Despite the ambitious title of Juice WRLD’s posthumous album, Legends Never Die, the late Chicago rapper spends as much time rebelling against the characterization as he does embracing it. It’s a fitting way to close the book on the 22-year-old’s musical career. It’s the album that best represents Juice’s ethos, which lived on the line between petulance and earnestness and thrived on the resulting tension. For better or worse, Legends Never Die is the album Juice WRLD would have wanted to make, which is the highest compliment you could pay to any album like it.
2020 has already seen multiple examples of posthumous releases in hip-hop — too many, to be honest. Mac Miller’s Circles was completed by his co-producer and collaborator Jon Brion, who tried to stick to the vision of what he thought Mac would have wanted from this album. Because Mac’s own discography was so varied, it’s hard to say whether Brion accomplished this. Fleshing out a full mural from a few sketches and notes in the margins can be a dicey proposition and one can only hope to make a project that sounds at least satisfying to fans, if not to the artist’s original vision.
Or, you can go the other way, as 50 Cent did when he took over executive production on Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut album, Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon. While Steven Victor remained mostly at the helm, 50 Cent steered the ship for maximum chart appeal, building out the tracklist with dozens of collaborators who seemed almost algorithmically selected to drive streams. While many of those collaborations may have happened organically were Pop Smoke still alive, the dearth of fellow Brooklyn drill talents smelled funny to some fans, leaving as many questions as answers about Pop’s ultimate goal with his debut.
Legends Never Die tries a different tack from either of those. On the interlude “The Man, The Myth, The Legend,” gleaned from interviews with peers and mentors of Juice WRLD, Lil Dicky describes Juice’s process with awestruck glee. Dicky describes the cavalier ease with which Juice knocked out hits, recalling a session in which the 21-year-old recorded two completely different songs over one beat in just two takes, then told producer Benny Blanco, “Just pick whatever version you want.” Perhaps that’s why his posthumous album sounds so quintessentially “Juice WRLD” — because he left behind enough material to work with that each individual session could yield multiple potential hits and because he didn’t seem to be too picky about which made the final cut.
He also has a distinctive and fully-formed sound. Where Mac could noodle and experiment and Pop Smoke’s defining characteristic was his gruff voice, Juice arrived with the polish of an artist who not only knew exactly what he wanted to do but how to pull it off. Jarrad never used “-type beats” even in the SoundCloud days. He wanted his sound to be like if a Hot Topic grew out of the Calumet Park concrete like a mushroom, inundated with both the sounds of the block and of the emo-rock, scene-kid radio that influenced his vulnerable outlook and drew lawsuits from the bands themselves. That tradition carries through Legends Never Die as Juice continues to explore the range of emotional traumas and relationship drama that inspired the My Chemical Romances of his youth.
The thing about those hits; there are plenty to choose from here each playing with a thread that Juice laid down in previous works, but stretched to a new length, allowing him to truly explore his emotional inclinations. Juice confronts his anxiety on the dirgelike “Titanic,” laments his reliance to codeine on the balladic “Bad Energy,” returns to the dancehall with Trippie Redd on “Tell Me U Luv Me,” falls head over heels alongside Halsey on “Life’s A Mess,” and even takes a respectable swing at a legit pop-punk bop with Marshmello on the surprisingly lighthearted “Come & Go.” While Juice proves as versatile as ever, he also seems to nail down the sequencing issues that plagued his last full-length effort, Death Race For Love. It genuinely sucks not knowing whether that was Juice figuring it out, or external forces paring down his verbosity.
It’s a real shame because the sequencing becomes the star as much as Juice does. While he previously lost focus around the midpoint of past projects, here, the centerpiece song, “Wishing Well,” is a real heartbreaker and leads to some of the emotional high points of the album. Highlighting his tragic youth and hinting at the old soul that may have surprised his detractors — sneaking in that Robotech sample felt like a head nod directed at me personally — “Wishing Well” is a soft rock jam that really takes his drug use to task. “Let’s be for real,” he croons. “If it wasn’t for the pills, I wouldn’t be here / But if I keep taking these pills, I won’t be here.” His awareness of his problem is suffocating. He knew it would eventually lead to his demise, but he just couldn’t stop.
When the album ends on a high note with “Stay High,” “Can’t Die,” and “Man Of The Year,” it seems like the sort of thing Juice might do. “Don’t be sad, celebrate life while you have it,” might be the message. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. After all, there’s no real way to tell us what Juice would really have wanted to say at the end of this project if he knew it would be his last, even if he recognized why. And that’s where Juice WRLD existed: right in the tension between the melancholy and the manic. Legends Never Die keeps that balance alive. Long live Juice WRLD.
Legends Never Die is out now via Grade A Productions/Interscope Records. Get it here.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.