He went from unknown Illinois teen to Billboard-topping emo-rap icon in under a year, and his introspective, genre-mashing music draws on both Nirvana and Migos, offering up admirably honest rhymes about mental health, drugs and heartbreak. 20-year-old Juice WRLD, a self-proclaimed “old soul”, tells Jordan Bassett about his love of mid-noughties emo, his relationship with XXXTentacion, getting sued by Sting and disastrous shows with Nicki Minaj. PHOTOS: Andy Ford.
Juice WRLD’s NME Big Read shoot is a family affair. In the plush basement of a central London hotel, his mum sitting a few feet away, tucking into a steak, the Chicago rapper’s joined by his girlfriend, Ally, who wraps herself around him, nodding sagely as he offers up bon mots on topics such as his eclectic influences (“I’m a music head and always will be”) and the dignity in being an openly emotional man (“It’s ones of the toughest things in the world”).
After our hour-long interview, still in ascending superstar mode, he poses for a quickfire photo shoot, appointing himself as creative director, telling the photographer where to stand while he goofs around, pretending to kick the camera with an expensive-looking sneaker.
No wonder he’s ebullient: he just released his debut album, ‘Death Race For Love’, a sprawling 22-track emo-rap opus that swings between introspection (the sing-song ‘Robbery’) and braggadocio (from ‘The Bee Knees’: “’Holy shit! He’s the shit!’ – words from my peers”), laced with voguish trap beats and, more eccentrically, throwbacks to mid-noughties alt-rock. In the time it’s taken to turn this article around, ‘Death Race For Love’ has squealed to Number One on the Billboard 200, overtaking Ariana Grande and the soundtrack to A Star Is Born, having been acclaimed as potentially seminal within its subgenre.
Juice, aka Jarad Higgins, is 20 years old. Sometimes this is obvious, like when he recounts those eclectic influences, a comically broad collection of names that convey his coming of age in the streaming era: U2 and Queen merge with Weezer and Blink-182, who rub shoulders with Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane as Migos, Future and Travis Scott nip at their heels.
He’s spoken before about his love for Nirvana and Kurt Cobain – whom he cheekily name-checks on the ‘Death Race’ track ‘Rider’, dubbing himself the “codeine Cobain” – and explains today that he first heard comedian Weird Al Yankovic’s parody ‘Smells Like Nirvana’, which inspired him to seek the real thing. “The people I looked up to put their demons out there,” Juice says of Cobain’s influence. “They provided a path for me to walk on.”
There’s a confessional streak through ‘Death Race For Love’, which, inkeeping with the lyrical style he’s cultivated since last year’s breakout break-up anthem ‘Lucid Dreams’, grapples with emotional turmoil, drugs (from opening track ‘Empty’: “I don’t know how to feel / Swallowing all these pills”) and the quest to be a better man. It’s in the latter mould that NME finds him the most engaged, as he extols on his message that drugs are bad (though it’s worth noting that he delivers this sermon while slurping on so-called ‘Lister-lean’, a homemade concoction of Sprite he keeps topping up, alarmingly, with actual Listerine. It goes without saying that this is a very bad idea, and you shouldn’t try it at home).
“[Drugs] can ruin your whole life,” he says. “If they don’t kill you, they can leave you in a trance for the rest of your life. Most fucking rappers rap about getting high and feeling great. But I talk about the good side and the bad side. Just to shed some light on the negative side.”
Juice declines to be drawn into the specifics of his own experiences with drugs, but his stance on the subject – admitting drugs can be fun while also being honest about their detrimental impact – indicates a maturity beyond his 20 years. As he puts it: “I’m an old soul.”
He was brought up by his mum, who, he says “tried to keep me away from the streets as much as possible”. Yet he doesn’t affect the stance of a street tough: “I bounced between two houses – I didn’t live [with my Dad] but I got a copy of them keys – and growing up was pretty easy.”
Still, he fell into problematic drug use – which he implies he has curtailed – and calls for greater understanding around it: “Everyone knows someone who does stuff that isn’t healthy for them. But imagine how much of a fuck you don’t give to do that, to drink that, to pop that.”
The rapper has spoken openly on Twitter and in past interviews about his experience with depression (a typical tweet: “Back to being sad I was just starting to feel better :/”) so it’s no surprise that in adolescence he gravitated towards emo, emotional rock epitomised by bands such as My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco. During its mid-noughties heyday, the genre was both ridiculed and the source of a moral panic (an infamous Daily Mail article branded MCR a “suicide cult band”). Emo, then, was the SoundCloud rap of its day.
Juice shakes his head forlornly when I explain emo was once made fun of in the UK, and posit this was because people found it funny that men were wearing their emotions unashamedly.
“That’s what makes you a real man, though,” he says. “You not running from how you feel? That’s what makes you one of the realest people to walk this Earth. People usually look down upon that – they say you soft.” It’s here he claims it’s tough to be emotional, and continues: “A lot of men make fun of you for expressing your feelings, because they don’t get it. They can’t wrap their heads around the concept of being completely honest and forthright.”
