When Rolling Stone profiled Future in January 2019, he admitted that he had some regrets about the way he’d rapped about drugs in the past. “I was like ‘Oh shit. What the fuck have I done?’” he said. “It really bothered me…. How many other sixth-graders did I influence to drink lean?” Future was talking about a conversation he’d had with the rapper Juice WRLD, who would die of a drug overdose later that year, and who is now the focus of a new HBO documentary, Into the Abyss. It has to be sobering to hear that the younger generation, especially Soundcloud rappers who make dark and drug-infused melodies, are using your music as their inspiration to get high. Juice had said that hearing Future rap about lean had inspired him to take it. Sadly, Juice never lived long enough to have the same kind of reckoning with his drug use.
Into the Abyss, which is part of HBO’s Music Box series and directed by Tommy Oliver, follows Juice WRLD from the recording of his album Death Race for Love to his death at age 21 from an accidental overdose of codeine and oxycodone. It shows you why Juice was the leading figure of Soundcloud rap’s pugnacious movement; it also shows the seeds of his downfall.
To be clear, the movie is about a lot more than Juice’s drug use. It’s a peek behind the curtain at the life of a budding superstar, showing the respect Juice had from older figures — at one point Young Thug calls him, and it looks like they have a genuine rapport already — and his down-to-earth personality. And he has love around him; rarely is Juice without friends, managers, and his girlfriend Ally. The visual style, free-flowing and light on talking heads, gives the film a level of authenticity that feels lived-in. The visuals do the explaining for you, allowing you to come up with your own thoughts and conclusions.
Juice was Soundcloud rap’s greatest hope and champion, someone who could cross over with his pop sensibilities, innate freestyle ability, and magnetic voice. Despite not being above a trite bar, like the only thing on his iPod growing up was Blink-182, he had a natural charisma and love of the camera that endeared him to fans. Into the Abyss shows his limitless ability to freestyle entire songs. The first scene is a three-minute freestyle that ends with “Nobody ever felt the pain I felt/So I share it, put it out in the world, I’m not embarrassed.” In one freestyle, he name drops Tupac and Nas. Some rappers are making pop punk and latching onto hip-hop as a way to gain more streams. Juice was hip-hop through and through, and used his chameleonic capacity to his benefit. The documentary shows all sides of his musicality. At one point, he says, “I grew up on rock, rap, and heavy metal/Now I got my pedal to the metal.” You believe him.
It also shows his soft and enigmatic side. Some of the best scenes are Juice talking to the camera about his rise, or doing everyday things like telling a facetious story that he and his girlfriend met at law school. He wrote sad songs but was never smothered by his sadness. He was someone with joy in him and a sense of community that was infectious. If XXXTentacion showed emo rap’s dark side and problematic elements, then Juice WRLD showed why it was becoming a tidal wave in the industry.
The documentary doesn’t shy away from Juice’s pill-popping; far from it. There’s an especially upsetting scene where he crushes pills and uses a $20 bill to snort up the powder. Nobody talks; there’s a casualness about it all. The documentary knows it is showing an addict, but it never lacks empathy for him. In fact, it is the opposite: Into the Abyss suggests that all the traveling, touring, and recording while traveling made for a deleterious lifestyle for someone of any age, let alone a 21-year-old struggling with anxiety and depression. The documentary doesn’t point fingers or offer too many explanations; it also doesn’t specify exactly what the industry can do to help young kids like Juice. That task should be picked up by others. The music industry has the resources that kids surely need to continue living, staying out of trouble, and fighting the demons and leeches that affect a young rap star. The music of the Soundcloud era represented the outlaw behavior and pain of the new generation adeptly, but that was never worth the fall of Juice WRLD and others like him.