerable. As a rising darling of emo rap, he shifted the parameters of masculinity in hip hop. Juice solidified himself as someone you would listen to if you wanted to be locked into your feelings with a ‘do not disturb’ sign hanging off the door.
He wasn’t alone, either. He existed in a galaxy of emotionally charged male artists — on the alternative R’n’B side, The Weeknd and Drake; on the emo rap side, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty and the late Lil Peep, to name a few.
Juice’s brand of trap might have been alienating and irreverent to some, yet catchy and alluring to others. Vocals deliberately over-produced and under-polished in spots, his delivery lagging like his tongue had forgotten how to move, it was the kind of music that hooked you in its decadence and theatricality. Sure, the genre could sometimes be over-the-top and one-note, because even vulnerability has its unspoken rules — it can only be understood within the confines of death, destruction or drugs. But Juice, who passed away aged 21 after a seizure at a Chicago airport on December 8, was still endlessly listenable.
Born Jarad Higgins, Juice became an important voice of a growing genre. He found a home in the competitive and global realm of pop. He collaborated with K-Pop group BTS on ‘All Night’ earlier this year, and ‘Hate Me’, his summer track with British singer Ellie Goulding, amassed more than 140 million streams on Spotify, becoming his second most-streamed track on the platform after ‘Bandit’ with YoungBoy Never Broke Again.
“Juice’s best potential songwriting is yet to come,” wrote HiphopDX’s Bryan Hahn of ‘Goodbye and Good Riddance’ in 2018. “If he keeps seeking out growth within his craft, his third album should be something special.”
Juice released a number of EPs and mixtapes between 2015 and 2018 before signing to Interscope, and earlier this year dropped his second studio album ‘Death Race for Love’. Juice’s musical journey has been tragically cut short, much to the heartbreak of the larger community. Losing rappers like Juice WRLD, Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle is a blow to the musical landscape at large, creating a void that alters what could have been.
“I would like to see all the younger talent live longer,” wrote Drake on Instagram, underneath a photo of Juice. “I hate waking up hearing another story filled with blessings was cut short.”
“He knows our hearts,” wrote fellow Chicago artist Chance the Rapper. “I really wish we had more talks like that one night in LA. Dude. This is ridiculous. Millions of people, not just in Chicago but around the world are hurting because of this and don’t know what to make of it. I’m sorry. Love you and God bless your soul.”