Hip-Hop

Juice WRLD's Classic 'Lucid Dreams' Maxed Out the Pop Potential of Emo Rap

Nobody in popular music at the end of the 2010s had better choruses than Juice WRLD. The 21-year-old star, and the tragically now-late icon of the SoundCloud rap generation, was an absolute savant when it came to brain-sticking refrains that hooked on first listen and continued to reveal new shades for dozens of radio and playlist replays to come.

Whether crooned in a near-whisper or yelped at the top of his lungs, Juice WRLD had a preternatural understanding of the little flourishes of phrasing and melody that could turn a chorus from catchy to unforgettable. Even a non-official single like "Black and White," from 2018 debut Goodbye and Good Riddance, felt like an anthem because its hook was such a KO, Juice straining his voice to punch out the titular words ("I'm in my black Benz, doin' cocaine with my black friends... switch up to the white Benz, doin' codeine with my white friends"), while ad-libbing breathy uh?s to soak up the empty space in between lyrics.

His obvious masterwork in this respect was breakthrough smash "Lucid Dreams," an era-defining crossover that made it all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2018. Like most of his the singer-rapper's signature songs, "Dreams" led off with its chorus, a scale-bounding, eight-measure refrain that switched up its vocal rhythm and meter on basically every line. The uneven structuring of his singing should in theory make it a tough hang, but every melody contained within serves as its own mini-hook -- and the vocal never breaks in the meantime, only picking up intensity as its sway gently builds ("easier SAID than done, I thought you WERE the one"), as uneasy as a schooner on rocky seas but also as soothing as a baby being rocked in its crib. The Nextel-like chirp that kicks off each new round seems mostly to break the haze, snapping you back to active attention and letting you know the ride's about to start again.

Emo-rap certainly existed as a concept long before Juice WRLD, even tagging the rises of major turn-of-the-decade hitmakers like Drake and Kid Cudi. But the success of Juice, as well as peers like Lil Uzi Vert and the sadly also-passed Lil Peep, threw into stark relief the differences between rappers who tended to get emotional in their music, and rappers who sounded like they actually spent a large portion of their adolescence listening to and internalizing pop-punk and emo songs. "Lucid Dreams" had the same bratty sneer as a New Found Glory or Saves the Day classic, and also the same sense of melodic scale and grandeur -- the kind of song that knew it was going to have to endure an entire summer's worth of Warped Tour singalongs. And like most of the best anthems by those bands, the hooks didn't stop at the chorus, with the verses packing in standout, fog-puncturing moments ("You were made out of plastic, FAKE!") to keep fans engaged throughout.

But "Lucid Dreams" was also unmistakably a rap song -- at least by 2018 standards. With production from longtime Juice collaborator Nick Mira, the song cannonballed out of speakers with thunderous low end and Geiger-counter-ticking trap drums. And of course, instead of the massive guitar riff that would've enraptured kids a decade earlier, the song's instrumental was built around an interpolation of the tender acoustic picking from Sting's 1993 soft-rock single "Shape of My Heart." Ironically, the inclusion of that well-traveled (and financially costly) adult contemporary hook might have been the thing that most tied "Lucid Dreams" to hip-hop history, as it had previously been reworked in songs from Nas, Lil Zane, and even Bad Boy R&B singer Carl Thomas.

The blending of hip-hop production with emo delivery proved absolutely undeniable for late-'10s audiences. The song was a near-immediate streaming hit, becoming a SoundCloud sensation and eventually amassing nearly a billion plays on Spotify. But arguably more impressive was the song's performance on traditional airwaves, where it became a top 10 hit on Billboard's Radio Songs and Pop Songs charts -- a rarity in a time when hip-hop streaming smashes by the likes of Uzi, Lil Pump and Trippie Redd were barely even being touched by Top 40 stations. It all added up to Juice WRLD emerging as one of the biggest new rap or rock stars of the year, a status he kept up handily into 2019.

Unfortunately, with his fluid blending of rap and rock's sonic tropes, Juice WRLD also showed the tendency to mix some of the genres' most toxic lyrical themes as well. The self-pitying and finger-pointing lyrics of "Lucid Dreams" definitely dipped into outright misogyny, with lyrics like "Who knew evil girls had the prettiest face?" and "You found another one, but I am the better one/ I won't let you forget me" veering into particularly uncomfortable territory -- impressions not helped by the second-most-popular song of his breakout year, "All Girls Are the Same." But the softness of the song and of Juice's smiling, non-confrontational public image in general did make the sentiments a little more palatable than a few of his peers, whose real-life rap sheets added an extremely uncomfortable verisimilitude to their problematic lyrics. (At the end of his charming 2018 Nardwuar the Human Serviette interview, Juice even added an unprompted amendment to his earlier claims: "Remember, all girls... aren't the same, anymore, 'coz I got a girlfriend, so...")

"Lucid Dreams" might not have been remarkable for starting with its chorus, but one of its most interesting choices is that it never breaks up the verses -- it loops twice at the beginning, and then you don't hear it again until the song's close. It's as if the refrain was so definitive of the larger song that it would be guaranteed to overshadow all it surrounded, so Juice WRLD saved it to serve as a bookending statement -- something worth waiting the rest of the song for to hear again. And more unusually for a hit song in the truncated streaming age, even after its second closing run-through, the chorus continues in a final echo as the song starts to fade. It sounds like it might go on forever.