The Chart-Topping Deep Feelings of Juice WRLD

The rapper Juice WRLD in Bushwick, Brooklyn. His biggest hit, “Lucid Dreams,” has gone as high as No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

At the Penthouse Recording Studio just north of Times Square, on the top floor of a commercial building, pinpoint lights are sprinkled across the ceiling, mimicking the ceiling of a Rolls-Royce.

One night last week, the room had been reserved for Juice WRLD, the breakout Chicago rapper. But really, as these things typically go, it was reserved for the dozen or more people for whom Juice WRLD is their business — engineers, management, hype man, girlfriend and those in need of a luxurious couch on which to sleep.

Juice WRLD, who is 19, was unfazed. He was wearing a stitched-together shirt with characters from “The Flintstones” and “Family Guy” and ostentatiously drapey sleeves and had a Gucci satchel slung around his neck. He plugged his phone in to the speakers and began playing some new songs, ones with less conventional structure than the music he’s been getting attention for lately.

“It’s using the song as your canvas, not just a blueprint,” he said.

[Juice WRLD has died at 21. Read the Times obituary.]

His biggest hit, “Lucid Dreams,” is soothing and intuitive, with a heartbroken melody and a sample of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” — it’s the “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” of 2018. Like that P.M. Dawn song — one of hip-hop’s most controversial crossover hits, back when crossover hip-hop hits were still controversial — “Lucid Dreams” is lush loner music, an inheritor of the emotional hip-hop of the last decade, delivered with the raw texture of the SoundCloud rap generation and a deeply keen sense of pop efficiency.

“Lucid Dreams” has gone as high as No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 — it’s currently No. 6 — and it has been one of the year’s biggest streaming songs, among the few to hold their own against the recent Drake deluge.

And yet it isn’t nearly the most intriguing song on “Goodbye & Good Riddance,” the full-length album Juice WRLD released in May, one of the year’s most effective hip-hop releases so far. Full of spacey, childlike production, it’s about the tug of war between the potency of drugs and the potency of love. Juice WRLD is a compelling narrator, sounding desperate and woeful, swallowed whole by his vices.

“I’ve always been different,” he said. “I used to try to hide it a little bit, but now I have a platform for being different.”

[Never miss a pop music story: Sign up for our weekly newsletter, Louder.]

In high school, Juice WRLD — born Jarad Higgins — was a bad student with an active imagination (and a passion for Percy Jackson’s fantasy novels). He began posting songs to SoundCloud that he’d recorded on his cellphone in his sophomore year, as much a fan of Future, Soulja Boy and Tyler, the Creator, as of pop-punk and melodic hard-core bands like Escape the Fate, Bullet for My Valentine and Panic! at the Disco. Those influences shine through in his vocal approach, which relies heavily on the confident moping of that generation of rock-band frontmen. And unlike some of his generational peers, for whom rapping in the classical sense is an afterthought, Juice WRLD is a strong lyricist. On a visit to Tim Westwood’s influential British radio show last month, he freestyled for more than an hour.

Even by the standards of the recent major-label hip-hop gold rush, his rise has been quick. Last year, he released an EP, “JuiceWRLD 9 9 9,” on SoundCloud, and at the beginning of this year, he signed a reported $3 million deal with Interscope.

He has not been navigating these new waters alone, though. At the beginning of the 2010s, Chicago hip-hop had a breakthrough moment thanks to the drill music movement, a far colder, rougher strain of hip-hop than Juice WRLD makes. But while there might not be much musical overlap, members of the older generation — Lil Bibby and his brother G-Money — have been steering Juice WRLD’s career. In the studio that night, G-Money was keeping watch, while Juice WRLD was recording a song with G Herbo, another Chicago rapper of the earlier wave.

“I’m the little brother, and I’m fine with that,” Juice WRLD said. They treat him lovingly, and with a little amusement. On his Instagram, Lil Bibby recently recorded video of Juice WRLD buying Yu-Gi-Oh! merchandise. G-Money posted video on his Instagram of a new Lamborghini he said Juice WRLD bought for him.

Growing up in Chicago, Juice WRLD saw these artists as the local heroes. “Meeting G Herbo and them was like the last time I actually felt, the last time I could feel,” Juice WRLD said. That was at the beginning of this year. Everything since then has been slightly blurry, he confessed.

While he used Xanax heavily in high school, he said, he’s now trying to limit his drug use. “I smoke weed, and every now and then I slip up and do something that’s poor judgment,” he said. “I have a lot going for me, I recognize it’s a lot of big things, a lot of big looks. I want to be there, and you don’t have to overdose to not be there.” He’s just set off on a headlining tour — he performs at the Knockdown Center in Queens on Aug. 4.

Since the release of “Goodbye & Good Riddance,” he’s recorded more than 100 new songs, he said, including the searching “Legends” and “Rich and Blind,” an impressive pair that he recorded just after the killing of XXXTentacion.

In the studio, he played a little of the new material, some of which was decidedly tougher than the songs he’s thrived with thus far. In the booth with G Herbo, though, he was sing-rapping in familiar style: “two Perc-ies, I’m nodding off,” “Lenny Kravitz in some Gucci glasses.”

Throughout the night, he’d been lavishing attention on his girlfriend, Alexia, who he met at around the same time his career began taking off. She’s with him most of the time, he said, and juggling his new career and his new relationship has been a challenge.

But for someone who’s made his scars so central to his music, the struggle feels natural.

“All my homies be like: ‘What you doing with a girlfriend? You got all this stuff going on,’” he said. “I love her, though. I can admit and say that I have feelings.”

In Other News

© 2020 US News. All Rights Reserved.