On Juice WRLD’s Short Life And Long Legacy
A year ago, Juice WRLD asked a rhetorical question: “What’s the 27 Club?” And then: “We ain’t making it past 21.” The we there is crucial. Juice WRLD asked that question, and gave his own heavy-hearted answer, on the song “Legends.” He released it in June of 2018, the day after the murder of XXXTentacion. Juice WRLD wrote the song in immediate tribute to his late peers XXXTentacion and Lil Peep: “This time, it was so unexpected. Last time, it was the drugs he was lacing.” But he foretold his own end, too: “They tell me I’ma be a legend. I don’t want that title now. Cuz all the legends seem to die out. What the fuck is this about?”
XXXTentacion was 20 when he died. Lil Peep was 21. Juice WRLD died early on Sunday morning, suffering from seizures after his private plane landed in Chicago. He’d turned 21 six days earlier. I guess he’s a legend now.
We’ve seen waves of death like this in pop music before. Drugs also brought down the psych-rock legends of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the grunge frontmen of the early ’90s. But we’ve never seen anything quite like this, if only because the people dying are so young. Juice WRLD, Lil Peep, and XXXTentacion aren’t the only rappers to lose their lives to drugs and violence in recent years, but all three were figureheads of the SoundCloud rap wave, the word-of-mouth youth movement that challenged rap orthodoxies on almost every level. They might be the three most important rappers that this scene ever produced. Lil Peep seemed likely to become a huge pop star. XXXTentacion sort of was one, though this was complicated by the violent, toxic figure he cut. Juice WRLD really was a full-on pop star, a guy who made hits and who was on his way to becoming a part of rap’s firmament going forward. Now, he’ll never get the chance.
When I first wrote at length about Juice WRLD, around the same time that “Legends” hit the internet and “Lucid Dreams” crossed over into the top 10, I wondered if he was the controllable major-label version of Lil Peep, the one who was destined to transform Peep’s murky and chaotic emo-rap sound into something scalable: “I’ve taken to thinking of Juice WRLD as the Macklemore to Lil Peep’s Atmosphere — the cleaned-up, simplistic, pop-friendly face of a sound that started out as a genuine underground phenomenon.” This was stupid and simplistic. I hadn’t yet understood what made Juice WRLD unique. And I also hadn’t understood the depth of his problems.
Juice WRLD did a lot of drugs. Drugs were a constant presence in his music. Almost every song has references to lean or to pills. Even the most celebratory have lines about being numb to the world. Plenty of of his songs have references to death, too: “Will I die tonight? I don’t know, is it over? Looking for my next high, I’m looking for closure.” About a year ago, Juice WRLD and Future released the collaborative album WRLD On Drugs. Future was 15 years older than Juice WRLD. When Juice WRLD first met future, Juice WRLD told Future that he’d influenced the younger rapper to try lean. Here’s how Juice WRLD remembered the exchange: “[Future] just was like, ‘Wow.’ He kind of apologized.”
Juice WRLD’s death isn’t Future’s fault. It’s everyone’s fault. Fame is unhealthy. It’s an unnatural way to live. We’ve seen countless examples of this over the years. Juice WRLD was one of many young stars who ascended to fame without enough people around to look after him, to tell him to slow down and to get him the help he needed. In interviews, Juice WRLD always said half-hearted things about wanting to live healthier, wanting to spend some time at a detox center. Someone should’ve made sure that happened. But this shit is hard. Many, many thousands of young Americans have died in recent years — victims of the drug barons who got to live right out in the open, putting their names on museums and hospital wings even as they got richer on death.
Juice WRLD was a baby. He was into anime and Percy Jackson books. He was, more or less, a product of Chicago’s drill scene, and he had connections to drill stars like G Herbo and Lil Bibby. But his great innovation was to fuse that sound to mid-’00s Warped Tour pop-punk, a style that came instinctively to him. He absorbed the bad parts of that style as well as the good ones, and he had a troubling tendency, in his lyrics, to blame his miseries on exes. But he also had a tremendous gift for melody, for crafting playfully soaring singsong hooks. He sounded just even more comfortable alongside Panic! At The Disco or Ellie Goulding than he did next to Future. He was getting better all the time.
Juice WRLD’s last single, October’s “Bandit,” was, for me, the moment it all came together. It’s a love song, more or less: “My girl the definition of a bad bitch. Stole her heart, I’m the definition of a bandit.” Throughout the song, he finds little melodic variations, switching it up constantly, pushing his way through the hypnotic harpsichord beat. I listened to that song over and over. It clicked. I couldn’t get sick of it if I tried. Maybe “Bandit” was the best song that Juice WRLD ever recorded. Maybe I just caught up to something that millions of American teenagers had figured out long before.
In his short time in the spotlight, Juice WRLD made a whole lot of music. In less than two years, he came out with two solo albums, one collaborative album, and dozens of one-off singles and guest verses. He left a whole lot of music unreleased, too, which means we’ll be hearing new Juice WRLD music for a long time. The same has been true of XXXTentacion and Lil Peep. A posthumous XXXTentacion album came out two days before Juice WRLD died. A posthumous Lil Peep album came out a couple of weeks before. Juice WRLD, like Peep and XXXTentacion, was an important person, and his influence will linger. Somewhere, right now, there’s a kid making a song about him. I hope that kid makes it past 21.
1. Zack Fox – “The Bean Kicked In”
Look: This is almost certainly the wrong place for me to celebrate anarchic pill-fueled silliness. And yet this song is some really good anarchic pill-fueled silliness.
2. Navy Blue – “Higher Self”
There is a lot of sadness to this song. There’s a lot of beauty, too. “Told my image I ain’t scared of you, not no more.”
3. OFB Dezzie – “Bad Bread”
As with a whole lot of UK drill, I can barely understand a word this guy says. I can understand the urgency, though.
4. Celly Ru – “Body Talk” (Feat. Rio Da Young Og)
The Bay Area/Detroit connection apparently extends to the rest of Michigan. Rio is from Flint, and he sounds absolutely ugly when talking about murdering you over Bay beats: “I’m in Cali wearing Ballys, me and Celly Ru / Popped him in the head and keep shooting until I smell he poop.”
5. Yung Ro – “Spin Cycle”
Yung Ro is a newly inked Meek Mill signee from Houston. Right now, he’s most famous for lightly beefing with Blueface and for explaining on social media why he hasn’t bought any jewelry yet. But if he keeps making songs like this, then he’s about to be a whole lot more famous for making songs like these.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
this is the most insane cover art i’ve ever seen pic.twitter.com/mXMbgaAOvJ
— MR. FISH & GRITS (@hefstradamus) December 9, 2019