It’s always a bittersweet experience to discover an artist’s talent after their death, especially when that death comes so soon and so suddenly. When rising star Jarad Anthony Higgins, aka Juice WRLD, died of a drug overdose in December 2019, just a week after his 21st birthday, it was a humbling shock to many—including, I must admit, myself—who had dismissed his talents.
The usual state of affairs followed his passing: a brief wave of increased awareness of the dangers of addiction came through the music scene before quickly subsiding, critics who had looked askance at his work started to take it more seriously, with almost mythic tales of hour-long freestyles and even wholly freestyled albums surfacing, all while established fans combed through his lyrics looking for eerie predictions of his death.
It wasn’t hard to find them with Juice WRLD. His whole persona was rooted in depression, addiction and heartbreak, with album titles like Goodbye & Good Riddance, Death Race for Love and WRLD on Drugs. It seemed almost too obvious to be true. His music was so melodramatic and anguished that half of it read as parody, shot through as it was with an ironic and callous sense of humour, like it was all an act. Anyone who titles a song “All Girls Are the Same” is surely aware of the role they’re playing.
His music channelled an adolescent spirit of emotionality. Lots of new-age rap artists try to sound numb and cold-blooded, but Juice sounded like someone feeling everything to the fullest degree and relaying it to his audience with a reflective, tragic sense of ennui. It was emo music in the truest sense: juvenile, whiny, despondent, dramatic and performative, and sonically he blended emo with trap, RnB, soft rock and an unmistakable boyish attitude of maudlin pop punk, crooning his anguished, instantly catchy vocal melodies over atmospheric trap production.
Until the release of his posthumous album Legends Never Die, I had never been a fan of Juice WRLD. As intimated, I hadn’t taken him that seriously. He was, to be fair, the kind of artist that you respect more the deeper you look into their discography. His biggest hits gave little indication of a promising talent, and tended to expose his shallowest song writing and most unpleasantly melodramatic vocals—“Robbery” anyone?
The only song of his I had really enjoyed before this album was “Black & White,” a genuinely funny and enjoyable deep cut from his Goodbye & Good Riddance album, delivering the hilarious image of Juice hopping from one limo to the next, each one colour coded to correspond to friendship group and drug type. It’s a perfect example of the kind of very likeable, self-aware humour that made the histrionics of his style palatable. It wasn’t very promising though that my favourite track of his had played off of the fact I struggled to take his music seriously.
But in the wake of his death I of course looked back on what I’d heard and listened with fresher ears. Hearing his biggest hit “Lucid Dreams” in the context of the album, I appreciated how atmospheric and enrapturing the production was with the beautiful “Shape of My Heart” guitar sample, skittering hi-hats and round rubbery bass, and how memorable and smooth his vocal melodies were. Listened to with an expectation of some extremely adolescent, knowingly shallow melodrama, the way you might an early 2000s My Chemical Romance or Avril Lavigne song, it really does sound pretty fun and infectious.
I still have some rather mixed feelings about the messages of his music though. I appreciate that many found his lyrical expressions of heartbreak, mental illness and addiction very compelling and relatable—as Juice alludes to, poignantly refraining “I know my lyrics saved you, I know I helped your breakthrough”—and they were clearly coming from a very genuine place, as tragic events have demonstrated. However, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that this style of music does genuinely kind of romanticise addiction and depression in an unhealthy way. The mythologising hyperbole associated with this newest album and showcased on interlude tracks like “The Man, The Myth, The Legend” and “Juice WRLD Speaks From Heaven” does fit a little too well into the narrative of his music. It doesn’t feel exploitative exactly, but just kind of tasteless.
However, when I push that sort of concern out of my head, I can’t deny that this is a very strong collection of pop tracks featuring some absolutely terrific vocal melodies and emotional performances from Juice. It’s admittedly kind of bloated, as posthumous albums tend to be these days, as labels aim to strike with the material they have while the wound is still raw, and there’s maybe one or two tracks that could have been held off for an inevitable future posthumous release.
I think some better choices could also have been made as far as choices for singles go. “Righteous” is a solid cut and probably the most definitively “Juice WRLD” song on the record, so it was a safe bet. “Tell Me U Luv Me” with Trippie Redd isn’t the most memorable or inspiring track, and the Marshmello song “Come & Go” really should never have seen the light of day, never mind been chosen for a single. Ironically the album’s other Marshmello-produced track “Hate the Other Side” is a lot better with a tight banger beat and a typically phenomenal guest verse from rising star Polo G.
The best teaser cut released was “Life’s a Mess” where Juice duets beautifully with Halsey, who gives a heavenly vocal performance. After a career of songs about wallowing in heartbreak it’s genuinely moving to hear one truly, unambiguously romantic love song from Juice. It sounds gorgeous, Halsey and Juice are a match made in heaven and the lyrics are sweet, touching and sincere, with a naivety and corniness that’s almost tear-inducing.
As I’ve said, I didn’t have a positive relationship to Juice’s prior music while he was alive, but if I had done, I can imagine this leaving me in a mess, especially the last leg of tracks which feature lyrics like “if it wasn’t for the pills I wouldn’t be here, but if I keep taking these pills I won’t be here.”
Given the morbid mode Juice WRLD’s music has always operated in, a posthumous album was always going to be pervaded by a thick vein of tragic dramatic irony, but this is often to a degree that genuinely makes one pause for thought. Perhaps the biggest kicker in this regard is the track “Can’t Die,” which sounds like the cruellest of jokes as Juice laments those whom he’s lost along the way before delivering the line “tell me that I’m finna OD in no time, I told ‘em I’ll do it on my time not your time.”
Juice WRLD’s direct, boyish lyricism and strained woozy, vocal style have a blunt force sincerity that’s either going to hit in a very immediate and guileless way, or is going to just feel shallow and adolescent, and in the case of this project, he seems to have aged a thousand years and produced some great songs in the process, some of which rank among my favourite songs of the year.
The lyrical themes have greater weight and impact and are given more of an airy and euphoric vibe by the radiant, cloudy instrumentals, which support his reflective, strangulated vocals wonderfully. He sounds almost serene on tracks like the tear-stained “Wishing Well,” in which he sings of “stress on [his] shoulders like an anvil,” with typically blunt and evocative forcefulness, and the second verse of which displays a callous vein of humour: “ring-ring, phone call from depression.”
The album closes out with the upbeat, carefree and optimistic indie rock anthem “Man of the Year,” which just screams song of the summer, with its blissfully naïve and devil-may-care, live-for-today attitude. It’s possibly my favourite Juice WRLD song ever, and my only complaint is that it’s a mere two minutes and change. Perhaps the most tragic thing this album could have showcased was a previously untapped versatility, and that’s exactly what this track does.
With big crossover hits like Post Malone’s “Circles” and influential artists like Kendrick Lamar teasing rock projects on the horizon, all signs point to rock-rap being the wave of the future, and Juice WRLD was perfectly poised to lead us into that era. Perhaps his early death will solidify his legendary, voice-of-a-generation status in the way this album’s para-text seems confident it will, and by the end of what is easily his best record, that hype certainly seems convincing.