Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” was fraught and wounded, a stinging narrative of betrayal softened, slightly, by a sample of the actual Sting. Streamers gobbled it up — “Lucid Dreams” became the most-streamed single of 2018 not made by Drake — and commuters stuck in traffic enjoyed it too: “Lucid Dreams” became a multi-format radio hit.
The safe play for Juice WRLD on his second solo album, Death Race for Love, would be more of the same — mournful guitar, self-involved lyrics sketching romantic torment, vocals from the school of why-croon-if-you-can-wail. And there is plenty of that formula.
But Juice WRLD also peppers the album with steroidal SoundCloud rap (“Syphilis”), reverent R&B (“Demonz Interlude”) and boisterous, old-fashioned chest-thumping (“Big”). He nods to global dance currents (“Hear Me Calling”) and sometimes shifts his tone halfway through a track (“The Bees Knees”). Even one of the guitar-and-toxic-relationship songs here, “Make Believe,” draws an unexpected connection, suggesting a link between Juice WRLD and zany West Coast rap from the Nineties (Pharcyde’s “Runnin'”).
Avoiding one-mode wonder-dom was part of the mission. “People say that they can hear the rock influence, the Blink-182 influence, the emo influence in my music, but on this album you can hear ev-er-y-thing,” Juice WRLD promised during an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year. “I have songs for the trap house, songs for the sock hop, songs for the Caribbeans, songs for raves, songs for slow dancing.”
“I’ve never seen him actually write.”
To achieve that range, he called on new collaborators, especially Hit-Boy (Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Niggas In Paris,” Drake’s “Trophies”), who is credited on five different Death Race for Love songs. Juice WRLD also worked with the producers Rvssian, known for reggaeton and dancehall missiles, and No I.D., who brings his flare for sampling, as well as the singer Brent Faiyaz, who makes gentle, bruised R&B.
Despite all the new faces, Juice WRLD made the majority of Death Race for Love during bustling, work-through-the-night sessions at a studio in Hollywood earlier this year. “‘Robbery’ is the only old song,” the rapper told Rolling Stone. “Everything else I made in about 72 hours — I made like 23 songs in those days.” Hit-Boy connected with him for two-ish weeks in mid-January, and the pair worked on roughly 20 songs together. “[Juice WRLD] was sleeping in the studio,” Hit-Boy recalls. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen this level of dedication.”
In addition to “Robbery,” a few other songs have origins that pre-date the January sessions. Hit-Boy originally built the bones of “She’s the One” as a song for Kehlani way back in 2015. (“Don’t give up on your ideas,” the producer says.) And Juice WRLD cut three songs with Rvssian on November 7. One of those, “Ring Ring” — which Rvssian describes as “a Green Day-ish sound mixed with trap” — made the album.
But old songs are mostly unnecessary when an artist can spout melodies like Juice WRLD. “This is a one-take kind of song,” the rapper declares at the start of “Feeling.” And sure enough, “Juice is the person who, when you press play [on a beat], he doesn’t hear it for more than five seconds before he says, ‘load it up’ and goes off top [ad-libs a vocal on the spot],” Rvssian says. “This is at four or five in the morning. He kills the first beat, then he’s like, ‘play the next one.’ He goes off top again. I’ve never seen him actually write.”
“Certain people freestyle for a while and then run out of things to say,” Hit-Boy adds. “I feel like he’s one of the first people I’ve worked with personally who never runs out.” “HeMotions” and “Big” emerged in just 45 minutes during the same session.
Hit-Boy credits Aaron “Dash” Sherrod, vp of urban A&R at Interscope Records, with quarterbacking the efforts to diversify Death Race for Love. “He brought me in and said he wanted me to come up with a sound that could really be the anchor for the album,” Hit-Boy explains. “I don’t have no records on there that are what [Juice WRLD is] known for.” Hit-Boy’s productions include “Big,” a welcome moment of brassy triumphalism, and “She’s the One,” which unexpectedly succeeds by swaddling Juice WRLD’s angst-ridden vocals in serene bell-tones.
Sherrod was also the one who corralled “Demonz Interlude,” a snapping, prayer-like track that’s a world away from Juice WRLD’s typical world-is-ending style. Faiyaz recorded the track in January with his frequent collaborator Paperboy Fabe. “It ended up getting in the hands of Juice WRLD’s A&R through [Faiyaz]’s manager,” Fabe says. “Dash wanted Brent on the project as an interlude. Because of what Juice WRLD was talking about in the previous song, it leads right into ‘Demonz’ — A lot of people have inner darkness that they’re trying to overcome.”
The twists provided by “She’s the One” or “Demonz Interlude” are crucial, since the approach that made Juice WRLD a star is increasingly ubiquitous in multiple genres. “In the industry right now, a lot of people are doing the guitar [sound],” Rvssian says. You can hear “Lucid Dreams”-like riffs and melodies creeping through Bad Bunny’s “Tenemos Que Hablar,” Benny Blanco’s “Eastside,” Khalid’s “My Bad,” Yungblud’s “11 Minutes” and YNW Melly’s “No Heart.”
Juice WRLD still has plenty of songs in this vein: The wonderfully named “Who Shot Cupid?”, which paints love as inevitable destruction, is all soft guitar and blasting 808. But Death Race for Love proves Juice WRLD can do more than that — and do it well.