Rapper Juice WRLD’s 2018 breakout single “Lucid Dreams” was a hip-hop hit that felt spiritually indebted to a very un-hip-hop influence: Dashboard Confessional’s 2002 “Screaming Infidelities,” which packaged the lamentations of a man deep in the throes of heartbreak in clean acoustic guitar and singer Chris Carrabba’s injured whine. With “Lucid Dreams,” Juice WRLD more or less grafted Dashboard’s emotional blueprint onto clacking percussion and booming 808s. Whereas “Insecurities” is an intimate coffeehouse joint meant to be received by an audience of dozens, “Lucid Dreams” is a song that wants the entire universe to hear it. For Juice WRLD, love is like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, an epic, swirling tempest too powerful for our frail human hearts to comprehend or bear.
“Lucid Dreams” reached #2 on the Hot 100 last June and turned Juice WRLD into the poster child for emo rap practically overnight. Since October, he has released a joint mixtape with Future, celebrated his 20th birthday, and embarked on a European tour with Nicki Minaj. The early Lil Uzi Vert and Post Malone comparisons he garnered have proven prescient; Juice is now nearly as popular as both of them. On his new album Death Race for Love, his chronic depression, drug abuse and lovesickness collide with his sudden wealth, fame and status.
Death Race builds on Juice’s instinct to distill emotion rather than tell a story. On the opening track “Empty,” he gestures towards the affected nihilism of his 2018 debut album Goodbye and Good Riddance and uncorks the incredible eye-roller, “My world revolves around a black hole / the same black hole that’s in place of my soul.” Death Race is rife with clunkers like these but its 22 tracks also constitute an unmistakable step forward for Juice WRLD’s sadboy aesthetic, which has now become broader and more richly textured. The album’s most compelling moments are Juice’s realizations that his money won’t solve his problems: “It’s been months since I felt at home / But it’s okay ’cause I’m rich / Sike, I’m still sad as a bitch,” he sings matter-of-factly on “Fast.” On “Robbery,” he offers the reverse humblebrag, “One thing my dad told me was, ‘Never let your woman know when you’re insecure’ / So I put Gucci on the fur / And I put my wrist on iceberg.” These admissions provide a grounding context for his emotional distress that his previous work has generally lacked; here, he appears less of an avatar of suffering and more like a human.
“I have songs for the trap house, songs for the sock hop, songs for the Caribbeans, songs for raves, songs for slow dancing,” Juice said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. This turns out to be true on Death Race, where he’s expanded his sound with help from veteran producers like Hit-Boy, Boi-1da, Cardo. No I.D., and Jahaan Sweet. The album’s samples of “Sicko Mode” organ (“Out My Way”), Daniel Caesar’s “Who Hurt You” (“10 Feet”), and Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” (“Make Believe”)” are representative of the way it alternately leans into various mainstream trends and floats unforeseen experiments. Similarly, Juice frequently digresses from his rap game Mark Hoppus routine to rap more, and also to try out Offset’s barking ad-libs (“Big”), Ski Mask’s chuckles, XXXTentacion’s screams (“Syphillis”) and Travis Scott’s drugged-out croon (“The Bees Knees”). He’s still searching for the ideal balance of preening and wallowing, but he’s getting closer.
Juice takes a few gambles on Death Race, and they all pay off. He yields an entire song to the ruminative Baltimore R&B singer Brent Faiyaz, and he allots one of the album’s three guest verses to Clever, a 34-year-old journeyman rapper from Alabama, who yearns for Postmates more passionately on wax than anyone ever before. These unexpected moments spark joy in Juice WRLD’s often joyless world in a way that too many moments—like when he uses some variation of the phrase “numb my feels” for the umpteenth time, or spells out “winning” like he’s in the Scripps National Spelling Bee—do not.
Still, Death Race succeeded in its most fundamental mission, which was to prove that “Lucid Dreams” was not a fluke. Songs like “Fast,” “Ring, “Hear Me Calling” strike a dynamic balance of raw charisma and profound anxiety, and, this summer, at least one of them will likely make a run on the charts and solidify Juice WRLD’s status as a genuine pop dynamo. While his melodrama tends to grow old over the course of a 22-track, 72-minute album, it is captivating in small doses.