Juice WRLD | And How Does It Feel To Be On Top Of The World
Juice WRLD does not know where he is. “In Geneva?”
Jarad Higgins is right, and he is very far from home. When we speak he’s just hours removed from the finish line of his twenty-two stop run on Nicki Minaj’s international tour, as Future’s last-second replacement. It is not his first time here (his third, actually, although this trip is by far his most extensive to date) and almost certainly not his last. But the lingering geo-spatial dislocation is forgivable, given the circumstances.
Circumstance 1: Geneva is a long way from Juice’s home in the South Side of Chicago. Circumstance 2: Juice is twenty, currently immersed in the spin-cycle vortex of a major international stadium rap tour, each city a night, each stage a blink. Circumstance 3: Juice has just undergone perhaps the most supernaturally rapid launch into popstardom of the twentieth-century, a catapult through hyperspace. It is difficult to overstate what it felt like to witness his rise in 2018, charted in real- time: he wasn’t there, and then There He Was, a real-life creation myth.
It an obvious truth of your late- teens and early twenties that each year flickers by faster than the last, but Juice’s 2018 must have been a blur: peaking into the SoundCloud top 50 in January, Cole Bennett-directed videos in February, international ultrastar by the time the snow started to melt. It’s almost suspicious. When I ask him about the label some have applied—“industry plant,” the murmur du jour—he laughs. “It’s hard for me to believe I’m not one. I feel like I was just on my couch watching these people on YouTube videos, and now I’m sitting here, shaking hands and making beautiful music with them.”
It is easy to imagine the myriad ways that sudden fame can infiltrate one’s psyche and warp one’s perspective, and it would be cynical to begrudge an eighteen-year-old in that position for an ill-advised financial decision or TMZ blow-up. But Juice’s narrative is unusual for those of his ilk. He sounds more like the eye of the hurricane rather than the hurricane itself.
Locating stability in a daily routine that has ruthlessly stripped out any time that is unproductive (a sacrifice in the name of superstardom), and in a life that has upended his dynamic with everyone important around him, is a constant battle. He’s careful not to court negativity too closely, constantly thanking his fans and God for his blessings, but the central trait that drives our conversation is pragmatism. “That’s a lot of artists’ mistakes—they stop and look back too early,” he tells me. “The main thing is remembering why I do what I do, and the fact that I love doing what I do. There’s a certain way I want it to be done, and there are certain aspects and characteristics of myself that can’t be changed.”
Well, the stratosphere evidently matches his temperament. “Lucid Dreams,” the star-making single, is not everyone’s single— it wasn’t mine, and as the increasingly dismissive manner that Juice speaks about it now suggests, it probably isn’t his anymore either. But it really struck something: it is anguish in lockstep with flames, tinged by Sting sepia, and by the end of the year it had raced its way to nearly a billion on-demand audio and video streams according to BuzzAngle—the most streamed non-Drake song of the year. The indelible image from the song’s video is Juice’s head sticking up through a hole in the carpet, eyes so dull they mute his wails. Welcome to the face of teenage angst in 2018. It is genuinely staggering to think about the number of teenagers who have stared at their moonlit dashboards in still cars or lived their breakups to this song. In some ways that statement is self- evident and applicable to any sad Top 40 entrant, but whatever universal groundswell that Juice has tapped into seems more Tyler, the Creator (or even Kurt Cobain) than The Weeknd, a brand of brash teenage angst that is Not Meant For Me.
That dispatch had enough gas to fuel a debut album by mid-May, the mildly-sophomoric and very Juice Goodbye & Good Riddance. Like most debut albums rushed to store shelves and Spotify playlists to capitalize on world-breaking singles, Goodbye was part album and part lifetime-compilation, and thus outdated before it even arrived, with material (including “Lucid Dream”) dating back to high school. And like anything remotely associated with high school, it triggers vague embarrassment even in its maker—when Juice and I talk, we get momentarily distracted cataloging the number of songs on the album that weren’t about relationships (the final tally was 2 of 15). “I had some...high school feelings towards relationships,” as Juice puts it wryly. “When you broke up with someone you thought you loved in high school, it’s the whole ‘end-of-the-world’ mentality.”
If Goodbye was the awkward crash out of high school (although it has to be said—my awkward high school years didn’t get me a Billboard single), then Juice’s sophomore album, Death Race For Love, seems set to be cast as the college freshman reinvention. And to that point: Juice and everyone around him seem deeply aware that Death Race for Love is his Prove-It Album—the one that separates flame-outs from the real superstars. Accordingly, the party line is that things are Very Different and that Juice is Finding His Sound—when we speak, he tells me it’s an “updated version of a couple different areas of my mind. Goodbye was drawn from a real story, put together like a story, but on Death Race For Love, some songs have a correlation, but it’s just examples of different directions I could go and different ways I’ve been feeling over the past year.” It’s the reinvention and maturation all at once, the toughest double- billing in artist development.
