When I think of Juice WRLD, the memory that stands out most clearly in my mind is attending his Death Race For Love Tour stop at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood. I don’t remember a specific song or part of his performance. Instead, I remember the three girls sitting just behind my left shoulder and how my earplugs probably saved my left eardrum from being utterly shattered by their screams. It’s the screams I remember. They were N*Sync, Nirvana, Michael Jackson screams. They said that Juice WRLD was a modern rock star.
Juice WRLD first rose to prominence in 2018, buoyed by the unlikely success of the breakout hit, “Lucid Dreams.” Built around a sample of Sting’s 1993 song “Shape Of My Heart” — the same song Nas sampled in his 1996 classic “The Message” — Juice described “Lucid Dreams” as a “therapy session” hashing out relationship issues he was having at the time. The sort of song that merits classification as a “sleeper” hit, it quickly rose to the top of Spotify’s streaming charts via playlist placements and then to the Billboard Hot 100, where it debuted at No. 74 but eventually climbed to No. 2, only failing to top established stars Maroon 5 and Cardi B.
Its style and lyrics established the type of artist Juice WRLD was: versatile and loose, heavily influenced by 2000s emo and pop-punk, but still capable of rhyming on a cerebral level belied by his love of melody, like if Kanye walked into a Hot Topic one day and got heavily into My Chemical Romance. Blending scene kid and trap rap aesthetics isn’t an idea that would have worked a decade ago, but social media and SoundCloud have so thoroughly blurred the lines between subcultures that combinations that would have previously been unthinkable are now just run of the mill. Juice WRLD isn’t just part of that, though. He was leading the charge.
As so-called SoundCloud rap flourished in the wake of the success of artists like Chance The Rapper and Noname — also from Chicago — labels and fans alike began looking there for the “next big thing.” At one point, seemingly any song that got more than a million plays could lead to a record deal and a wave of sudden publicity. Juice WRLD, though, is the one who stuck. His debut album, Goodbye & Good Riddance, became an undeniable hit, yielding four more singles which charted on the Hot 100, while the album itself debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 and was certified platinum in March of this year.
Juice followed up with Death Race For Love, another heartfelt (if long-winded) collection of wounded lyrics and raw vocals that further established him as kind of a Kurt Cobain analogue to the tortured teens of the upcoming decade. Someone had to soundtrack the next generation of middle school heartbreaks and puppy love pining, and for a while, it looked like it would be Juice WRLD. Those girls’ screams at the Greek Theatre were proof. Sure, Juice could be melodramatic and a bit cheesy, but what class of teens isn’t?
The way my generation jammed out to Linkin Park when we were feeling down, I could see them doing the same with songs like “Robbery” when Jeremy from History class rejected their love letters. The way they sang along to “Lucid Dreams,” we had “Last Resort” from Papa Roach and “Hanging By A Moment” from Lifehouse. Laugh if you want, but these were the hits of 2000, my freshman and sophomore years in high school. I could easily see Juice WRLD filling that role for the sad kids of the TikTok generation — or even just the normcore kids who were going through something at the time. With Juice’s potential cut off at the height of his impact, he joins the ranks of peers like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, who also gave the zoomers an outlet for their sadness.
It’s impossible to know what Juice could have been, but it’s fair to predict what he might become. He’ll be the icon they compare their own kids’ emo outlet to, the legend to whom the next generation’s music could never live up. He may have been a star on the rise, but now it’s possible he may very well become the center of their universe. They’ll grieve, and we elder music fans should grieve for them, but at least Juice left behind the perfect music for them to cry to.