Consider it the American dream, SoundCloud rap edition: boy skyrockets from obscurity thanks to a perfect song, becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams and moves from Chicago’s South Side to a Beverly Hills mansion where he can ride dirt bikes all day and record all night. Only dirt-biking is illegal in residential areas, and the rapper known as Juice WRLD’s neighbors are, shall we say, less than thrilled with the noise. Showing me his garage one recent afternoon, Juice gazes longingly for a moment at the glossy orange bike within, then wisely decides against taking it for a lap around the block. “The cops showed up yesterday,” says the 20-year-old, rolling his eyes. “They didn’t do shit, though.”
Juice isn’t exactly sure how many rooms are in this mansion, and the number of residents varies depending on who’s in town — though it seems like every time I blink, a new face has wandered into the room, searching for their misplaced Juul. There’s a billiard room, a basketball court, a backyard pool complete with a small waterfall and an enormous kitchen that’s seemingly unused, save for an impressive selection of what appear to be the unhealthiest cereals ever invented. (It turns out Hostess powdered doughnuts are available in cereal form.) There’s not really any cell service on the property, which adds to its vibe of a self-contained universe. But everything Juice needs is here: his friends, his girl, his bikes and his studio.
A year ago, Juice WRLD could hardly have related to this scenario. The artist born Jarad Higgins was bouncing around Chicago’s south suburbs with his single mother, uploading moody raps about drugs and heartbreak to SoundCloud and feeling a bit guilty about not going to college. For a while, he worked in a factory that made car parts.
But everything changed in March 2018 when Interscope Records signed Juice for a cool $3 million — a splashy arrival for a rapper who had emerged seemingly from nowhere with a SoundCloud EP, though its standout tracks, “Lucid Dreams” and “All Girls Are the Same,” had at that point broken seven figures in streams on the platform. “Lucid Dreams,” the driving force behind Juice WRLD’s staggering crossover success, has since climbed to 1.2 billion on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music.
Today, dressed in a hoodie and shorts, Juice could be mistaken for a regular guy if it weren’t for his wristwatch, which gleams with what he says is a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of diamonds. “I went from sitting on the couch in my mom’s house watching TV to being in Los Angeles around all these big people, being able to record any time I want,” he says, kicking back in the billiard room-slash-recording studio while two of his cousins shoot pool and his engineer fiddles with waveforms. “I didn’t know how to process that shit.”
Three million dollars was a big bet on an unproven artist, even in the context of the SoundCloud-rap gold rush of the last two years. (The week Interscope signed Juice WRLD, Warner Bros. Records signed Lil Pump in an $8 million deal.) When he signed, Juice had performed in public a grand total of once, when he overcame some serious nerves to play a party for his classmates at Homewood Flossmoor High School and collected a fee of $100. But when I ask Interscope executive vp Joie Manda if the gamble has paid off, he simply laughs. “When we first heard the music, we knew it was going to be massive,” he says. “And that’s what ended up happening.”
A tale of betrayal by a girl who has moved on, “Lucid Dreams” has the kind of raw, emotional edge that stands out against the gloss of the pop charts that it has come to dominate. Maybe it’s thanks to the bridge (a snippet of perfect pop-punk), or maybe it’s producer Nick Mira’s reworked sample of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart,” which Sting himself called “a beautiful interpretation” (before collecting a hefty percentage of the publishing). But the track became arguably the biggest SoundCloud-to-mainstream crossover yet. “That song got me where I am today,” says Juice. “And from what I’ve been told, I’m pretty sure it saved some lives.”
It also became a streaming sensation, steadily climbing the Billboard Hot 100 to peak at No. 2 and lingering on the charts for an astounding 42 weeks (and counting). It was listed as the most-played song on SoundCloud at year-end 2018, with over 123 million streams. (Juice WRLD was the site’s top artist in terms of streams, likes and reposts that year.) Onstage at the 2019 Grammy Awards, Alicia Keys performed a piano medley of hits she wished she had written, including Nat “King” Cole’s “Unforgettable,” Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” — and “Lucid Dreams.”
But Juice and Interscope want the world to know he’s bigger than his biggest hit, with his second album — due March 8, with the perfectly melodramatic title Death Race for Love — as proof. A few days after we meet, he’s off to Europe, having replaced Future on Nicki Minaj’s current world tour, and after that, he’ll kick off his own headlining tour. Last year may have been the craziest one of Juice’s life, but as his team tells it, it’s only going to get crazier.
“Of course labels try to sign acts that might be hot, because it’s a business at the end of the day,” says Aaron “Dash” Sherrod, the Interscope vp urban A&R who has been working closely with Juice over the past year. “But you try to find those career artists: Who’s going to be the next Drake, the next J. Cole, the next Kendrick Lamar? Right now, we’re seeing the new generation — your Juices, your Lil Uzi Verts, your Post Malones. New cats that look like they’re going to have some longevity.”
