One year ago, Juice WRLD gave his first-ever live performance, to a handful friends and classmates at a Chicago rec center. The audience “didn't even know the words to some the stuff,” remembers the Chicago native, but he won over the room. “They loved it,” he says, recalling how the small crowd chanted along. He made out with $100.
Then, in March, he signed a reported $3 million deal with Interscope. The momentum has kept up. Just over a month ago, the 19-year-old, born Jared Higgins, made his debut on the Billboard Hot 100 with not one but two songs -- one which, the moody “Lucid Dreams,” sits at No. 4. (The delightfully bratty “All Girls Are the Same” peaked at No. 41.) Not since Lil Uzi Vert and XXXTentacion has a SoundCloud rapper made such an assured leap into the mainstream. In fact, he recently started working with the former, and he dedicated the new song “Legends” to the latter following his death on June 18.
Juice’s debut -- Goodbye & Good Riddance, which includes “Lucid Dreams” and “All Girls Are the Same” -- arrived in May. The album, which hit No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and No. 5 on both the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and Top Rap Albums charts, merges various strains rap bubbling on SoundCloud over the last few years -- the rougher, post-Raider Klan sounds South Florida, the commercially dominant modes from Atlanta -- with a Kid Cudi-esque emotional nakedness. Juice raps about high school heartbreak with teenage earnestness, infusing his verses with melodies and hooks with warbling pain.
But on this early June day, as he sits curled on a bench inside a wood-paneled Hollywood recording studio, Juice shows few traces pain, even as he recounts a biking injury from his high school days. (Today, he’s wearing a Supreme-branded bike-racing jersey.) He’s sharp and self-possessed, but still unmistakably a teen, and there’s only one clear connection among the artists he admires -- Ozzy Osbourne, Eminem, Chief Keef: the confessional quality that so clearly informs his own music. “I speak my own language,” he says.
Juice grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, most notably Calumet Park. He was raised on gospel music, without much access to the rap his childhood, from the late 2000s and early 2010s. But his cousins did supply him with some Jeezy, Gucci Mane and Cash Money albums, which kick-started his writing process: Since he could only listen to music covertly, he couldn't memorize verses very fast, so he had to fill in the blanks on his own. And while he harbored dreams a career in music, he was wary pinning his hopes on distant possibilities. “You know how some people use dreams that they chase as a scapegoat because they’re not even putting their whole heart into it?” he asks. His voice trails f, but the implication is clear: For every young hopeful who breaks like Juice did, there are hundreds who get stuck.
Juice started rapping in high school, at one point freestyling on his school’s radio show. “Subconsciously, I put myself in a situation where I had no choice but to show f what I was blessed with,” recalls Juice. “I was on live air. I couldn't choke.” He began posting songs on SoundCloud when he was 14, but -- as he takes great pride in noting -- did little to promote his work or generate buzz on the platform. Still, he says, “People liked me. I had a small cult fan base.”
That changed when “Lucid Dreams,” which was included on last summer’s Juice WRLD 999 EP, began to take f in the fall. His Instagram-following started “going through the ro,” and before long, labels came knocking. He now has over 265,000 SoundCloud followers and 857,000 on Instagram. “Lucid Dreams” is up to 127 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music.
But, says Juice, he’s keeping focused, carving out six to 12-hour recording sessions every night he can. He freestyles most his verses -- even the ones he tries, initially, to commit to paper -- and prefers to catch the moods as they come to him. “I had a small phase where I didn't know” whether music would pan out, he says, adding that he graduated high school with less-than stellar marks and had trouble holding down a job. But while his classmates are getting ready for their second year at college or in the workforce, Juice WRLD is nothing if not confident in what the next 12 months might look like. “I’m here now,” he says. “It’s time to show out.”
This article originally appeared in the June 30 issue Billboard.