GQ

The Life and Death of Juice WRLD

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When Juice WRLD boarded a private jet in early December 2019, for what would turn out to be the last flight of his young life, his friends and family had become increasingly alarmed about his drug intake. Jarad Anthony Higgins, as his birth certificate read, had long been an open wound on wax and in interviews about his battles with prescription drugs like Xanax and Percocet, and his struggles with mental health in general. It was a habit, he said in a radio interview, that started as early as his freshman year of high school and continued as he discovered the drug-saturated music of rappers like Future. In two weeks, he was set to enter a rehab program, but first he headed from Los Angeles home to Chicago, accompanied by a handful of friends and security guards, to celebrate his 21st birthday with a game of paintball.

In the three years since he started releasing music to SoundCloud, Juice had found huge success with a tender-voiced combination of melodic hip-hop, emo, and pop-punk—nine months before his death, his second album, Death Race for Love, debuted at number one on Billboard’s chart. His music stood out for its rawness and emotional vulnerability: In the intro to “Lean Wit Me,” off 2018’s platinum-selling Goodbye & Good Riddance debut, he sang, “Drugs got me sweatin’ but the room gettin’ colder / Lookin’ at the devil and the angel on my shoulder / Will I die tonight? I don’t know, is it over? / Lookin’ for my next high, I’m lookin’ for closure.” As 2019 neared an end, those in Juice’s inner circle were becoming increasingly alarmed by his levels of drug consumption. “Man, you’re taking this a little too far right now,” his recording engineer and arguably his closest musical confidante, Max Lord, remembers thinking at the time.

Garrett Bruce

Juice had been sneaking around doing drugs—prescription opioids and/or lean (codeine and sometimes promethazine, mixed with soda) were his usual choices—with different people, oftentimes pretending that he was sober in order to use again with a new group. “We were all starting to be on his case a lot more about the amount of pills he was taking,” Lord says. “He was hiding and compartmentalizing how much he was doing with different people. He’d come into the studio room and act like he hasn’t gotten high at all that day, and do a certain amount in there before I tell him, ‘Bro, no, chill.’ Then he was going upstairs and hanging out with the guys and doing the same thing.”

When the plane touched down in Chicago in the early morning hours of December 8, federal authorities swarmed the aircraft, having received a tip that there were narcotics and illegal guns on the plane, according to the Associated Press. As officers searched two luggage carts—where they found multiple bags of marijuana, several bottles of prescription codeine cough syrup, and three guns with metal-piercing bullets—Juice suffered a seizure, and a Homeland Security Officer administered Narcan, according to Chicago PD. Juice was then transported to Advocate Christ Medical Center, but he was pronounced dead en route. The official cause of death, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, was an accidental overdose of codeine and oxycodone.

Lord had decided at the last minute not to join his friend on the plane trip to Chicago that evening. Now, he says, “I wish I could have been there to maybe have something go differently. Or just be there one last time.”

During a tour of Australia that ended just a week prior to Juice’s death, Lord and others close to him had finally confronted him about his drug use. “We had just broken down a lot of barriers with him,” Lord explains. “I and a couple other people had come to him in tears, like, ‘We’re worried about you, and we’re scared we’re going to lose you if you keep up these habits. And we have to do something.’ And he agreed. And we had treatment booked for later [starting on December 22]. That was the soonest they were available to get him in. It hurts. It really hurts.”

Juice and his mother, Carmela Wallace, began to talk regularly about his drug use after he became famous and she heard his narcotics-drenched lyrics on the radio. “He was saying, ‘It’s anxiety, and this is how I’m dealing with it,’ ” she told me. Wallace was constantly trying to persuade him to get help, and specifically, to resume speaking to a psychologist with whom he’d worked during his teenage years. “One of our last conversations was on his birthday, and he told me he was going to go to a place in a few weeks to get help. He just had access to so much. It was so readily available to him. That was hard to watch. He knew that was my biggest fear. It wasn’t like he tried to hide what he was doing from me. He was honest. I understood it was [an] addiction, and he needed help. I was just trying to get him to the place where he knew how serious it was.”

