Juice WRLD’s Posthumous Album Is Haunting And Bittersweet
The last track on Juice WRLD’s new album is a 30-second spoken-word snippet called “Juice WRLD Speaks From Heaven.” This is an unsettling title because Juice WRLD is dead. The superstar sing-rapper born Jarad Higgins passed away last December, just days after his 21st birthday, from an accidental overdose of oxycodone and codeine. So when he announces, at the end of his posthumous album, “I’m on Instagram Live from Heaven,” it’s devastating and surreal, like being visited by a ghost. “I made it y’all, I’m up here, I’m boolin’,” Juice continues. “Haha, I love y’all to death. How can I ask for better fans or supporters? For sure, I love all y’all to death, 999, forever.” He then sings one of his more memorable lyrics: “The party never ends!”
This epilogue is not an actual dispatch from beyond — it’s excerpted from a June 2019 Instagram Live broadcast with SoundCloud rap producer DJ Scheme — but the effect is haunting all the same. It’s one of many such moments on Legends Never Die, an album consumed with anxiety, depression, and creeping death. Again and again, Juice refers to his own imminent demise. Sometimes he sounds resigned to it. Sometimes he sounds resolved to overcome it. Sometimes he even encourages his listeners that whatever they’re going through, they can make it to the other side. None of this is new material for Juice WRLD; virtually everything he released in his two years of fame centered on the same ideas. Now that he’s gone, though, the constant references to his mortality add up to a deeply eerie experience. The album hits hard, not least of all because it finds Juice at the peak of his powers, fully stepping into his role as a generation-defining pop star. Much more so than last week’s posthumous Pop Smoke album, it does justice to the essence of an artist who died when they were just getting started.
Juice WRLD broke through with 2018’s “Lucid Dreams,” which narrowly missed the #1 spot and remains his biggest chart hit. The track hybridized SoundCloud rap with Warped Tour pop-punk and emo to disturbingly catchy effect: “I still see your shadows in my room,” he sang through Auto-Tune, couching seething bile toward an ex in an appealingly fluid melody. “Can’t take back the love that I gave you.” My colleague Tom Breihan once called it “an oddly pretty song about taking pills and contemplating your own death, all because some girl did you wrong”; in the same article, he summed up Juice’s debut Goodbye & Good Riddance as an album “about feeling romantically dejected or about doing whatever drugs you can find so that you feel numb rather than romantically dejected.” Less than two years later, in the wake of Juice’s untimely death, Tom acknowledged that he’d been coming around on this guy; maybe Juice WRLD’s music was rapidly evolving, but also “maybe I just caught up to something that millions of American teenagers had figured out long before.”
For many of us a bit older than Juice WRLD’s youthful fan base, it was convenient to write him off as a SoundCloud rap bogeyman, to mock him for sadboi song titles like “HeMotions” and raise moral concerns about his attitude toward women while being more lenient toward toxic lyrics from artists we found more aesthetically pleasing. But last year’s Death Race For Love complicated that caricature. Lyrically, his tone was (mostly) less vicious and vindictive. Musically, he was stepping out in a dozen directions and pulling them off, showing off adeptness with both hooks and bars atop an impressive range of production. Meanwhile Juice was jumping on tracks with artists outside his original milieu, from BTS to Ellie Goulding, and sounding completely at home. Like Tom, I was too stuck in my own biases to properly recognize it at first, but the guy was becoming an icon in real time, reflecting back millions of people’s struggles with drugs, mental health and, yes, heartbreak too.
On Legends Never Die, Juice has moved beyond blaming his problems on women, but he’s still coping with those same problems in the same ways. In another spoken interlude that introduces the new album, he explains, “You know my relationship is good, I got money, but there’s still other issues to talk about other than heartbreak. You’ve got anxiety, you’ve got substance abuse, you’ve got, you know, and there’s a lot of issues in the world to talk about.” That’s a generous interpretation of a collection with such single-minded focus. It’s difficult to identify a moment on the album when Juice WRLD is rapping about anything but anxiety and substance abuse. “Takin’ medicine to fix all of the damage/ My anxiety the size of a planet,” he sings over moody chords and emo guitar arpeggios on “Righteous,” one of Legends Never Die’s catchiest and most unnerving songs. Within the same track he laments “We may die this evening” while grasping at optimism in the face of doom: “When it’s my time, I’ll know/ Never seen a hell so cold/ Yeah, we’ll make it out, I’ll know/ We’ll run right through the flames, let’s go.”
