Clash 112 with Juice WRLD
Photography: Keith Oshiro
Fashion: Jordan Boothe
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
JuiceWRLD is at the top of a momentous emo-rap scene that is fast approaching a crossroads, so perhaps it’s time to stop, and prepare for what might still be to come.
JuiceWRLD: To Infinity
New York can be an overwhelming place. The cacophony of construction and traffic is oppressive, and the claustrophobia of skyscrapers is only broken when you’re afforded a momentary glance down seemingly infinite avenues somewhere along the Manhattan grid. It is bubbling and beautiful, and requires some powerful tonic to arouse calm, and when the driver’s door of the blacked-out Escalade closed, there was a poignant moment of quiet.
On the back seat, directly behind a gargantuan security guard, sits Jarad Higgins; a 20-year-old with big, tired eyes and an unassuming demeanour. It is quickly evident that he finds the car’s silence deafening, as he scrambles to locate the cable that will allow him to switch out a symphony of city living for a rumbling of 808 drums and heart-broken synths. He is better known as JuiceWRLD, and as Young Thug’s familiar vocal on an unfamiliar, unreleased track fills the interior, a smile creeps across his previously weary face. “This song makes me want to fucking crash the car,” he says, as the driver pulls out and we move off to get him to a series of media appointments around Midtown, booked-in ahead of yet another sold-out stop on a huge North American tour.
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Between searching through his iPhone memos for new material to play, and looking blankly at yellow cabs and a sun-drenched sidewalk, a casual sense of detachment emanates from him. DIY-style tattoos spread incoherently from his hands to the sleeves of his creased white tee. He wears no jewellery and low-key sweatpants, and, apart from his clear affinity for the odd violent exclamation, the only clue to his position as one of the breakout stars of the generation-defining Soundcloud rap movement are the bleached tips of his unruly dreads. He is, however, as in-demand as any of his more flamboyant peers. It has been exactly 12 months since breakout single ‘Lucid Dreams’ shot him to unimaginable, otherworldly heights, and now he finds himself as one of the most prolific, and highly streamed artists of the past year.
His music portrays a young man that is honest, vulnerable and flawed; features of JuiceWRLD as an artist and persona separate him from many of his peers, and hint at why he has struck such a chord with young people worldwide.
“Old rappers versus new rappers – real hip-hop or mumble rap: I don’t have an opinion on that shit,” he affirms. “I just love music, and one thing I’m proud to say is that motherfuckers are not afraid to talk about shit anymore. People are starting to open up, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
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In the same vein as the late Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, figures cherished by millions of gen-z listeners, he comes to rap as someone unbound by hip-hop conventions of style and subject; ready and eager to be part of something new, and something for now. Two studio albums, two huge North American tours and another supporting Niki Minaj across Europe, and a full-length mixtape with one of his idols, Future, show JuiceWRLD to be one of, if not the, hardest working young artist in America, and one destined to achieve the goal that inspired the second part of his name: total world domination.
Born in Chicago, a city with some of the highest crime rates in the US, he moved to the outskirts with his staunchly Christian mother, who ensured he and his siblings had limited exposure to the gun violence and gang activities, and by association the hip-hop of the inner city. Then, empowered by church and his mother’s own talents, a young Juice would learn to play a multitude of instruments until his interest in music became superseded by aspirations to become a professional athlete. “I played basketball and baseball. I worked hard at both, but baseball came naturally.” He reflects, tapping his JUUL softly against his chin: “Freshman year of high school I failed a drugs test, and had to stop.”
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Going to school in the suburbs introduced Higgins to a vast array of music, some of which provided solace from the unstable, post-sports, world outside. In his sophomore year he began uploading music to Soundcloud, taking the name JuiceThaKidd – an alias inspired by Tupac Shakur’s role in the film of the same name. His earlier bars, still up on his page, except now with tens of millions of streams each, reflected a kid enamoured with but removed from rap music and, more importantly, a rap lifestyle.
Mostly composed of bars recorded on an iPhone and set over beats ripped from YouTube, Juice built up an emotion-filled, confessional style that borrows heavily from the alternative music sweeping the states at the time. He proudly credits Nirvana and some of their more pop-punk and emo descendants (Senses Fail, Panic! At The Disco and My Chemical Romance) as giving him the confidence to posture less and ponder more, while the discovery of Lil Wayne and N.E.R.D at the height of their powers stirred within him an attraction to the glamour and excitement of hip-hop culture.
After a short-lived stint in Internet obscurity, the release of ‘Too Much Cash’ in 2017 first showed signs that the recently rebranded JuiceWRLD was about to strike gold. The track was the first of what would be many to be produced by Nick Mira, a wunderkind two years Juice’s junior, and someone who, alongside fellow Internet Money beatmaker Sidepce, would lay the instrumental foundation that first allowed him to truly master the kind of emo-rap that Yung Lean and Lil Uzi Vert popularised. Both Tom DeLonge vocal turns and Migos’ auto-tuned triplet-flow nestle harmoniously in anguish-filled bass lines and slow-motion trap beats laced with guitar riffs and haunting melodies.
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These idiosyncratic instrumentals allow an emboldened Juice to, in dramatic terms and with a trademark sense of anguish in his voice, discuss his insecurities and anxiety-fueled drug use openly, dipping into themes of depression and heartbreak as readily as he engages in the cars, money, women trifecta. As he sees it, although helped by the keen ear of some of Chicago’s most respected rap elders – introduced to the world after signing to G Herbo and Lil Bibby’s Grade A Productions label – the personal aspects of his work is the driving factor behind his meteoric rise. “I talk about shit that other people are scared to talk about,” he half yells before the driver intuitively lowers the volume. “Other artists or rappers feel like they got an image to portray, so they don’t talk about certain things – as if everybody don’t feel the same shit. We all got fuckin’ problems, and fuckin’ feelings.”
“I problem solve with Styrofoam,” he asserts in his endearing half-sung, half-rapped style on ‘Empty’, the opening track of his second studio album, ‘Death Race For Love’. This reference to drinking lean is manifest as the journey crawls to another traffic standstill, and he passes his cup to the rear seat for a refill. Self-medicating, a worrying theme in the music and lives of his contemporaries, is far from glorified in Juice’s work, however is clearly a point of great fascination to him. The codeine cough syrup and soda concoction, Percocet and Xanax are referenced often more readily than weed, and only rarely with a caveat of consequence. “I don’t even write, I’m freestyle everything,’ he explains with flickering interest. “it just come out of my soul.”
“I mean, it’s just your life,” he says with dismissive quickness, as if his improvisational process is the most obvious thing in the world. “All your demons and shit. When you are creative you can take your demons and put them in the form of a song.”
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In conversation, he is curt, but even when distracted by a passed-round blunt, he is an active listener, and seems always ready to casually drop some transcendent wisdom into the easily-disrupted discourse. “There’s hate in this world for a reason,” he ponders, “and we all make mistakes, but not everyone knows how to learn from them. That’s why I have ‘I’m Sorry’ tatted on my hand.”
Holding up his hand, approaching our destination, the conversation begins to lose momentum. A young man, full of problems and promise, who rarely has had time to consider his journey so far. He pours his heart into his music, cough syrup into his Sprite, and is about to bear his soul to thousands of adoring fans who idolise him, and find catharsis in his work. There is a true optimism in revealing, and then attempting to transcend, the darker side of his emotional anatomy, allowing it to exist through his music and not only through his personal troubles. He is someone that, through his art if not his practice, is willing to know himself and allow others to know too.
This is JuiceWRLD’s reality: human, flawed and full of promise, and as long as he stays in control, there’s no limit to where it will take him.