In this case, the party line is both fair and unfair. First: Death Race is almost certainly at least five or six songs too long, still blinks into tried-and-true too often (within 30 seconds Juice is comparing his soul to a black hole), and threatens to spiral out of orbit without the gravity of a clear thematic epicenter. So yes, in some senses it is all just AutoTuned-sprawl, about 20% too prone to grasping at the most available synonym or simile, and intent on tripping over itself, constantly.
But then again, its resistance to categorization—darting from Ski Mask the Slump God karaoke to vicious Eminem homages over Spanish guitars—is mesmerizing. Similarly but more profoundly, Juice will tell me later that he doesn’t want to set goals for himself because goals often turn themselves into boundaries. One central conceit of music is the audacity to believe that things that are ineffable and at least nonverbal can be converted not just into words that can be verbalized and inscribed, but words that are also poetic. It’s odd to think Juice WRLD might lie outside of that entire framework—the central conceit of his music is that it doesn’t really matter if sometimes you call your soul a black hole if you sing it like that.
It doesn’t feel like an overly cynical take on pop music to suggest that the real operator working overtime in any really transcendent pop song is the abstraction of emotion into the greatest common factor, generalization and reduction. And Juice’s ability to abstract without losing his individuality feels like the one truly, irrefutably transcendent quality of Juice’s music. His voice stabs a direct line of electricity into wherever the center of your emotional being is: voices are not supposed to sound lost, like Juice’s does on “Maze,” whirling into different directions, each line tumbling over itself. Age has a way of abstracting emotion, and I cannot imagine a notion more antithetical to what Juice WRLD does.
An aside: I think that is partially why the stop-motion chaos that Death Race’s album cover conjures is so deeply unnerving to me. It looks like destruction, self-destruction, chopped up into freeze frames and then downsized, digitized, and abstracted into the insignificant materialism of a PlayStation game cover, not just fictionalized but trivialized. Later, Juice will tell me, “Every song I make doesn’t have to be ocean deep—that’s the beauty of being an artist. You’re an artist, you can create whatever you want to create.” I can’t help but feel that this statement is both utterly straightforward and a crucial, fundamental reflection of how thin the barrier between Juice WRLD and Juice WRLD.mp3 is. When every emotion is a lyric and every day is dozens of songs, what does it mean to capture just one sliver of that?
The id bleeds through everything. Five-day recording marathons like the one that birthed Death Race and entire collaboration albums borne out of Instagram interactions feel like the right artistic outputs for a twenty-year-old who is constantly recording, with over 400 songs in the bank. “It’s just something that I can do, like a basketball player going to the gym—an action that keeps me trained,” he tells me. When I ask him if it ever becomes emotionally taxing to constantly record music that seems to demand such a steep emotional price, he waves it off, telling me, “I don’t ever see myself having difficulty conjuring up emotion. What makes me different from a lot of people is that I’m not afraid to put anything on a song. If I have a thought process starting where I want to explain a feeling or emotion, I just hope people understand it the way I understand it.”
But I am still asking myself whether Juice is at a more precarious junction than the crossover stars that have preceded him in the past few years—did Post Malone’s persona and angle ever feel this fundamentally untenable? What happens when Juice WRLD turns twenty-four? One of the most obvious parallels for Juice is XXXTentacion, who, in an equally meteoric rise about a year before Juice, had strung up a sharper, more irretrievably broken strand of pain—and partially did so by creating art that was inextricably linked to his identity as a deeply controversial, at times inhuman, human. X’s brief creative output before his death last June, all tightly-wound and over in what felt like a matter of seconds, was deeply sad in the fleeting moments where it was not deeply disturbing.
Juice has never been as incendiary or polarizing as X was, and it’s difficult to imagine him ever being so, but the implicit question for them both is essentially the same: when the art you create is so adjacent to your emotional state, and particularly your emotional state at the age of nineteen, how does that resolve itself as time passes? The teenager shines through all the cracks, both when he jokes about missing McDonald’s abroad (“I gamble for my life every day figuring out if what I put in my face is edible!”), but also in the alarm he betrays when he talks to me about the spotlight, the pressure to never make a mistake, never trip up: “I didn’t sign up to be Christ,” he tells me, sharply. But whether he likes it or not, there are a lot of different music meta-narratives— emo rapper, industry plant, even the Chicago drill lineage his manager, Lil Bibby, implies—that converge in front of Juice. As he wryly puts it to me: “Shit is getting kinda colossal.”
When he traces back the last year, his struggle to keep zooming out, to maintain perspective, is palpable. It is the only time Juice lets the surface betray ocean-deep tensions. “I pay attention to what’s going on in the moment and try and grasp it as best as I can, to make sure everybody else thinks I’ve grasped it a hundred percent,” he says to me, quietly, pausing. “And I keep it pushing. Time don’t stop. There’s no room to stop, not now.”