One of the more disturbing text messages I’ve received came on Monday morning, from a friend who teaches young teenagers in a public school in a diverse and middle-income northeastern exurb. He wrote that his students were in almost unanimous agreement that Juice WRLD, the hip-hop star who succumbed to a lethal and possibly drug-related seizure at the incomprehensibly young age of 21 over the weekend, had faked his own death.
There was apparently a single, years-old tweet attesting to some future plan to this effect. Open-and-shut: The young man who had written “Lucid Dreams” and was up there with Post Malone as one of Spotify’s five most-streamed male American artists of the past year wasn’t dead after all. No need to face reality. Their hero lived.
From the very beginning, Juice WRLD’s runaway popularity had been a window into what the horror world of 2019 — this lonely hellscape of smartphone screens and codeine and casual cruelty and antidepressants and vape juice — was doing to young minds. It was really one of the only such windows available to we ancients, we people a decade older than Juice WRLD or Lil Peep or XXXTenatacion will ever live to be. It’s dark. He has all these drug problems that he says he wants to fix but probably can’t; his friends keep dying from doing things he probably does too; he can’t find love and certainly can’t keep it; he’s just generally tortured with all these feelings that are way too heavy for someone that young.
The heartbreaking thing about the faked death theory, then, is the legibility of the students’ thought process, along with the absolute certainty that I would have believed something similar if I were their age at this moment. Even as a not-teenager, it’s painful to visualize what probably actually did happen—per various media reports, the man with the government name Jarad Higgins swallowed three Percocets, an opioid painkiller, to hide them during a raid on a private plane. He then died shortly after an emergency dose of Narcan had briefly revived him. My mind later hearkened to another recent conversation with another teacher-friend, who recalled a revenge-porn spree in which a student air-dropped her rivals’ nudes to every open device she could find.
Take the aforementioned “Lucid Dreams” and consider what its breakout superpopularity says. This is Juice WRLD’s biggest hit, the song of his that you’re most likely to have heard before. Juice wails through a chorus full of angsty groaners — “Easier said than done/I thought you were the one,” etc. — but the hook ends on a jolting unrhymed line: “I am the better one/I won’t let you forget me.” The flow is over; Juice’s pained patter routine slams to a discordant stop. Then the dark part begins. “You left me falling and landing inside my grave,” Juice croons. “I know that you want me dead/I take prescriptions to make me feel a-okay/I know it’s all in my head.”
As this passage suggests, Juice WRLD’s talent wasn’t as a rapper but as a pop musician. His rhymes are secondary to the feelings his music is meant to convey. Prominent among those feelings is anguish at his alienation and inability to find or keep love, and exhaustion at the seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of codeine, Percocet, etc., his mind and body continued to endure. What made Juice a successful pop musician is that he could actually make his listeners feel those feelings.
He had an uncanny instinct for melodic phrasing, with his verses often rising and falling in uneasily fragile symmetry. In “Robbery,” his second-most-famous song, the central lines end on a battery of hard consonants, making you cease to care, for a moment and possibly also permanently, that you aren’t exactly listening to an MF Doom or Black Thought-level wordsmith: “She told me to put my heart/In a bag/and nobody gets hurt.” The words were all that they needed to be to reach the places Juice wanted and needed them to go. They often hit their targets: Death Race for Love, Juice’s second full-length, debuted at number one on the Billboard charts this past March. (Juice has been so good at reaching younger audiences that older and far more established acts sought him out as a way of boosting their streaming stats — see, for instance, Wrld on Drugs, his 2018 mixtape with Future.)
Juice’s death is a chance to think about why moody and almost uncomfortably edgy confessional emo-rap that seems to both glorify and deeply regret the abuse of codeine and other downers conquered so many young hearts and ears in the year 2019. Against many conceivable counter-arguments, I maintain that there are no clear antecedents for Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert, Ski Mask the Slump God, and their cohort.
Eminem’s work got pretty dark, but he was a larger-than-life figure who sometimes seemed to disdain the idea his fans would identify all that deeply with his pain (see: “Stan”). One could name a slew of early-to-mid-2000s emo bands, but their concerns were notably suburban — they made songs you played after getting dumped by the co-captain of the field hockey team. And anyway, Fallout Boy and Dashboard Confessional were never quite as ubiquitous as Juice became during the final years of his life. Like Juice WRLD, Nas and Lil Wayne both became stars in their teens — Nas in particular had a talent for channeling his real-life struggles seemingly as he was living them. But Nas was sociologically minded and linguistically elevated in a way that doesn’t always resonate with the young. The Wu-Tang Clan and its various members were masters of narrative, evoking worlds of violent intrigue that sheltered suburbanites would never know; 50 Cent helped inaugurate hip-hop’s decadent phase in which crime and brutality and structural injustice could all be subsumed into mind-numbing self-mythology. For the most part, Juice WRLD wasn’t an escapist or a braggart. He wrote about what was around him and how he felt about it: bad.
Instead, Juice WRLD and the various other emo-rappers were welcome signs that the decadent phase was over. Rappers continue to boast of popping Percs like they’re Altoids—which is still, it should be noted, a far cry from “Big Pimpin’” or “This Is The Way We Ball” or whatever other lamely hyper-materialist trash I adored 15 years ago — but Juice joined darkness with tragic ambivalence in a register the Migos usually can’t pull off. He was not some wannabe Olympian figure pouring champagne over a stripper, but another confused young man grappling with forces and feelings that he couldn’t always understand or control, agonizing over his powerlessness against the exterminating forces of opiates and love. Young fans heard an artist who didn’t claim to dwell on some other higher or better echelon than they did — some of his appeal actually stemmed from not being a God-tier lyrical genius, and from rapping over beats that could be made with fairly basic software.
There are much less encouraging messages in Juice’s brief life. His popularity mirrors the depth of the emotional needs his music filled — if the kids’ lives are roller coasters of panic and codeine, then this is the sort of music that finds its way onto the radio sooner or later. Juice WRLD was one of the most successful artists alive because he sang a specific sadness that today’s young fans could hear. One can respect the music while also being slightly freaked out at this.
I saw Juice WLRD perform once, at Bonnaroo this past June, on a blistering Saturday afternoon. It turned out to be one of the funnest sets of the festival — the crowd was excited to see him; he came out alongside a guitarist and a drummer, which is somewhat unusual for a rap show, and he generally seemed to realize he was in the midst of one of the biggest gigs of his life. “I problem-solve with styrofoam!/My world revolves around a black hole” he bellowed into a field of upraised arms under tranquil country skies as cartoon cups of lean (a vodka, jolly ranchers, and codeine cough syrup cocktail, sort of the spiritual opposite elixir to a Cosmo) mutated on a giant screen behind him.
The best concerts take place on some unreal other plane where the only cosmic truth seems to be standing right in front of you. On that blissed-out afternoon, catharsis came through someone carrying death inside him. And in retrospect the thing wasn’t cathartic at all. The show wasn’t some spectacular mass release, but the shared suppression of something obvious: The man in front of us wasn’t OK, and maybe neither are we.