As a stalwart son of the new emo, Juice WRLD catapulted into international stardom on the backs of many tortured souls turned career crooners. By extension, he became champion of the generation of digital scene kids… more precisely, all the young niggas who loved Paramore and Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, sonic color lines be damned. He was a child of Kanye and Keef as much as Billy Idol; as I saw him, he was an unlikely symbol of mainstream Black rock reclamation in real-time, with no juvenile politics and bleeding hearts left behind. No matter how redundant his vocal affectations or clumsy his lyrical execution, Juice WRLD became unavoidable, if not undeniable. Like so many sad young men on microphones, he pined for peace and found relief in what would end him. He prophesied his end as he narrated the tragic endings of his contemporaries.
Then, for reasons left unconfirmed, the prophecy fulfilled itself at Midway Airport.
I longed to see the King of Calumet Park while he was alive, yet never seized the moment. I landed at Midway, returning from LAX, six days after Jarad Higgins landed there for the last time. I couldn’t help but imagine the hundreds huddled around their luggage, the loose eyes wandering past the Dunkin kiosk, the coming and going that continued on the day Juice came home. I hate rapper death: the inevitability, the fragile youth, my own proximity to such a particular peril by way of the friends I’ve lost. None of them had plaques, yet all of them were at least a little famous beyond their neighborhoods. It’s what the screens can do: lend us immortality, accessible (seemingly) in perpetuity, and accelerated once our lives are either under siege or severed short.
Legends Never Die is the first posthumous Juice WRLD offering. The subject matter within renders me incapable of thorough criticism because there’s only so much colorful shit to say when my generation’s collectively watched several rappers complete their career arcs in five years or less. We keep seeing the ending in the opening credits. It’s the sonic (Black) trauma industrial complex: make engrossing music about hopeless conditions, elevate said narratives to the mainstream, continue to sing trauma songs with the experience of wealth and celebrity, roll the dice on whether or not one survives. One’s survival or lack thereof is subject to rollout. A bulk of this material was meant for release while Juice was alive, which brings no more peace whatsoever.
Much like his prior works, Juice elucidates on the aforementioned issues as if there may be no escape from the hypervisible self-medicinal catch-22. While toting shinier production and feature choices, he’s often mining the same thematic ground to produce serviceable lyricism; nothing groundbreaking, yet deeply effective when he zeroes in on his sincerity. Such an audacious commitment remained one of his most endearing qualities, elevating him past middling toward the striking mainstay he was turning the corner to become. Even at his most cringe, Juice wrangles vocal performances that can make a listener surrender to the fuckery. It’s this very charm that he weaponizes at his worst, calling back to the tired toxicity of potentially killing his lover should she leave him. It’s no surprise, as patriarchy be the lay of the land, but it’s nonetheless a tiring reminder of the spoils of his indulgent immaturity.
And oh, have I indulged the shadows in my room. The whole ordeal is tiring: How does one listen to an hour of ballads about demons and addiction from the rapper who died of an overdose? And here come his imitators vying for their spot, much like the other pillars of SoundCloud who’ve passed before their peaks in the name of XXX and Lil Peep. For all the people Juice WRLD could have become, he lives on as another codeine-dipped conduit of suffering for all the kids who needed saving. He’s one of them, and one of us, and at this rate, we’ll be back here next year.
I looked at Juice and saw my first love’s hand taken in mine, on the balcony at a Fall Out Boy concert. I saw every basement cypher with the homies, and every emo night at the bar. I remembered my dickheaded teenage self, drowning my ego in nice guy minutiae. I heard who I’d be if I dabbled in scripts, and who I could be should fame come calling my name. I heard the silence of those I’ve lost and the power in all our words. He said he’d never see 21, and he didn’t. Legends Never Die was the last prophecy Juice WRLD fulfilled for himself. I pray for the day timely demises aren’t reserved for the privileged.
For now — forever — he’ll live on my screen.