The world often speaks of black boys and their anger but rarely of their sadness; Juice WRLD forced us to see.
Last Monday, the rapper known as Juice WRLD, who was born Jarad Higgins, celebrated his twenty-first birthday; on Sunday, he died after having a seizure. It was a soul-crushing end for a man who celebrated life—on and off wax—even when it looked as though there was so little worth celebrating.
Born and raised in Chicago, Juice made rap music in the Midwest emo mold: dispirited, melodic, cathartic. “Lucid Dreams,” his most popular single, is an angst-ridden ballad set to the sombre chords of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart”; it captures that moment when a breakup feels tantamount to war and descends into a fight for personal survival. The song became an anthem, amassing hundreds of millions of streams and cementing Juice as a young star in a cursed subgenre. He was an essential part of the commercial rise of emo rap—engineered alongside his fallen peers Lil Peep (lost, at age twenty-one, to an accidental overdose) and XXXTentacion (lost, at age twenty, to gun violence)—and one of the style’s most affecting proponents. A lyric from his song “Legends,” a tribute to X and Peep, looms over his life like a shadow, or a prophecy: “What’s the twenty-seven club? We ain’t makin’ it past twenty-one.”
The world often speaks of black boys and their anger but rarely of their sadness; Juice forced us to see. He poured out his anxieties, fears, and insecurities in harrowing detail, painting pictures of depression—low-energy, isolating, destructive depression—with unblinking candor. His début album, “Goodbye & Good Riddance,” from 2018, and “Death Race for Love,” his sophomore effort, released in March, are the musings of a lovesick person battling his vices. “Told her if I die I’ma die young / Every day I’ve been gettin’ fucked up / Finally know the difference between love and drugs / Shawty tell me I should really sober up,” he rapped chillingly on his single “Lean Wit Me.” His hip-hop was blues-stricken, built around a wailing melodic flow that marked his tracks with melodrama and urgency. He bared his soul in declarations of love, risking it all and praying to be good enough. Largely, though, he rapped about heartache—the pain caused by breakups, but also by life and faulty brain chemistry—and the things people do to numb themselves. Like pills, lean, or alcohol, the romances that absorbed him were just another way to disappear, another way to feel something else.
Juice’s raw sincerity resonated with fans, those whose hearts are heavy with the weight of their own grief. His catalogue became a soundtrack for mourning lost relationships as much as for mourning oneself. He displayed softness in a world that both expects and requires people like him to be tough. The self-loathing in his lyrics was also underscored by a quiet optimism—a vital belief that things can get better, or, at least, that the suffering can’t all be for nothing. A sense of purpose peeked out. (From “Empty”: “I was put here to lead the lost souls”; from “HeMotions”: “Another life, another day, another chance to make it great.”) “I’ve always been different. I used to try to hide it a little bit, but now I have a platform for being different,” he told the Times last year, and he used his platform well. His commitment to transparency, to vulnerability, was an inspiring act of bravery.
His loss, at such a young age, is especially devastating because his lyrics suggested that he could never see any other outcome for himself. He seemed to know intrinsically that old age wasn’t a privilege afforded to people like him, who come from where he’s from, who feel how he feels, who do what he does. His most wounded songs often sound like suicide notes, infused with addiction and sorrow, but Juice WRLD wanted to live. He was working to get clean, and was loving hard and out loud despite tendencies that would compel him to do the opposite. He duelled with his demons in public so that those who do so in private could feel less alone, and, even in the wake of his death, those demons did not win—even in the dark, his life was and will remain a light.