04 Jul Juice WRLD: ‘There is just so much trash in rap’ | Music
Juice WRLD is contemplating another life. “You think I could be a FedEx worker, Mom?” he asks across the room, a suite in a swanky Soho hotel filled with family and friends. Two nights previously, he was commanding moshpits at London’s O2 Arena, as tour support to Nicki Minaj. By the end of the week, his second album, Death Race for Love, will be at No 1 in the US charts. This weekend, he plays alongside Cardi B, Travis Scott and Future at London’s Wireless festival; he collaborated with the latter on the album WRLD on Drugs, which reached No 2 in the US last year. Still, the man born Jarad Higgins cannot help wondering where he would be had his esoteric blend of 00s emo and prescription-medicated hip-hop not blown up. “Music was so nearly just a hobby for me, so I’m always thinking about that,” he says. “What I’d do instead, who I’d be if it weren’t for all of this.”
Don’t expect to find him delivering parcels any time soon. Since Higgins started recording songs on his phone in 2015 while still at high school, the 20-year-old has evolved from SoundCloud rap also-ran to chart-busting mainstream name. Exploring anxiety and unrequited romance over booming trap beats and minor-chord guitars, he has won a fanbase raised in an internet era in which genre tribalism has been dissolved. Tracks such as his Sting-sampling 2018 breakout hit Lucid Dreams have earned him billions of streams and the approval of Alicia Keys, who covered it at this year’s Grammys. Not that Higgins saw that. “I was taking a piss and missed it,” he laments today.
Higgins says that his hybrid sound began “with a crush I had in fifth grade”, a girl who blogged about peacocking goth-metal band Black Veil Brides. “I was like: ‘I gotta know everything about them so I can impress this girl.’ So I did my research.” Did it work? “Ha! No. I wrote her a note: ‘Do you like me? Yes or no?’ She circled ‘no’. But I kept listening to the music. Remember those iPod Classics that look like a brick now? I had one filled with Escape the Fate, Panic At the Disco, Killswitch Engage …” He also dresses like someone who cross-pollinates these two worlds, slouching in a basketball jersey and skate shorts, peering back at me from behind an eruption of colourful dreads.
Juice WRLD is part of a rising tide of hip-hop that has been increasingly embracing vulnerability over the past three years, breaking from the genre’s traditional machismo. Songs such as the Death Race cut, Rider, on which he raps despairingly: “My paranoia and insecurities hold me close / Lay me down to sleep with my casket closed”, take the introspection and isolation pulsing beneath the music of blockbuster acts such as Drake and push them to even rawer extremes. In the anguished realm of emo rap, the likes of Higgins, Lil Uzi Vert and Trippie Redd paint pictures of wounded young men numbing their inner torment any way they can, but usually with fentanyl and Xanax.
Where is the anguish on Death Race, and in the emo-rap scene at large, coming from? “Everybody’s got pain,” he says. “Depression, addiction, heartbreak: these are human characteristics and human errors they can relate to.” These universal emotions within his music are what is driving his success, with, he suggests, the rest of rap now playing catch-up. “There’s just so much trash, you know? I’m not clowning any other artists, I love a lot of other rap artists. But after a while, I talk about stuff they either don’t know anything about, or don’t want to admit that they know about. I could write song after song about jumping on private jets, but the people that download my music, most of them won’t ever step on a private jet.”
For some, this is a mutation within hip-hop to be celebrated: young men should be able to vent and discuss their fears and frustrations, and emo rap facilitates that. For others, it is dangerous: not long after the overdose-induced death of Long Beach emo-rapper Lil Peep in 2017, the US Drug Enforcement Agency slammed the rising scene for alleged “glorification of opioid use”. Higgins, who says he “slowed down” his drug use after Peep’s death, shrugs off the suggestion. “For me, it’s therapy,” he says. “Every time I make music, it helps me cope. Part of the reason I make it is also for other people to get that release, too. I know I can touch lives with my voice, so I choose to use it.”
And he intends to keep using it. After Wireless, there is a collaborative project with Young Thug to come, as well as more new solo music, which may delve even further into the more abrasive ends of emo. “Every chance I get, I go on YouTube and look up how to scream. It’s supposed to come from your diaphragm but I always sound like somebody just shot a cat. I’m gonna get better, though!” he promises. That job at FedEx will have to wait.
• Death Race for Love is out now on Interscope. Juice WRLD plays Wireless festival, N4, on Saturday 6 July.