While his drug use was hardly a secret, Juice’s death still sent shockwaves through the music industry, especially in light of the then recent deaths of two contemporaries, XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, both of whom Juice had memorialized on Too Soon, a two-track EP he released in June 2018. On “Legends,” Juice sings, “They tell me I’ma be a legend, I don’t want that title now / ’Cause all the legends seem to die out.” XXXTentacion was shot by robbers at the age of 20, and Lil Peep died of an overdose two weeks after his 21st birthday. “SoundCloud rap,” as their subgenre was known, was characterized by extremely raw and oftentimes tragic songs, but just when the sound was moving toward the center of music, its most promising artists were gone.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” says Cole Bennett, who directed several of Juice’s biggest music videos, including his breakout song, “All Girls Are the Same.” “I feel like he was just getting to new levels of his creativity.”

Almost everyone who met Juice recognized his immense potential from the outset. “The first time I heard his music, it was just crazy,” says G Herbo, his longtime friend and a star of the Chicago drill music scene. “Some of the hardest shit I ever heard from a kid.” The songwriter-producer Benny Blanco, who discovered Juice on Instagram and immediately proceeded to set up a recording session with him in L.A., recalls being blown away by his ability to craft a song on the spot. “He hears one second of the beat, he goes in and not only does he come up with the lyrics and the melody, but he does the entire song in one take,” Blanco recalls. “And he did three more takes and did three more hit songs over the same beat. And then he just says, ‘Pick the best parts you like.’ ” Juice recorded several songs in that one session with Blanco, and he would do the same with numerous other collaborators. “Yeah, we recorded eight songs that first day,” says Blanco, still palpably amazed. “And it wasn’t like he had dumb lyrics—his shit made you feel something.”

Juice had the rare ability to freestyle lyrics and melody with intense emotion—a feat he famously demonstrated for more than an hour on Tim Westwood’s British radio show, in 2018. Producer Rex Kudo recalls the first time he met Juice at Metropolis Studios in London, where Kudo was working on a song with the artist M.I.A. Seconds after meeting her, Juice went into the booth, “and he just started freestyling,” Kudo remembers. “We made an amazing song, and it’s not something we could have done on purpose. I started it for [M.I.A.], and Juice went in and made it his own.”

Kudo describes Juice’s insatiable desire to record as “like a faucet that’s stuck on…. He just had a constant channel. It’s not too often that artists are excited to record, even if they’re great. A lot of artists see it as clocking in or having to chase a hit. But he was like a kid in a candy shop. So excited and having so much fun with it. And having the awareness of how great the gift he had was, but not being clouded by it.”

“He was just hungry,” Bennett adds. “You could just kinda tell there was something different about him than a lot of artists.” The Migos rapper Offset also recalls Juice’s passion: “I worked with Juice twice at his crib in L.A., and he spoke to me about being the biggest star that he can be, and that he was just at the beginning of his path. His intelligence was clear. He had so much love for his people and where he came from.”

Juice’s talent showed as far back as kindergarten. Carmela Wallace signed him up for music lessons when he was six, and after witnessing his ability to memorize songs and pick up instruments in a matter of days, educators began telling her that her son had a knack. As the family moved around the south suburbs of Chicago, he joined the school band as a percussionist, and picked up guitar in seventh grade. By sophomore year of high school, he’d started recording songs directly into his cell phone and uploading them to SoundCloud. A year later, he quit band.

“I wasn’t happy about that,” Wallace says. “I wanted him to be in band, because I was thinking about college and opportunities with music. But it was one of those things where I had to pick my battles, because he wasn’t going. It sounded good for me, but it didn’t work for him.”

But Juice was all in on his own music, and he eventually linked up via Twitter with two high school–age producers/beatmakers, DT and Nick Mira. The three collaborators began working together at a manic clip, and steadily pieced together what became the 2017 EP JuiceWRLD 9 9 9, which he eventually released on SoundCloud.

Juice’s music soon caught the attention of a local Chicago tastemaker, DJ Victoriouz, who began playing it for close friends. Juice also connected with other Chicago music figures, like G Herbo and the producer Gmoney, who runs the label Grade A Productions with his brother, the rapper Lil Bibby. Bibby and Gmoney began guiding Juice’s career, and around this time Bennett got a call from Bibby about a new artist he was working with. “Bibby sent me a ton of Juice’s music,” Bennett said. “And I was like, Yo, this is crazy! I fell in love with it right when I heard it.”

