Juice WRLD is arguably one of hip-hop’s modern day pioneers. With a career that has been nothing short of meteoric, he currently stands as one of the most listened to rappers in the game and finds himself nominated for “Best New Artist” at the 2019 BET Awards. Poised to take home the same honor that has been awarded to the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, we revisit our 2018 piece that posed the question on all of our minds–why is Juice WRLD so popular?
Juice WRLD, born Jarad Higgins, released his debut album Goodbye & Good Riddance in May of 2018, and in less than two months since its release, he is the 50th most-listened-to artist in the world. Fusing together elements of distorted hip-hop and late-stage emo, Juice WRLD is being championed as the pinnacle of the next generation of hip-hop. But why, exactly?
The Illinois-based rapper first found his start in late high-school, releasing music under the name of JuicetheKidd to SoundCloud. A fitting beginning for an artist who is often talked about under the umbrella of “SoundCloud” rap, yet whose meteoric rise to fame has shattered any associated preconceptions of the umbrella genre term. A large part of Juice WRLD’s early success can be accredited to Cole Bennet who is the visionary multimedia director behind the Lyrical Lemonade YouTube channel. The innovative director has been touted as shaping the look of 2017 rap and beyond, often being the go-to-person for nearly every Soundcloud rapper’s music video. From Lil Xan, Lil Skies, Lil Pump, to Juice WRLD, Bennet has become a guidepost to what is bound to break in today’s rap landscape.
Bennet is responsible for Juice WRLD’s music videos for both “All Girls Are the Same” and “Lucid Dreams,” but that does not answer the question of why the Chicago rapper is so popular. After all, there a number of artists who have been featured numerous times on Lyrical Lemonade but have not seen even a fraction of the success as Higgins. Yet, Lyrical Lemonade and the artists it champions is an excellent place to start to find the answer to our question. The most popular video to date on Bennet’s channel is the music video for Lil Xan’s “Betrayed.” A similar lo-fi distorted hip-hop production with emotive vocals but with one major caveat–its fixation on the prescription drug Xanax.
Two things that this new generation of up-and-coming Internet-bred rappers have been defined by is their reliance on prescription drugs as focal points in their music and not really having much at all to say. Both widely-held assertations are misplaced. The latter is an argument that is thrown around with every novel step in music and has more to do with the psychology of how people accept or deny new and foreign information. Yet, the former assertion is one that is harder to shake. Prescription drugs, particularly the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, has become a sort of cultural identity to SoundCloud rap. Drugs, illicit or otherwise, are nothing new to rap, or other genres for that matter. For instance, the former generation or rappers spoke heavily of lean, while ‘90s rap saw notable references to crack and cocaine.
Still, the prevalence of Xanax in such a subgenre still feels alarming. And it should. It is a part of what makes Juice WRLD and the whole of SoundCloud rap such a popular phenomenon. There are many ways in which this generation approaches the conversation of prescription drug abuse, whether it be celebratory, dejected acceptance, or complete disavowal, such as in Lil Xan’s aforementioned “Betrayed.” No matter the approach, there is one constant underlying theme of escape.
Music, well music of note, speaks to larger societal issues and undercurrents, intentionally or not. SoundCloud rap is no different. This generation’s vocal acknowledgment of Xanax and other mood-altering drugs and their forthcoming nature on the matter speaks to these deeper societal issues. It is more than a mere imitation of a trend. Wherein past generations of hip-hop exuded a certain sense of machismo, this generation of rappers reflect their surrounding cultural norms. Outside of the realm of emo, which was an obvious shorthand for emotional music, it was relatively unheard of for artists to speak so openly on issues related to depression, anxiety, and heartbreak in the way they do now. But as we live in a society where it becomes more accepted by the day for men to express their emotional vulnerability openly, those ideas are thusly reflected in the music people create.
So, as the vocal stylings of late-stage emo found a new home behind the blown-out production of bedroom-produced hip-hop, the emotional vulnerability came with it. And while prescription drugs may at first appear as a focal point for most of today’s SoundCloud rap hitmakers, it’s more so employed as a vehicle for the actual message. One of the artists who is perhaps most effective at this is of course, Juice WRLD, which is largely thanks to his unconventional songwriting style.
Every verse Juice WRLD writes is largely freestyled, opting for a stream-of-consciousness approach that draws from his own immediate surroundings and those of his friends. When he speaks of heartbreak and just wanting to escape it using drugs on “Candles,” or the difficulty of accepting an overdose-related death of a cohort in “Legends,” it’s the authentic recounting of him and his friend’s personal experiences. The personable and often harsh recountings that are typically avoided by other mainstream media outlets have clearly struck a chord with youths who are in many ways seeing the world of SoundCloud rap as a reflection of their own realities.
So, when asked why Juice WRLD is so popular, I believe a friend’s off-hand comment when asked the same, succinctly sums it up best, “It’s sad boy music but it’s also relatable as hell.”