This leads him to reflect on his newly minted role model status: “I don’t just [make emotional music] for myself. 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. All the time, brother.”
“He saved my life,” Ally murmurs, swamped in a black hoodie that seems to merge with Juice’s loose Gucci t-shirt, as though they’re both wrapped up in sleeping bag, “before we even met.”
They’ve been together, says Juice, “a couple days past six months ago”. The couple connected on social media; Ally was a Juice WRLD fan. When they first started dating, she met him in a Rhode Island hotel room and was surprised to see he travelled with three suitcases: one for clothes, one for shoes and one – the biggest – a trove of games and consoles.
“There was just much shit,” she marvels, laughing. “All the consoles, games, Game Boys. Everything.”
Juice rattles off a comically extensive and detailed list – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, SEGA Dreamcast, Nintendo GameCube, Game Boy Advance – not unlike the one he compiled to explain his influences. (No wonder the album artwork for ‘Death Race For Love’ mimics that of an early noughties Playstation game.) It’s a reminder of two facts about Juice WRLD: he’s an incredibly young kid who just happens to have a monster album to his name, and he’s not picky about his retro-fetishism. Who the hell has a GameCube?
Although a young kid, Juice WRLD is the same age that controversial Florida rapper XXXTentacion – aka Jahseh Onfroy – was when unknown assailants shot him dead last summer. Juice spoke to him on the phone a couple of times when they were both in ascendance.
He declines to reveal what they talked about – this and his experiences with drugs are the only two subjects that are out of bounds, and he’s polite but firm when he replies to each question with a clipped, “I’d rather not answer that” – but he does say: “He asked for my number and he called me. I wouldn’t call him a friend but we had a couple deep conversations.”
Like Juice, XXX found fame through SoundCloud with a breakout track, ‘Look At Me!’, circumventing the gatekeepers of the music industry. Yet that’s where the similarities end, as XXX’s name has become toxic: as a teenager he allegedly committed appalling acts of domestic violence and admitted on tape to brutally assaulting a man whom he believed to be gay.
Unlike Juice, Onfroy did not call growing up “pretty easy”: he claimed he was exposed to unspeakable violence in his past; we know patterns of abuse repeat themselves. This of course is not an attempt to excuse the things he did, but it does suggest they were the actions of a damaged child, rather than the twisted bogeyman he was depicted as on social media.
“How was he so evil?” Juice asks as he slurps on his Lister-lean. “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.” He starts to get carried away, delivering an overcooked sermon: “Our heads is so imperfect, we drown ourselves in this imperfection. We don’t know what imperfection is. We only know how to spell it; we don’t know how it feels.”
This leads to a fairly intense conversation about allegedly abusive public figures such as R Kelly. “It’s no problem separating the art from the artist,” he says, “but the question is: are you mature enough to do that?” It’s pretty rich hearing about maturity from a kid yet to reach drinking age in his home state, but Juice WRLD speaks with an appealing kind of earnestness.
He condemns Kelly’s alleged crimes – the sex abuse charges, the reports of a sex cult – as “very disgusting, very gross… very grotesque and horrible,” though claims Kelly’s fans are “mature” enough to separate these alleged actions from the music, the concerts and the videos. This is presumably because Kelly has been releasing music since 1993, so his fans, to Juice, represent the older generation. “Justice,” he says of Kelly, “is finally catching up with him.”
This inevitably leads to talk about Michael Jackson; our interview takes place two weeks after Leaving Neverland aired on HBO. Juice tweeted: “Rip to the legend Michael Jackson let the legend rest and his legacy stand.” Why did he feel compelled to share that with his 684,000 followers?
“I would be delighted to answer that question,” he says. “As far as Michael Jackson goes, I look at it like this – he has kids, right? He had a career. Why would he do that stuff? It’s kinda the same thing as Bill Cosby – they only wanted to stop him from getting a TV network like Oprah. We should let legends rest, if you don’t have evidence that he did what you’re saying he did. The only evidence we have about Michael Jackson is that we was very talented.”
The rapper T.I. recently claimed Leaving Neverland is part of an “agenda” to destroy black culture.
“I mean, I couldn’t agree more,” says Juice; Ally nods sombrely. “At the same time, though, people are crazy. Stuff does happen. People are sick in the head. But people take advantage of that, and then they mix that with destroying black careers and destroying black excellence.
“Don’t get me wrong – they broke all types of people. Charlie Sheen was strung out on all types of stuff. Shia Labeouf. But Michael Jackson was so talented, hardworking. He changed the world with his music. Literally. Once, when I was performing, I looked out in the crowd and there was this couple crying tears of joy. Michael Jackson used to have a whole crowd doing that.”
This is a confused, and confusing, conversation. I know I said stuff aged 20 that I wouldn’t stand by now. And yet, for all his contradictory, adolescent musings, Juice lives up to his billing as an “old soul” when he talks about his duty to his fans, which began with ‘Lucid Dreams’.