Arriving at Juice’s house, I half expected to be greeted with sullen indifference, the de facto attitude for artists who hit the big time before they can legally buy a beer. Instead, Juice is warm, goofy and quick-witted, unleashing a wry stream of observations on screamo bands, Lil Wayne, organized religion, viral pornography of the mid-2000s and The Office. (“You can look at people and know they’re holding on to some shit,” he says. “Like, Kelly from The Office is holding on to her sophomore year in high school.”)
He also exudes a maturity that he attributes to growing up around older cousins, which is good, because people depend on him these days; wrapping up a FaceTime call with a childhood friend, Juice quietly promises to Cash App him a little money. His girlfriend, Alli, wanders in and out, curling herself behind him on the lounge chair like a baby animal preparing to hibernate. As he starts to play his new songs, Juice delivers brotherly monologues to his Instagram livestream: “Be blessed. Take care of yourselves, guys. Smooches.”
Growing up in Chicago in the early 2000s, Jarad Higgins and his mom, a student teacher, moved all over the city’s far South Side and suburbs, in part to find a school where he wouldn’t misbehave. Young Jarad was intelligent, scoring a more-than-respectable 30 on his ACT. “My whole family is smart,” stresses Juice today. “But certain things about school turned me off. I got diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in fifth grade, which I completely disagree with — how can you tell a little fucker in fifth grade he’s got ADD? How they supposed to act, like a Harvard scholar? I was bored.”
Juice’s mother didn’t let him listen to hip-hop, but his older cousins introduced him to Cam’ron, Jeezy, classic Lil Wayne. “They put me on to Cassidy, one of the best battle rappers to do it; Meek Mill, when he had the braids,” he says. “They gave me substance.” He formed a group called Team Imperial with his neighbors. Juice, by far the youngest member, impressed the older kids with his freestyles. He hasn’t lost that talent: I watch him casually improvise for 15 minutes over a beat one of his houseguests has just made in the living room. It’s the best genuine freestyle I’ve heard in ages, though Juice laughs it off like it’s child’s play.
Back then, Juice had a crush on a girl named Destiny who got him into screamo — bands like Blessthefall, Black Veil Brides, Escape the Fate. Meanwhile, he was playing a lot of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on PlayStation, and the game’s expertly curated soundtrack introduced him to classic punk bands. He became enamored of both Future and Odd Future, the latter by accident. “I asked somebody, ‘You know who Future is? He’s really hard.’ They said, ‘You mean Odd Future?’ So I listened to Odd Future and was like, ‘Whoa, this is not what I was talking about.’ Then I started drawing ‘OFWGKTA’ all over my skateboard.” When fellow Chicagoan Chief Keef’s “Bang” dropped in 2011, 12-year-old Juice’s mind was blown: “It was something that nobody had ever heard before.”
That musical DNA partly explains why Juice is now the primary ambassador for the sulky hybrid known as emo rap — though he’s not crazy about the label. “Any rap that’s talking about what you’re going through is ‘emo rap,’” he says. Still, it’s easy to see why that sound feels so vital at this particular moment, when it seems like the only thing more culturally prevalent than hip-hop is existential despair.
It isn’t a sound generally associated with Chicago, though. And it certainly doesn’t have much in common with the music of Lil Bibby, a formidable street storyteller who became a local star around the time of the city’s 2012 drill boom, rapping like a grizzled veteran with a baby face. But when Bibby first heard the melodies of “Lucid Dreams” after his brother, G-Money, found it on SoundCloud in 2017, he says he was blown away: “That was probably one of the best songs I’d heard in 10 years.”
Bibby and G-Money had been thinking of starting a label, and “Lucid Dreams” was the push they needed to launch Grade A Productions. When they first signed him, Juice had around 2,000 Instagram followers. (Today, it’s 5.5 million.) But the brothers nurtured his career, scoring in-demand director Cole Bennett to helm a music video for “All Girls Are the Same.” And in the first step toward what would become a major-label bidding war, Bibby brought Juice to Def Jam executive vp Steven Victor.
“I believe in Bibby as a talent finder,” says Victor. “So when he said, ‘Yo, I just signed this incredible kid named Juice WRLD,’ I said, ‘If you think he’s that dope, we should do something together.’” Victor flew Juice to New York, where he made music for three weeks. “He was doing three songs a night — not just sketches; full-on, really good songs,” says Victor.
Ultimately, Def Jam’s deal never materialized (Victor declines to comment as to why), and Interscope won. “I was with Interscope, but [the bidding] got so competitive, I went to every label meeting with [Juice],” says Sherrod, who managed Bibby in his early days. “I didn’t let him leave my side.”
