The received wisdom is that emo rappers reject old-school hip-hop's intricate lyricism, yet 20-year-old Juice WRLD proves he can innovate while paying tribute to his forebears
Following the untimely deaths of Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, you could perhaps be forgiven for assuming that the emo rap wave will fade out. Yet Juice WRLD’s colourful second studio album ‘Death Race For Love’ takes emo rap to inventive new heights, with the 20-year-old artist successfully filling the void left by the two late artists.
Since breaking through with the Sting-sampling hit single “Lucid Dreams” last year, the Chicago rapper’s angst-ridden teen anthems have resonated strongly with the public as well as peers such as Future (who released a fun collaborative mixtape, ‘WRLD on Drugs’, with him). Juice WRLD – aka Jarad Higgins – makes songs that stick, his vocal dissonance capturing what it feels like to be young and in pain, and feeling a sense of indifference towards authority figures.
Aside from the catchy harmonies, he’s also a creative rapper, capable of freestyling for an hour straight and spitting witty bars almost on command. Yet Juice WRLD’s flat first studio album, ‘Goodbye & Good Riddance’, didn’t quite fulfil this obvious potential. Thankfully, with follow-up ‘Death Race For Love’, his songwriting becomes less weighted on sad-sack anthems, as he displays a more impressive sonic range.
‘She’s The One’ (not a Robbie Williams cover, sadly) and ‘Won’t Let Go’ are tender love songs that communicate what it’s like to be on the edge of heartbreak even in the thralls of infatuation, with each showing a deeper level of introspection than you might expect from the artist. The same can be said for the brilliant ‘Empty’, where an inspired Juice WRLD raps about “Losing my sanity in a house up in the hills” and moves against the typical boasts that litter new wave rapper’s rhymes.
On “Rider”, Higgins describes himself as the “codeine Cobain”, but the comparison to the Nirvana frontman isn’t as far off as you might think; he shares Kurt Cobain’s ability to exorcise his demons while still managing to sounding effervescent. However, as brilliant and catchy as all these tracks are, the record only truly gets going when Juice WRLD moves outside of his feelings for a second and starts to have some fun.
His self-awareness on ‘Big’ is riveting, with lyrics such as “I spent 50K to install a codeine fountain in my estate” poking fun at the excesses of being a modern trap star. The track’s raw, ground-shaking horns recall Kanye’s ‘Blood On the Leaves’, with Juice WRLD riding the beat like Future in his prolific ‘DS2’ days. ‘Syphilis’ is even better, the riot-inducing banger allowing the artist to take on a more aggressive punk-inspired sound and a complex double-time flow, as he references his chameleon-like versatility, pledging: “I can change anything / I’ve got Obama eyes.”
It’s obvious Juice WRLD still needs time to grow further as a lyricist, with his metaphors sometimes a little ham-fisted in their delivery. For example, on ‘Maze’, he talks about taking a deposit out of “the bank of life” in a way that’s more than a little cringeworthy. His falsetto can also sometimes sound a little whiney, especially when the backing music is light and airy.
Yet Higgins impressively honours old-school rap while taking it in a thrilling new direction. Emo rappers often make a point of disconnecting from the more lyrical old-school rap legends, but Juice WRLD actively embraces them. He closes the album with ‘Make Believe’, which samples 1990s group Pharcyde’s legendary ‘Runnin’, but rather than honour the song’s sardonic lyrics, he pours his heart out about a doomed romance. The track shows how young rappers can honour tradition without losing sense of their own individuality.
‘Death Race For Love’ most recalls XXXTentacion’s equally versatile ‘?’ album, which also moved from tender falsettos to dark, existential screams at a blistering pace. Yet Juice WRLD is far less indulgent than XXX, not getting lost in the idea that he’s a messianic creative. This will be the moment that solidifies his status as one of rap’s most exciting new stars.
Release date: March 8
Record label: Grade A / Interscope