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Music

Appreciation: Hip-hop star Juice Wrld — a natural talent, yet another unnatural death

Juice WRLD
Juice Wrld, seen performing during November’s Camp Flog Gnaw festival in Los Angeles, died early Sunday at age 21.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Less than a month ago, Juice Wrld stood onstage in a parking lot at Dodger Stadium and performed his song “Legends” in front of an audience numbering in the tens of thousands.

The gifted young hip-hop artist from Chicago — a marquee act at November’s annual Camp Flog Gnaw festival — wrote the mournful yet cathartic track as a tribute to Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, a pair of contemporaries who’d tragically died not long before. But in the months after the release of “Legends” last year, two more rappers — Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle — died way, way, way before their time. So as Juice Wrld did the song at Dodger Stadium, his teenage and twentysomething fans singing along with every word, black-and-white video footage of all four artists flashed across a giant screen behind him.

Juice Wrld, who was born and raised in the Chicago area, achieved a career high in 2018 when “Lucid Dreams” made it to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

“Flog Gnaw, make some noise for our legends,” he told the crowd, and that “our” was instructive: Although these artists may not have achieved the household-name status of a Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar, the connections they made with their followers — through their music and through the modern confessional booth that is social media — were uncommonly intimate. To their fans, as Juice Wrld understood, each man’s passing represented a death in the family.

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Juice Wrld
Juice Wrld broke through into the mainstream in 2018 with his Sting-sampling single, “Lucid Dreams.”
(Hartford Magazine)

Now this thoughtful eulogizer is himself the subject of homage. Juice Wrld, whose real name was Jarad Higgins, died Sunday morning at age 21 after he reportedly suffered a seizure at Chicago’s Midway airport. The Cook County medical examiner’s office in Illinois confirmed his death but didn’t specify a cause, pending an autopsy set to take place Monday.

Juice Wrld, who was scheduled to perform at next weekend’s Rolling Loud festival in Los Angeles, was part of a wave of young singer-rappers to emerge in recent years from the do-it-yourself streaming platform SoundCloud. Working in the wake of superstars like Drake and Post Malone, whose emotional, highly melodic hip-hop has served as pop’s dominant sound in the 2010s, Juice Wrld began posting songs, some of which he’d recorded on his phone, while he was still in high school.

But the music industry was quick to capitalize on his grassroots success: Interscope signed the artist last year when he was 19, then gave a major-label push to “Lucid Dreams,” a moody breakup song built on an unlikely yet effective sample of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” that had already racked up millions of plays online. “Lucid Dreams” went on to reach No. 2 on the Hot 100 and helped drive Juice Wrld’s debut studio album, 2018’s “Goodbye & Good Riddance,” to platinum certification; this past March, his follow-up LP, “Death Race for Love,” debuted atop Billboard’s album chart.

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As with Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, listeners were responding in part to Juice Wrld’s frankly personal lyrics about depression and drug abuse, which went well beyond Drake’s celebrity blues (to say nothing of the chest-beating of an earlier generation) at a moment when Gen Z rappers had begun making hip-hop a center of the cultural conversation regarding mental health.

“Thinking of you in my bed / You were my everything,” he sang in “Lucid Dreams,” his eager yelp edged with desperation, “Thoughts of a wedding ring / Now I’m just better off dead.” Another song, “All Girls Are the Same,” had him complaining of “demons in my brain,” while in “No Bystanders,” a track from Travis Scott’s smash “Astroworld” album, he rhymed “the party never ends” with “laying with my sins.” Then there was “Legends,” in which he predicted his demise with troubling accuracy: “What’s the 27 Club? / We ain’t making it past 21.” (His birthday was Dec. 2.)

Like other SoundCloud rappers, Juice Wrld talked openly about his struggles with addiction. Speaking to a New York magazine reporter this year, he mused about the effect of having been prescribed Ritalin as a fifth grader, though he acknowledged he used recreationally as well.

“I would like to see all the younger talent live longer and I hate waking up hearing another story filled with blessings was cut short,” Drake wrote Sunday on Instagram in an apparent reference to Juice Wrld along with Lil Peep and Miller, both of whom died of overdoses, and XXXTentacion and Hussle, both of whom were victims of homicide.

In an interview with the New York Times in April, Juice Wrld said he wrote about death because most people were “too scared” to touch on the subject — which, in spite of the adoration he clearly inspired, isn’t to say that his music always had a heroic quality. As the title of “All Girls Are the Same” suggests, Juice Wrld in his songs about heartbreak could be sadly one-dimensional in his depiction of women; to watch so many young men at Camp Flog Gnaw chant along with him about being “a jealous boy” was to feel some measure of worry about tomorrow’s husbands and fathers.

Yet as raw as the feelings in his music were, Juice Wrld was also a skilled record-maker, one whose clever use of that Sting sample led the veteran English rock star to call “Lucid Dreams” a “beautiful interpretation that is faithful to the original song’s form.” Another artist considerably older than Juice Wrld, the 36-year-old rapper Future, was sufficiently impressed by the up-and-comer that he recruited him for a joint 2018 mixtape.

His most distinctive strength was perhaps the seamlessness with which he incorporated his love of emo and pop-punk bands like Blink-182 and Panic! at the Disco — his love of their sing-songy hooks and their proudly nasal vocal delivery — into rap songs whose software-enabled creation shared virtually nothing with how rock groups typically work in the recording studio.

For artists raised like Juice Wrld in the streaming age, combining genres in that way hardly constitutes an act of rebellion. But few made it sound as natural as he did in songs that pointed to a generation’s varied pleasures even as they evoked its collective pain.


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