Within a month, Bennett and Juice were shooting the music video for “All Girls Are the Same.” On February 24, 2018, the night before the video went live on YouTube, “we FaceTimed for like an hour,” Bennett recalls, “and I was telling him that there’s a good chance your life is gonna change soon by starting to put out this music, and how talented he was, and that people are going to gravitate towards it. It was just something you knew. You could feel it.”

Juice WRLD at Bonnaroo in Tennessee June 15, 2019.Getty Images

Bennett’s instincts were correct: Almost overnight, the video began doing massive numbers, and attention poured back to Juice’s debut EP, specifically its Sting-sampling track “Lucid Dreams,” which interpolates the Police singer’s “Shape of My Heart.” The track—woozy and lush, a bit adolescent but heartfelt—would go on to be Juice’s breakout hit, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and landing him a recording contract with Interscope Records worth a reported $3 million. As Mira, who produced the song and the majority of Goodbye & Good Riddance, recalls, in the first year “Lucid Dreams” was uploaded to SoundCloud, Juice barely had any followers, and yet the song still notched half a million plays “just off the strength of it being a good song and getting around.” To date, the song has been streamed over 1.6 billion times on Spotify.

Even by modern-day standards, Juice’s ascent was vertiginous: By the time Death Race for Love was released, in March 2019, he was a bona fide star. “He was just going in, song after song,” Mira says. “I’ve seen a lot of people blow up right before my very eyes, but I don’t think anyone’s ever seen an artist blow up that quick,” Bennett says. “Watching an artist go from underground to a superstar in a matter of a couple months is just unheard of.”

With its poppy hooks and nods to emo and pop-punk, Juice’s music was set up to reach a wide audience. Mira believes his transparency made him into an instant star: “Juice’s honesty and everything he put into his music was really easy for people to accept and hear and want to share,” Mira explains. “There was always a relatability factor. Everybody could feel the true emotion. He wasn’t just writing songs just to write songs to make money. He was expressing himself through his music, battling his own demons, battling his own problems, and literally putting it out on a track and letting the world just judge it.”

Juice’s music could be dark and fatalistic (“Codeine with the Percs / Take too many, feel like I’ma die / I can’t go out like that / Ain’t tryna make my mama cry,” he rapped on “Syphilis”), but by all accounts, he was a happy-go-lucky, humble young kid whose main concern was keeping himself and his friends amused. Blanco calls him “one of the purest people I ever met,” while Bennett refers to him as “a selfless superstar.” “It was insane, because he just didn’t know what an ego meant,” Bennett adds. “There wasn’t a bone in his body that even understood what that word meant.”

“We had to remind him of how big of a star he was and how much power he had,” says G Herbo. “He was so humble, he didn’t even take advantage of his power. We used to tell him, ‘Bro, you know who you are?! You Juice WRLD!’ ”

Rather than spend money on trappings like cars and jewelry, Juice instead treated himself like the kid he still was: Aside from buying a house in the Los Angeles area, he collected Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, played old-school PlayStation 1 and Sega Genesis games, and bought paintball guns and all-terrain vehicles for his friends. “All he cared about were his friends and trying to have fun and be in the moment,” says Lord. “He didn’t care about any of the superfluous stuff or anything but his loved ones, his friends, and making music and having fun. He never had one car, but he has 10 dirt bikes and four ATVs, just so he and his friends can go out and have fun together…. He was just a kid.” 

“Juice was a living Santa Claus,” says Peter Jideonwo, one of his managers, and a partner and the COO of Grade A Productions. “I think he was put on Earth to be a vessel to help people.”

But drugs were always present in his life. Juice regularly rapped about popping pills and drinking lean, and how he problem-solved “with Styrofoam.” Jideonwo said Juice’s drug use “worried us every single day.” He estimates that he and other members of Juice’s management team took the rapper to doctors between 20 and 30 times over the past few years of his life, to help him overcome his addiction issues; once, they flew him from Los Angeles home to Chicago, just to have his brain and heart scanned. “Juice always tried to change,” Jideonwo continues, “but ultimately it was just a battle that he couldn’t beat. “[Overcoming] addiction is something that takes time, and we just ran out of time.”

“[Juice] talked about sobriety,” says Mira. “That’s always been an open topic for him…. His struggle on and off, his battle that he was fighting with prescription medication. Everybody felt love for him. We wanted to make sure he was good and wasn’t having to mask these problems. We all wanted the best for him. It’s just a tough fight.”

