The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Juice WRLD, budding rap star with a No. 1 album, dies at 21

Juice WRLD performs in Philadelphia in May.
Juice WRLD performs in Philadelphia in May. (Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP)
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Juice WRLD, a budding rap star whose lush songs about heartbreak, drug use and teenage angst propelled him from SoundCloud obscurity to crossover success at the top of the pop charts, died Dec. 8 after suffering a “medical emergency” at Midway International Airport. He was 21 and had been taken to a hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., according to Chicago police.

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said he was pronounced dead at 3:14 a.m., and scheduled an autopsy for Monday morning to determine the cause of death.

Juice WRLD, born Jarad Anthony Higgins, was part of a generation of emerging hip-hop artists who were discovered on the streaming service SoundCloud before achieving mainstream renown. He was still a teenager when tracks such as “All Girls Are the Same” and “Lucid Dreams,” which sampled Sting’s “Shape of My Heart,” began racking up tens of millions of listens.

“I’m a jealous boy, really feel like John Lennon,” he sang in “All Girls Are the Same,” in a mopey voice that could veer from downcast mumble to braggadocious rap. “I just want real love, guess it’s been a minute.” In another track, “Legends,” he reflected on the early passing of two other rising hip-hop artists: Lil Peep, who died of a drug overdose in 2017 at 21, and XXXTentacion, who died after a shooting in 2018 at 20.

“What’s the 27 Club?” he sang. “We ain’t making it past 21.”

A confident lyricist known for freestyle raps that could last more than an hour, Juice WRLD partnered with teenage producer Nick Mira, using melancholy synthesizer lines and thudding bass for his 2018 studio debut, “Goodbye & Good Riddance.” The album’s standout track, “Lucid Dreams,” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was listed as the most-played SoundCloud song of 2018; at the Grammy Awards in February, it was covered by Alicia Keys.

“There’s an emotional immediacy to the music and Higgins is doing more than just spinning his wheels,” wrote Pitchfork reviewer Jay Balfour. “He sings often in weepy groans and emo snarls that match the blunt rawness of his lyrics … What he lacks in narrative, he makes up for in moody hooks, to the point that the nursery-rhyme simplicity of his singsong couplets can wash away the groaning melodrama of a line like, ‘I’m on the drugs way too much’ and needle it into your skull.”

In March, Juice WRLD’s follow-up album, “Death Race for Love,” topped the Billboard 200. In a cover story for Billboard magazine that month, he was singled out as “the primary ambassador” for emo rap, a moody stew of hip-hop and emo-rock influenced by groups such as Taking Back Sunday and Fall Out Boy. “Any rap that’s talking about what you’re going through is ‘emo rap,’ ” he told the magazine.

He was named a top new artist at the Billboard Music Awards in May, soon after concluding a European tour with Nicki Minaj.

Amid the acclaim, some critics accused him of misogyny, pointing to his descriptions of women (“All girls are the same / They’re rotting my brain, love”).

Many of his songs also referenced his own relationship to heavy drinking and drug use. He began mixing codeine with soda and hard candy in sixth grade, followed by Xanax in high school, but said he had started to cut back; the music video for “Lean Wit Me,” released last August, showed him in a 12-step recovery meeting and closed with the number for a substance-abuse helpline.

If his music sometimes touched on dark themes, he told the New York Times in April, it was “because those are subjects that people are a) too scared to touch on, or b) don’t do it the right way where people can learn from your mistakes.”

“I cherish every mini-second of this life,” he added.

Born in Chicago on Dec. 2, 1998, he was raised in the south suburb of Homewood, Ill. He said his parents divorced when he was 3, and he was raised mainly by his mother, a student teacher who steered him toward gospel instead of hip-hop.

Cousins introduced him to rappers including Lil Wayne and Meek Mill, and he soon learned piano, guitar and drums. By 16, he was putting songs on SoundCloud under the name JuiceTheKidd, inspired by the Tupac Shakur movie “Juice.” He later added World to his name, dropping the o to make himself more noticeable.

After graduating from Homewood-Flossmoor High School in 2017, he worked briefly at a car-parts factory and released several EPs. In 2018 he signed a reported $3 million deal with Interscope Records, despite having performed in public just once, for $100 at a party in front of classmates. “We feel that he can be the voice of his generation,” label vice president Aaron “Dash” Sherrod later told Billboard.

Juice WRLD collaborated with artists including Lil Uzi Vert and Ellie Goulding, and partnered with Future to record the hit “Fine China,” part of their 2018 mix tape “Wrld on Drugs.” He also joined YoungBoy Never Broke Again to release “Bandit,” which reached No. 10 on the Hot 100 in October.

In recent months he had settled into a mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif., where he rode dirt bikes, watched anime, played chess and recorded in his billiard room by night. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

“I speak from the standpoint of the true definition of an imperfect person,” he told Billboard in March. “I want to be that person that leads people out of the place they’re at. And in the process, maybe I’ll find the key to get out of the place that I’m at. The low places I may wander into or get trapped in.”

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