His music, which pioneered a combination of trap and tropes of mid-noughties emo – including emotionally excoriating lyrics about mental health – was the work of a young artist with a preternatural appreciation for melody and tone. He idolised Kurt Cobain and looked up to Future and Lil Wayne; he was an exemplar of a generation for whom tribal genre boundaries are an alien concept.
His melodramatic lyrics were often distinctly adolescent, but he matched them to understated music that displayed an astute arranger’s ear. His breakout hit ‘Lucid Dreams’ sampled Sting’s 1993 smash ‘Shape Of My Heart’; the original song’s co-writer Dominic Miller described the sample as “the most intelligent version of that riff that I’ve ever heard”.
Juice WLRD was born Jarad Higgins in Chicago in 1998. He didn’t attempt to claim that he’d experienced great hardship in childhood. In March he told NME that he’d been brought up by his mum (she was present during the interview), who did her best to keep him out of trouble. “I bounced between two houses,” he said. “I didn’t live [with my Dad] but I got a copy of them keys. Growing up was pretty easy.”
Like many of his emo-rap contemporaries – such and Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, both of whom died before they saw their 22nd birthdays – Higgins found fame on SoundCloud, circumventing the gatekeepers of the music industry by cultivating an audience on his own terms. ‘Lucid Dreams’, with its melancholic Spanish guitar refrain and timelessly overwrought lyrics (“Can’t take back the love that I gave you / It’s to the point where I love and I hate you”) has racked up almost a billion streams on Spotify.
Sting reportedly received 85 per cent of the track’s royalties. Higgins claimed the actual percentage was higher, but insisted that he didn’t care: “That song is so much more expensive than money and what money can buy. It’s so much more touching than what money could touch. That song really saved lives… Without Sting, this wouldn’t even be a song. I don’t really trip on money, especially with a song like that, with the reaction it’s had.”
His second album, ‘Death Race For Love’, topped the Billboard 200 and earlier this year he joined Nicki Minaj on a world tour of arenas. Despite his success, he never lost sight of the reason that he made music. “I don’t just [make emotional music] for myself,” he told NME. “I do it to help other people through their situations. I guess I supposedly save lives. People tell me all the time that I save their lives.” Higgins was, as it happens, also one of the sweetest and kindest people this writer has ever interviewed.
He was undoubtedly a positive role model for millions, but Juice WRLD wasn’t afraid of courting controversy and was often outspoken during his painfully short time in the spotlight. A lyric from the track ‘Yacht’, which made a crack about Drake’s secret child with the former porn actor Sophie Brussaux, was widely reported as a “diss”, though Higgins insisted it was more light-hearted than that, lamenting that the internet erases nuance.
He also tweeted in defence of Michael Jackson (“Rip to the legend Michael Jackson let the legend rest and his legacy stand”) and claimed that sexual abuse allegations against Bill Cosby were part of a conspiracy to prevent the comedian from acquiring a TV network.
Higgins had a loose friendship with XXXTentacion, who was accused of appalling domestic violence, and insisted that the media had been unfair to the fellow SoundCloud rapper: “Everybody has their mistakes. A mistake is a mistake. Some are more severe than others, but we’re no-one to judge the severity of someone’s mistake. As long as we doin’ wrong, as long as we sinnin’, you can’t judge nobody else’s mistakes.”
Like Lil Peep, Juice WRLD fell into problematic drug use, and was typically frank in song about his reliance on lean, a combination of codeine and soda; he called himself the “codeine Cobain” and on the 2018 track ‘Waiting For The Drugs To Hit Me’ rapped: “Codeine in my cup I carry it to every city.” He spent his NME interview sipping from a cup of Sprite and Listerine, though claimed to have curtailed his substance abuse.
This year he released songs with Ellie Goulding and BTS, an indication that Higgins had transcended SoundCloud to become a bonafide star. As with Lil Peep, who died from a drug overdose, and XXXTentacion, who was shot dead, headlines will obsess over the eerie prescience of Juice WRLD’s lyrics, preoccupied as they were with a sense of doom, predicting death at a young age.
What’s more important, though, is that these young men were using their music and social media to lay bare their emotional disarray. We should listen more closely.