From start to finish, Juice remains fixated on that dangerous dance between drugs and depression. On “Wishing Well,” a pop-minded vision of pop-punk trap, he howls, “Let’s be for real/ If it wasn’t for the pills, I wouldn’t be here/ But if I keep taking these pills, I won’t be here.” Within a minute of name-checking Lauryn Hill, he paraphrases Marilyn Manson: “I stopped takin’ the drugs, and now the drugs take me.” What’s remarkable is how many ways he’s able to verbalize these same concepts, how many musical backdrops he can graft into his signature sound. With its boisterous drum programming and darting lead guitar, the Trippie Redd duet “Tell Me U Luv Me” could almost pass for Afrobeats. “Come & Go,” one of two collabs with Marshmello, is practically a post-EDM jock jam, full of crunchy power chords and thunderous beat drops. Whether joining forces with Halsey for the string-laden ballad “Life’s A Mess,” flexing about his demons over gorgeous booming blips on “Conversations,” playing the foil to Polo G’s bluesy gangster rap on “Hate The Other Side,” or going full blink-182 on grand finale “Man Of The Year,” he sounds completely natural and in his element.
Many of these modes will still repel listeners who can’t stomach popular music at its most garish. Like peers from Post Malone to the late Lil Peep, two other acts my brain had to acclimate to over time, Juice WRLD was the kind of magnetic figure who pulls listeners into his orbit rather than cater to prevailing notions of high art and good taste. To Pimp A Butterfly this is not. At 55 minutes it’s one of the breezier 21-track rap albums you’ll encounter, but no matter how many subtle or overt stylistic shifts he pulls off, there’s a limit to how many times Juice can linger on the same subjects without sometimes wearing thin. And when he does finally pivot to joy on “Man Of The Year,” raising a codeine toast to himself and declaring, “I know my lyrics saved you,” it’s grating enough to make me long for more wallowing. Still, a sizable portion of his audience would surely confirm that Juice’s music was a life raft in dark times.
Near the end of Legends Never Die, another interlude presents audio segments from before and after Juice WRLD’s death, expressions of approval from stars like Travis Scott and Eminem compiled into a testament to Juice’s legacy. Young Thug begins the segment by comparing Juice to “2006 to 2009 Lil Wayne.” G Herbo ends it by proclaiming, “What Juice was to our generation, bro, and the impact he had on us is what Biggie did for New York, for real. Like, I really think he had that Biggie, Pac effect.” These are sentiments I would have deemed extremely suspect when Juice WRLD was on the rise, but in hindsight it’s impossible to deny how prolific he was in his brief spotlight moment and what an important role he played in defining the current sound of hip-hop. I hope I would have recognized him as a legend if he was still living.
Pop Smoke becomes only the fourth rapper with a posthumous #1 album this week, topping the Billboard 200 with debut LP Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon with 251,000 equivalent album units and 59,000 in sales. Per Billboard, it’s the sixth best one-week total of the year (behind the Weeknd, BTS, Lil Uzi Vert, Eminem, and Lady Gaga), and its 190,000 in streaming equivalent albums — which amount to 268.44 million track streams — are the fourth best of 2020 (behind the first two weeks of Uzi’s Eternal Atake and the debut week of Drake’s Dark Lane Demo Tapes). Among rappers, only the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, and XXXTentacion have topped the chart with a posthumous release.
With 102,000 units and 32,000 in sales, the Hamilton original cast recording shoots up to a new peak of #2 thanks to a filmed live performance of the play debuting on Disney+. It’s the highest chart position for a Broadway cast recording since Hair spent 13 weeks at #1 in 1969. Hamilton previously peaked at #3 in the wake of the 2016 Tony Awards, which at the time tied it with The Book Of Mormon for the highest Broadway album peak since Hair. The rest of this week’s top 10 comprises longstanding hits from Lil Baby, DaBaby, Post Malone, the Weeknd, Harry Styles, Polo G, Lil Uzi Vert, and Lil Durk.
Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, things are mostly the same. DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” rules the chart for a fifth nonconsecutive week, followed by the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #2, Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin” at #3, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage” at #4, and SAINt JHN’s “Roses” at #5. The biggest song from the Pop Smoke album, the Lil Baby/DaBaby collab “For The Night,” debuts at #6. Per Billboard, it’s Pop’s first top-10 hit, the fifth for Lil Baby, and the fourth for DaBaby. Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” reaches a new #7 peak, and the top 10 is rounded out by Lil Mosey’s “Blueberry Faygo,” Doja Cat’s “Say So,” and Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions.”
Katy Perry – “Smile”
This is good and also sounds completely out of date. But if Katy Perry is no longer trying to make cutting-edge pop music, she might as well be serving up something like Mark Ronson remixing Graduation-era Kanye production. (In reality “Smile” has a zillion songwriters and was produced by the trio of Oligee, Abraham, and G Koop.)
Tainy & J Balvin – “Agua”
As expected, this is a perfectly competent reggaeton track, but it’s pretty funny that J Balvin’s song from the Spongebob movie is less cartoonish than what he was doing with Bad Bunny.
Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”
Zara Larrson is not messing around! Can someone show this to the TikTok children because I’d really like “Love Me Land” to become a hit.
Becky G – “My Man”
Come for the mariachi-reggaeton echo-chamber, stay for the fighting-game rom-com music video.
James Bay – “Chew On My Heart”
I prefer the O.C. soundtrack retromania of Bay’s prior album to this Hozier-goes-disco sound, but “Chew On My Heart” is growing on me.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Two new DJ Khaled songs with Drake are dropping this Friday. [Twitter]
- Lil Nas X teased a new song, “Call Me By Your Name.” [Twitter]
- Justin Timberlake made an Instagram post calling for the removal of Confederate monuments. [Instagram]
- Paramore apologized for selling a fan-designed BLM benefit poster that reimagined their Riot! album cover with the names of police brutality victims. [Alt Press]
- Jada Pinkett-Smith confirmed she had a romantic relationship with August Alsina while separated from Will Smith. [Vulture]
- Katy Perry on Kanye West’s presidential ambitions: “I think we have seen and learned from experience that when we don’t have pros in position, that it can get a little wild.” [YouTube]
- Mariah Carey’s memoir, The Meaning Of Mariah Carey, will be released by Andy Cohen Books in September. [Twitter]
- In Nashville’s first major concert in almost four months, Brad Paisley played one of Live Nation’s socially distanced drive-in shows over the weekend. [Tennessean]
- Bebe Rexha is delaying her album release until “the world is in a better place.” [Twitter]
- Louis Tomlinson announced he’s leaving Simon Cowell’s record label Syco Music. [Twitter]
- Billie Eilish will make an appearance on the new 12-episode podcast An Oral History Of The Office. [EW]
- The Academy says the new Hamilton movie will not be eligible for Oscars because it’s a filmed version of the stage play, and not a feature-length film. So Lin-Manuel Miranda will have to wait a little longer for his EGOT. [Vanity Fair]
- Here’s Halsey’s new ice cream commercial. [YouTube]
- And here’s Halsey new hand tattoo in tribute to the late Juice WRLD. [Instagram]
- Speaking of Juice WRLD, Yellowcard’s lawsuit against his estate is back on. [Rock Feed]
- Diplo and Noah Cyrus released a video for “On Mine.” [YouTube]
- Harry Styles has a “sleep story” available on the Calm app. [Standard]
- Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani, and Trace Adkins will play a drive-in concert event on 7/25. [USA Today]
- Charlie Puth released a video for “Girlfriend.” [YouTube]
- Wrabel and Kesha teamed up on new song “Since I Was Young.” [YouTube]
- Foster The People released a dancy new song called “The Things We Do.” [YouTube]