The track, which lifts the eerie, delicate Spanish guitar refrain from Sting’s 1993 hit single ‘Shape Of My Heart’, is an anguished, unsubtle howl at the end of a relationship, melodramatic, paranoid and irresistible, Juice chanting, “You left me falling and landing inside my grave… You are my everything”. It’s racked up more than 745 million Spotify streams.
Juice wrote the song in 20 minutes, and now hates it. “With a passion,” he says. “P-A-S-S-ion. It’s getting tired to me. I still play it, but I’m glad I dropped the album.” Sting told Billboard he considers the remake “beautiful” while the original song’s co-writer Dominic Miller called it “the most intelligent version of that riff that I’ve ever heard” and concluded, “it’s done in a very beautiful way”. Still, Sting joked that the royalties from the sample will “put [his] grandkids through college” and ultimately sued for a reported 85% share of its earnings.
“It’s more,” Juice says. “I don’t give a fuck about that, though. Money is gonna come regardless. If you doin’ this for money, people gonna be able to tell. For me [it’s more important that] Sting said my music is beautiful, the fact that he performed my version of the song.”
This was in London, though – don’t be alarmed – Sting didn’t rap; a session musician crooned the hook.
“Hey mom!” Juice shouts, looking past me, at the dining area. “Didn’t Sting perform my song?”
Satisfied, Juice folds back into Ally’s arms. “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. And people are sitting here telling me, ‘Blah blah blah, 90% this, 90% that.’ They bogus fucks. No, bro. 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 from everybody.”
He insists: “I set my career up for longevity and I’m gonna have longevity.” For all ‘Lucid Dreams’ represents a loss, its controversy set up a career richer than one hit could ever provide.
In less than a year, Juice WRLD travelled from unknown Illinois teenager to emo-rap icon who, two nights before we meet, supported Nicki Minaj at London’s 20,000-capacity O2 Arena.
Along the way, he courted controversy with the Lil Yachty track ‘Yacht Club’, on which he alluded to Drake’s child with the former porn actor Sophie Brussaux: “I might fuck Alexis Texas / But I ain’t on no Drake shit, I won’t get her pregnant.” He hasn’t yet met the Canadian rapper, but claims he received his blessing “indirectly”. He explains: “That shit cool. He likes my music. There’s no problem. We got no issues. I look up to Drake. He knows that.”
Still, this was reported in the media as a ‘diss’, and the subject briefly – very briefly – hardens his voice: “I’m sick of people saying it’s a diss when it’s not. People wanna see us fall out.”
His tone softens again. “You an Eminem fan at all?” I was, I reply, once upon a time. “A perfect example. When he first came out, what was he doing? Talking shit. About who?” He spells out the word. “E-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y. Everybody! Some people took it as offensive; others took is as funny. The rap game now – I’m sorry to say it – but it’s so motherfucking soft. You can’t do anything without someone being offended nowadays. When did we become so soft?”
It’s one thing to hear this from a crusty old Eminem fan, and another from a 20-year-old rapper.
There was controversy around that Nicki support slot, too, with two dates of the ongoing world tour cancelled at last minute by technical issues. In Bratislava, she broke the news herself to thousands of people who’d waited for hours. “We were panicking a little bit,” Juice says, “because we needed to find someone to translate for us to cancel the show. I walked out with her and she started talking to her fans, saying “I’m so sorry” and stuff like that.
“We pulled this guy out of the crowd who said he’d translate for us, but he said all the wrong shit. Nicki’d be like, ‘I’m so sorry! I’m gonna make it up to you I swear!”, and he was like, ‘They’re taking our money and not giving us a show!’ He was such a fuck face, man. I think he was playing around. That’s the wrong time to play around! There’s a crowd of fucking 10,000 people and you wanna make a joke? I was hoping somebody’d knock his ass clean out.”
Still, the bad experience hasn’t turned him off putting on enormous stadium and arena shows.
“I love performing in stadiums,” he says, “I love it. There’s nothing like it. When it’s a full house and everybody’s having a good time and vibing? It’s fun – it’s lit. I don’t gotta jump around as much, either. I used to wear myself out after every concert, crawling backstage almost.”
Juice says this with resignation of an elderly man with a bad knee, the same tone he used when he talked about his love of retro Playstation games: “It brings back nostalgia and reminds me of simpler times before all this stuff happened – before I had responsibilities. Now I’m grown, I gotta pay bills, I gotta do all type of stuff.” I repeat: Juice WRLD is 20 years old.
More steak is wheeled out, as Juice and Ally sit with his mum and eat before the photoshoot. SoundCloud rappers often experience a fast ascent, which doesn’t always provide a framework for their dizzying fame, but Jarad seems to have good people around him.
When he was on the thorny subject of problematic – or outright abusive – artists, he insisted: “Some artists not only have good music but good personalities as well. I don’t wanna brag on myself, but people have told me that my personality matches my music – as in it has quality, as in it’s genuine and it’s real. With me, people don’t have to separate the art from the artist. Knock on wood.” An old soul, a contradictory kid, Juice has the WRLD at his feet.