Juice WRLD and a Legacy Cut Short

What will endure about Juice WRLD records is the feeling that this incredible darkness and the willingness to be open to love and heartbreak are two edges of the same knife. Photo: Kelia Anne for Vulture

On Sunday, Jarad Anthony Higgins was pronounced dead at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois, a suburb of his native Chicago. Higgins, better known as the rapper Juice WRLD, was rushed to the hospital after suffering a “medical emergency” at Chicago Midway, where he had recently stepped off a flight from California. TMZ reports that he was bleeding from the mouth as paramedics arrived. He turned 21 less than a week ago.

Over the last two years, Higgins had emerged from the SoundCloud morass to become one of the most-streamed rappers in America, a genuine phenomenon especially among teenage listeners. It happened rapidly. When he self-released his 9 9 9 EP (“I took the hell I was going through (666) and flipped it over into something positive (999)”) in the summer of 2017, he was a complete unknown; toward the end of the 2016–2017 school year, when he was 18, he played his first live show, a set at a friend’s birthday party for which he was paid $100. A year later, he had signed not only to an imprint run by fellow Chicagoan Lil Bibby, but to Interscope, for $3 million.

At times, Juice WRLD seemed like an algorithmic end point, someone fluent in social-media syntaxes and the popular styles at rap radio. He could drone like Future, yelp like Lil Uzi Vert; he was a a compulsive oversharer who cultivated just the right kind of very-online mystery. It could feel, from afar, like he was constructed in a lab to succeed in the new major-label economy, which measures attention first and rewards artists who are able to see clearly where audiences will be in the immediate future. But Higgins tapped a vein that made him genuinely and uniquely relatable to his young audience, allowing him to sell groaningly cheesy lines about teenage heartbreak as something more sinister and ones about an inevitable death as somehow charming. His resonance seemed to highlight just how desperate many young people have become to dissociate from an increasingly fraught world.

Photo: Kelia Anne for Vulture

Higgins was born in Chicago proper two months after Mobstability came out and moved to its south suburbs when he was a toddler. He grew up in a single-parent household with his mother, who initially forbade rap music. Music was Trojan-horsed into his house through video games and older cousins — pop-punk and Cash Money, respectively. Then came true-school, battle-bred rappers of the era (Cassidy, Meek Mill), then Future, Odd Future, and Chief Keef, all of which mingled in Higgins’s brain with bands like Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, and Panic! at the Disco. These are, largely, the textures that would show up in the music Higgins would later make as Juice WRLD: an overt pop sensibility that would lapse at times into the style and sound of contemporary street rap.

His breakthrough single, “Lucid Dreams,” is typical of his work. It’s built around a brooding Sting sample — the same Sting sample that Nas used, to far different ends, at the beginning of It Was Written — and gives a high-school breakup stakes that would shock adults but read to anyone going through one:

“You were my everything

Thoughts of a wedding ring

Now I’m just better off dead.”

Later in the song, Higgins describes his ex as “made outa plastic — fake.” These are the sort of first-attempt-at-songwriting things that he would smartly qualify with stranger asides, harrowing twists, and surprising melodies. Higgins was a notably talented freestyler, which lent his music a spine of structure and formal competency that can be missing from songs in the same subgenres. That bleeding-heart earnestness, though, was a feature, not a bug, in his work. This is a short list of song titles in the Juice WRLD catalogue: “All Girls Are the Same,” “End of the Road,” “Betrayal (Skit),” “Scared of Love,” “HeMotions,” “Flaws and Sins,” “Who Shot Cupid?,” “She’s the One,” “Syphilis,” “Karma (Skit).” As a Chicagoan, Higgins was becoming one of the most visible tips of an iceberg that is considerably stranger and more varied than most outsiders realize; while his work did not fit neatly into drill, the post-Savemoney wave, or any other signature subgenre often cited in the national press, his style included hallmarks of other rappers who broke earlier this decade, like Keef’s barked enthusiasm (or his groaned harmonizing), or Lil Durk’s ability to bend seemingly straight lines around a melody.

It seemed, at first, that Higgins was part of a burgeoning generation of young, emotionally raw, genre-omnivore rappers destined for superstardom. He had contemporaries like the emo rock–indebted Long Island native Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, the notorious rapper from Miami. But in a span of just over six months, those two young rappers passed away: Peep following an accidental drug overdose on a tour bus in Arizona, while X was murdered as he sat in a parked car. They were 21 and 20 years old, respectively. As the decade ends, it seems that a horrifying number of its most celebrated young rap artists have passed away or spent long stretches behind bars: see Jimmy Wopo from Pittsburgh, who was shot and killed in 2018; Chicagoan Fredo Santana, who died of a seizure the same year; Drakeo the Ruler and 03 Greedo from Los Angeles, each of whom is serving time; Bankroll Fresh from Atlanta, who was murdered in 2016. The list continues. Last year, Higgins put out a two-song EP dedicated to the memory of Peep and X. One verse from that project opens: “What’s the 27 club? We ain’t making it past 21.”

Beyond that instance, Higgins focused to an alarming degree on his own death, while also rapping frequently about substance abuse, often as a form of self-medication. The latter issue is something Higgins spoke about both directly in interviews and obliquely online; this past summer, he pledged to his girlfriend on Twitter that he was done with codeine, a staple in his lyrics that he sometimes said he’d indulged in since middle school. (When Rolling Stone profiled Future in January, the Atlanta rapper recalled a moment during the studio sessions for his and Higgins’s 2018 joint album, WRLD on Drugs, when the younger artist told Future that it was he who inspired him to try drinking lean as a child. Future was crestfallen: “What the fuck have I done?”; Higgins had previously told Vulture that Future apologized to him.) Observers have been quick to tie Higgins’s death to the drug, given the reported seizure, and to the long and snowballing history of it claiming or nearly claiming the lives of beloved rappers; at press time, no cause of death has been announced.

What will endure about Juice WRLD records is the feeling that this incredible darkness and the willingness to be open to love and heartbreak are two edges of the same knife. I interviewed Higgins one time, about 18 months ago, right as his celebrity was beginning to seem inevitable. This was in one of those Hollywood recording studios that looks like an abandoned warehouse from the street and a luxury gym on the inside. He sat on top of a picnic table like a prom king in a Supreme-branded motocross-racing jersey, showing his friend a video on his phone. It was of a woman falling off of a waterslide. The clip ended, he laughed, and asked: “You know how you see somebody fall, right? And you think the injury’s not that bad until you see them bleeding?”

Juice WRLD and a Legacy Cut Short