How Juice Wrld Made Sadness a Celebration

The hugely popular 21-year-old rapper, who died after a reported seizure, captured inner instability with ingenious sing-alongs.

Juice Wrld in 2019
The point of Juice Wrld’s music wasn’t to chase the grave but to evade it. (imageSPACE / MediaPunch / IPX/ AP)

Juice Wrld’s star power was both very special and very familiar in music history. To borrow the title of one punk album that the rapper (born Jarad Anthony Higgins) could have had in rotation, he sang the sorrow. When his breakout single, “Lucid Dreams,” hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2018, it marked him as one of the young leaders of the influential “emo rap” wave. Trembling instability abounded in the song’s guitar sample, along with a seasick chorus and lyrics deconstructing heartbreak in anxious detail. But there was a tidiness to its construction. It made a bummer into something not only manageable but strangely uplifting.

The 21-year-old Higgins died this morning after a reported seizure at Chicago’s Midway Airport, according to TMZ and the Los Angeles Times, cutting short a hugely promising career and robbing a generation of one of its most fervently followed new icons. In quick time, he offered up a trove of songs just as catchy, just as hypnotic, and just as himself as “Lucid Dreams” was. For all his brooding, the Chicagoan radiated geeky charisma with anime shout-outs and a video-game-themed album cover. In his vocal inflections and production choices, he called back to popular goth rock of the 2000s such as My Chemical Romance. His heartbroken, death-obsessed lyrics did that too, but amid rap-typical descriptions of drugs and sex. The results portrayed existential crises as concrete, lived-in things.

Really, Higgins’s genius was in his melodic ear. He knew when a clash or sudden turn would yield just the right amount of dissonance as to be replayable, thereby creating an unsteadied, wild sensation while staying on the rails of pop. Listen to his single “Robbery” to hear how he nested different cadences and lyrical modes so that they seemed to almost overlap. Hearses and Gucci furs and callous relationship advice and desperate questioning all get strung together in drowsy yowls with strikingly logical syntax. Emotion rules, but he’s not free-associating. He’s making an argument about why he feels so bad, and what that feeling has made him do.

It wasn’t all doom in his music either. A 2018 collaborative album with Future, Wrld on Drugs, had Higgins flexing some of his more traditionalist rap talents and staging booming, if also woozy, parties. On “Ring Ring,” from his sophomore album, this year’s Death Race for Love, guitar fuzz and miserabilist themes came with an almost sugar-sweet sound. Even though Higgins was vowing to stay in bed, it’s the kind of song you might start your day with.

Higgins’s death will inevitably be discussed in the disturbing context of tragedy for rappers of his generation and subgenre. TMZ’s story breaking the news of his seizure is sparse on details, but it does mention that Higgins once released an EP, “Too Soon,” in tribute to Lil Peep and XXXTentacion. Peep died of a drug overdose at age 21 in 2017, and XXXTentacion was murdered at age 20 in 2018. Peep’s music was the closest to metal, XXXTentacion’s sound varied the widest, and Juice Wrld made the most straightforward claim to pop stardom. But all three rose to prominence with unbelievable swiftness by using rap that revived angsty rock styles. They all sang about death incessantly, too. “What’s the 27 Club?” Juice Wrld asked on “Legends.” “We ain’t making it past 21.”

It’s a horrible lyric to consider in the present circumstances—but it’s worth noting that inevitably, when any songwriter dies, some of their work will read as prophecy. The point of Juice Wrld’s music wasn’t to chase the grave but to evade it: Higgins always seemed to be trying to understand, rather than simply romanticize, the dark side of existence. In interviews, he spoke compellingly about his hope that his music would help people address mental-health issues and substance addiction. Scolding and moralizing, he always said, were not the way to help those who were suffering. “The way to lead people is to walk, not even in front of them—side to side, holding their hand emotionally, through music or whatever you do,” he told Vulture. He restated that idea concisely in the first track on Death Race for Love: “Hold my hand, through hell we go.”