When Billboard broke the news of the $3 million deal, Sherrod was well aware of the industry response. “No one understood it. Everybody looked at us like we was crazy,” he says. “We actually didn’t want the number to get out there like that; we didn’t want it to be seen as a marketing ploy. At the time, he didn’t really have the numbers that would make people think $3 million. We went off our gut. I never was a person to go off data, and I think the company feels the same way. Now I think people might’ve signed him for 6 million.”
Today, Juice is in good company among Interscope’s roster of younger artists, from viral sensations like Sheck Wes to slow-burning breakthroughs like Ella Mai. Perhaps more than any of them, though, his path runs parallel to that of Billie Eilish, the 17-year-old who has risen steadily from DIY SoundCloud uploads to legitimate pop stardom. And while Sherrod emphasizes that Interscope has no template for artist development, he is clear that the label is banking on Juice’s long-term potential — and not purely within hip-hop. “We feel that he can be the voice of his generation,” he says. “We want him to be a part of Interscope history, too.”
Juice’s debut album, last May’s Goodbye & Good Riddance, peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and was a solid introduction to a phenomenon. But as gargantuan as “Lucid Dreams” was, he has proved since that he’s capable of more than one huge single: He has remained a consistent Hot 100 presence both as a solo artist and as a coveted guest for the likes of Future, Lil Yachty and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. Most recently,“Robbery” became his third top 40 hit when it debuted at No. 27 on the March 2 chart. And with his next album, Juice — and Interscope — are aiming for something bigger still. “It’s his Reasonable Doubt. His Life After Death,” raves Sherrod. “One hundred percent, people are going to be talking about it for years to come.”
Death Race came together in an astounding five days. Juice, Sherrod, Alli and a rotating stream of producers (Cardo, Hit-Boy, No I.D., Purps) holed up in a Hollywood studio for 24 hours a day, breaking only to shower. Where Good Riddance showed Juice WRLD reaching toward a point of view, Death Race is a true synthesis of his diverse influences with a clear perspective. And it bangs. “The last album had a certain vibe to it,” Juice freely admits. “But my new album has no boundaries. I finally found my own style, and it’s the best feeling ever.”
Huddled up in the basement, Juice plays a good chunk of Death Race as a doctor arrives to give him a strep test. He hasn’t been feeling well, and he can’t get sick right now, with the European tour a few days away. He playfully introduces each track as it blasts from the speakers. “This next song,” he says mischievously, turning away from the doctor’s flashlight, “is called ‘Syphilis.’”
It isn’t until the doctor heads upstairs that Juice refills his takeout cup with ice and tilts a glass bottle of promethazine syrup into it. He collects exotic sodas for just such occasions: His fancy marble chess table (Juice is something of a chess wiz) is covered with bottles of Japanese Ramune and at least 10 flavors of Faygo.
Last summer, an offhand message to one of his idols changed Juice’s life for the second time in a year: After congratulating Future on Beast Mode 2, the two ended up recording a whole album together. Future & Juice WRLD Present…WRLD on Drugs debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 when it arrived in fall 2018, a fulfillment of his wildest teenage dreams: In 2017, he tweeted, “The day I make a collab album with @1future is the day I make it.” In the studio, Juice told Future his music had inspired him to experiment with lean as a teen, a revelation that disturbed the elder rapper. “Oh, yeah. I think I broke his heart a little bit,” says Juice, fumbling with his doctor’s business card.
Juice previously has talked about getting sober after using opiates as an escape since sixth grade; the video for last year’s “Lean Wit Me” opens with him in a recovery meeting and ends with the number for a substance abuse helpline. But he admits real life is messier than that. “What do you expect if I’m a young dude that really loves music, really looks up to these artists?” he asks. “I didn’t have a man giving me no type of guidance. My father wasn’t in my life like that. So listening to this grown-ass man rap about lean, I’m like, ‘Well, that sounds really appealing.’”
He acknowledges that he now plays a similar role for his fans: “I look at it like this — you can’t change a motherfucker’s life by pointing and judging. It takes a motherfucker that has been through the same shit to say, ‘I understand how it feels. We’re going to get through this together.’” He leans back, his face disappearing into his hoodie. “I speak from the standpoint of the true definition of an imperfect person.” At a time when the biggest names on the Hot 100 reject a veneer of pop perfection for raw relatability, the core of Juice’s star power might be that kind of honesty. “I want to be that person that leads people out of the place they’re at,” he continues. “And in the process, maybe I’ll find the key to get out of the place that I’m at. The low places I may wander into or get trapped in.”
Later that evening, Juice and his engineer, Max Lord, set up in their makeshift studio. From a throne-like chair, Juice punches in vocal takes with the focus of a seasoned pro. “The walls cave in!” he wails. “Codeine demons, tryna get a hold of me!” Without the backing track, it sounds a bit crazed, like hearing someone howl their diary out loud. It’s wrapped in 30 minutes flat, and when Lord presses “play” on the final cut, what blasts through the speakers is so sad and pretty that it’s shocking.
This article originally appeared in the March 9 issue of Billboard.