Making It Past 21: The Life and Legacy of Juice WRLD

Every year, December 8 is commemorated in the memory of the great British singer and songwriter John Lennon, a member of The Beatles. Lennon, in his lifetime, achieved the status of an icon and a true great. But his unexpected killing in 1980 became symbolic, leaving behind a  generation with questions unanswered and a gaping sadness about all that he had left to achieve artistically.

Something along similar lines occurred on December 8, 2019, when American rapper, singer and songwriter Jarad Anthony Higgins – professionally known as ‘Juice WRLD’ – suffered a medical emergency at Chicago’s Midway International Airport and passed away from a drug overdose. He was just 21, and had celebrated his birthday six days earlier on December 2.

Thus, on Lennon’s 39th death anniversary, the world once again lost a generational talent – an artist who spoke his truth through music and believed in uniting people through his form of storytelling.

This piece is not a comparison between the two artists. Rather, today’s occasion of Juice WRLD’s birthday reminds us of the sanctity of life, and the life and legacy of this prolific artist as well as the monumental impact he was able to make in the short space of his superstardom.

The early years

Juice WRLD was raised by a single mother in a devout Catholic household. His mother, Carmela Wallace, did not let him listen to hip-hop and rap but enrolled him for keyboard and guitar lessons. A musical prodigy from his initial days, exposure to rock bands such as Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco and artists like Billy Idol had a tremendous impact on his musical understanding and creative imagination. Juice WRLD was able to locate his angst and teenage vulnerability within two different genres: hip-hop and modern rock from the 2000s.

It is rightly said that an artist’s personal growth and perspective is evident in the kind of themes they incorporate and the works they release. Emerging on the SoundCloud Emo-rap scene under the name JuicetheKidd (a name drawn from his affection for the late American rapper Tupac Shakur’s and his character in the film Juice) Juice touched upon melancholic and heartbreak themes in his music, with the aim of establishing a connection with his generation; a generation which found itself struggling with mental health issues, personal crises and a looming existential void. The transition from JuicetheKidd to Juice WRLD, according to him, represented a form of taking over the world.

The breakthrough 

The release of his debut-full length EP ‘9 9 9’ in 2017 proved to be a breakthrough point in Juice’s career and placed him on the map of the emo-rap and hip-hop scene. ‘Lucid Dreams’, with more than one billion streams to date, is one of the most-streamed songs in music history.

“That kid was so talented, like his freestyle he did on Tim Westwood – what the f—?” Eminem said. “To be so young, he mastered that so f—ing quickly. His potential was so off the charts.”

‘Goodbye & Good Riddance’, Juice WRLD’s first debut album, released on May 23, 2018, and was critically received and attained commercial success. Juice, in a few songs of the album (‘Lucid Dreams’, ‘All Girls are the Same’, ‘Scared of Love’)  openly talks about his mental anguish and past-love interests. In other songs such as (‘Lean Wit Me’, ‘Black & White’) Juice is seen being very open about his drug addiction and its impact on his health and personal relations.

Rapping about the 27 club

With the fanfare around Juice WRLD picking and with major labels and artists acknowledging the buzz around this Chicago prodigy, another tragedy was waiting around the corner. On June 18, 2018, American rapper and teenage sensation XXXTentacion was fatally gunned down in Florida.

This tragic incident had a major impact on Juice, as he looked up to XXXTentacion musically and wanted to collaborate on future projects. The very next day, Juice released a two-track EP titled ‘Too Soon’ which contained songs (‘Legends’ and ‘Rich and Blind’) as a form of tribute to both Lil Peep (who passed from a fatal drug overdose in November 2017) and  XXXTentacion (arguably, two of the most gifted musicians and pioneers of Emo-rap). It is widely reported that Juice finished making both the songs in less than a day. The lyrics of ‘Legends’ go like this:

What’s the 27 Club? We ain’t making it past 21
…They tell me I’ma be a legend, I don’t want that title now
‘Cause all the legends seem to die out, what the f**k is this ’bout?

The lyrics of ‘Rich and Blind’ are representative of Juice’s own self:

…R.I.P. to all my peers
Smoking loud pack, what you say? I can’t hear
But I still hear the fallen ones in my ears
Why, why do we live to die, die?
When it’s my time, time, time
I’ll leave behind my end, my thirteen reasons why.

The songs are eerily similar to the fate Juice met when he passed away at the age of 21, but his apprehensions about the world and the fame along with it are brought out in their raw and most vulnerable form in this heart-touching tribute.

‘Death Race for Love’

In an extremely competitive and profit-oriented industry where artists are easily swayed by the glitz and the glam, Juice WRLD’s rise to stardom with that level of dedication was rare and special. So many of his friends moaned about him freestyling in the studio for hours. However, this was what separated Juice from other emerging artists and even the well-established names – the ability to process and create genuine and relevant music in a matter of minutes. The year 2018 also saw Juice collaborating with American rapper Future (one of his idols) on a joint mixtape ‘WRLD on Drugs‘ and a widely successful world tour with Nicki Minaj.

On March 8, 2019, Juice released his second studio album titled ‘Death Race for Love‘ (including hits such as ‘Robbery’, ‘Hear Me Calling’ and ‘Fast’ etc) which goes down as one of the most creative and ambitious projects he undertook in his lifetime, collaborating with different beat producers, artists and combining different musical genres, which showcased his influence and understanding outside of the freestyle rap scene. Juice went on to record the whole album in about 72 hours, a monumental feat in itself. ‘Death Race for Love’ was another commercially successful project, receiving positive feedback from critics and debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200, marking Juice’s first album at the top the charts.

Honouring a prolific talent

Juice WRLD’s unexpected and sudden passing sent shockwaves around the world and his popularity amongst new listeners absolutely skyrocketed post his death. He became the most streamed artist  of 2020 in the US.

His mother, Carmela Wallace, made it a point to never hide her son’s struggle with drug addiction. In April 2020, she launched  Live Free 999 foundation that aims at supporting young people in their battles with anxiety, addiction, and depression. She now believes it is her life’s mission to help others and not let any mother or family undergo a similar tragedy.

Co-owner of Grade A Productions and one of Juice’s closest friends Lil Bibby revealed in an interview with VLADTV that Juice has around 3,000 unreleased songs and putting them together has been overwhelming for the team. His first posthumous album ‘Legends Never Die’ received a mammoth opening and became one of the biggest posthumous debuts of the century.

Juice went on recording music and performing every day (be it in front of thousands in sold-out arenas or freestyling for hours at local radio stations around the world). His fans meant everything to him and he wanted to make the best use of the opportunities he was blessed with in order to inspire and positively influence millions around the world.

Sadly, Juice WRLD himself is not physically present to oversee his works and his ideas come to fruition.

We as fans can only honour his legacy by celebrating his talent and following his message.

Abdullah Kazmi is a postgraduate student of Media Studies at Hyderabad University, India. You can follow his work @thedailycongruence on Instagram.