Juice recognized the pitfalls of his habits. “I smoke weed, and every now and then I slip up and do something that’s poor judgment,” he told The New York Times in 2018. “I have a lot going for me, I recognize it’s a lot of big things, a lot of big looks. I want to be there, and you don’t have to overdose to not be there.” Drugs, he said in a 2018 radio interview, “separate a person’s soul from their body even more, ’cause your mind could be telling you ‘fuck no’…but your body is dependent…. It can tear you apart.”

Before the Australia tour, Juice was mostly in Los Angeles, enjoying life. An old friend he met in Chicago, the producer ChaseTheMoney (who years earlier had recorded the unreleased “Rockstar Status” with Juice), recalls being at the rapper’s house a few months before his death. “I pulled up millions and millions of beats, and he was just rapping,” ChaseTheMoney says. “I tell you, bro, he was in a good spirit. I was happy for him. Big-ass house with a fucking pool. Just everything. It was good. I was happy to see he had his shit together.”

Bennett was there a few weeks later, when all of Juice’s friends gathered together in the pool for a game of 500. Blanco recalls recording a song with Juice roughly one month before he died. His friends all told me that Juice was in high spirits and excited about the future. “He was talking about how he wanted to act, and how I was gonna work on films with him, and we were gonna take things to new levels,” Bennett says. “He always trusted me, but he was finally getting to a point where he was starting to trust himself more.”

But Kudo’s last interaction with Juice went a bit differently. Kudo says that he and their mutual friend A$AP Bari had a heart-to-heart talk with Juice about his escalating drug use. Bari, Kudo says, warned Juice that if he kept up his habits, he might end up dying, just as Bari’s close friend the prolific A$AP Yams did, of an accidental drug overdose, back in 2015.

Juice Wrld in Paris, September 20, 2018.David Wolff Patrick / Getty Images

“We were just talking about some of the stuff that was going on with him, and how to have self-control,” Kudo recalls. “Not trying to be his parent or anything, but just being his friend.” Kudo believes that Juice may have been too far gone to heed their advice: “You can’t control someone into doing something, though. Because at a certain point, when people tell you not to do something, then you’ll just go and do it behind a closed door.”

Without comment from those on the plane with Juice that December evening, there’s only speculation about what happened in the rapper’s final minutes. “Knowing how he was that week, knowing how [high] he was acting the night before flying out, I’m willing to believe that he honestly just overdosed,” Lord says. “I don’t think there’s a greater conspiracy going on regarding the circumstances of his death,” he added.

Lord hypothesizes that Juice may have taken pills simply to stay high during a potential detainment by the police. “He might have been like, ‘Oh, damn, we’re being detained. What if I can’t take anything for two days? What if I have to get booked and get bailed out? I’m not trying to come down. I want to make sure I’m high.’ ”

Juice’s mother is more succinct: “Even before the tests came back, I knew what [he died] from,” she says. “And I made the decision from the beginning that I’m not going to hide it. I want people to know the seriousness of it.” That’s why, in April 2020, she launched the Live Free 999 foundation, which aims to support young people in their battles with anxiety, addiction, and depression.

“After he passed, I just received such an outpouring from fans on how his music helped them, some even saying it prevented them from committing suicide,” Wallace says. “It just touched my heart and made me realize the message of healing has to continue. I felt like it was my duty to carry on and help others. And in the process of helping others, it helps me too.”

More than one year after his death, Juice’s music continues to be among the most streamed in the world. A posthumous album, Legends Never Die, was released last July; it promptly debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. Wallace says it’s bittersweet to see her son have so much continued success, but not be here to enjoy it. “It’s rewarding to see, but it’s sad too, because I miss him,” she says.

“The impact that he left on the world is crazy,” G Herbo adds. “Only he could do it. I’ve never seen nothing like it. It’s because of the work he put in when he was here.” Lord says he’s not taken aback by Juice’s continued relevance. “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” he says. “It feels amazing to see how much people supported him and were fans of him. It’s incredible to see how much people loved him, and still do.”

Above all, Lord says, he simply misses his friend: “Not a day goes by that I’m not fully aware of Juice,” he says. “I carry him with me every day.”

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