The tragedies of Juice WRLD, XXXtentacion and Lil Peep are indicative of a callous music industry neglecting their stars.
Nothing makes a music fan happier than when they hear that one of their favourite artists has released a new single. Gone are the days when you had to wait until HMV opened to grab a physical copy — with the likes of Spotify, iTunes, YouTube or SoundCloud, you can listen with one tap, as many times as you like, no matter where you are. It’s a changing climate for music — but is it contributing to tragedy?
The unreleased art of Juice WRLD will still be his gift to the world after his tragic death in December 2019. I love Juice WRLD, but when I heard he had a new single out, my initial response wasn’t happiness or excitement. Anyone who has heard of him will guess why. Righteous is his first solo single since his death from a drug-induced seizure in December 2019, aged 21. Its release comes after an undoubtedly difficult decision from his grieving family over how to handle the art he left behind, and it’s classic Juice. It’s raw, emotional, and talks candidly of his struggle with anxiety, depression and drug addiction. Fans of Juice know and have heard these demons echoed as staple themes of his previous work. I remember the first time I heard Lucid Dreams; I had never heard of Juice WRLD or the emo rap genre before, but fell in love with the unique style, the softness of his voice and the way his flow lingered over certain words to make them mean more. All of his work, whether he discusses drugs, mental illness or relationships — or, as is often the case, all three at once — is beautifully expressed, yet a haunting reminder that he was a deeply troubled person who lost his life to these demons.
With the likes of Lil Peep and the especially controversial XXXtentacion, Juice was a pioneer of a new generation of emo rappers who catapulted onto the mainstream hip-hop scene with the aid of online listening platforms like SoundCloud. But these young men have more in common than exploring their feelings in a popular new sub-genre of hip-hop — all three have died in tragic ways, hardly able to experience their first legal sip of champagne.
Artists dying young is sadly not a novel phenomenon; the infamous 27 Club has been collecting members since the 60s, usually from overdoses and suicides. But now there is a 21 Club coined by Juice himself in his track Legends which he actually dedicated to Lil Peep and XXXtentaction, in which he asks: “What’s the 27 Club? We ain’t making it past 21.” What was once a heartfelt tribute has since become a haunting prediction of Juice’s own death. Whether it’s gun crime, popping pills or being heartbroken, one common theme that these artists are rapping about is that they will probably die young, scared of their own minds but accepting their fate with a sense of inevitability.
Hours before Lil Peep died of an accidental Xanax overdose, he posted a photo of himself with pills on his tongue and wrote on Instagram: “I need help but not when I have my pills, but that’s temporary, one day maybe I won’t die young and I’ll be happy?” The sources vary about what actually happened when Juice suffered his fatal seizure, but apparently when he heard that the police were boarding to search his plane once he’d landed at an airport in Chicago, he consumed as many pills as he had on him – surrounded by an entourage who watched.
These deaths are not just tragic. The circumstances are extreme and suggest that these young men, barely adults, were not being looked after by the industry. SoundCloud can help get anyone from anywhere to a record deal by promoting their original work and propelling them into overnight recognition and fame. But the ever fast-moving industry seems to chew aspiring young artists up and spit them out, making way for the next big thing, and the prescription painkiller boom in the United States presents itself as the superficially seductive solution to the mental health issues rappers are vocalising in their music. When you realise what was really going on in their lives, it is little wonder that the world has lost these young rappers dealing with instant fame and pressure, mental illness and as much Xanny they could afford. If a friend wrote the same post as Lil Peep you would check up on them, but because he is a rapper on Instagram talking to millions of followers, it’s seen as part of the aesthetic and lifestyle, and brushed off as part of a performance.
Juice’s lyrics scream for help. I love his music and appreciate his talent and creativity, but now every time I listen to him, I am reminded that it’s too late. It should not be reaching the point where we see these deaths as unsurprising and inevitable. The songs of artists like Juice do not glamorise that lifestyle. They are a bleak, tragic reflection of the reality of being in that rapidly elevated position with little professional advice and aftercare once they’ve “made it”. Along with the release of Righteous, Juice’s mother Carmela Wallace announced the Live Free 999 Fund, aimed at helping young people suffering with addiction, anxiety and depression. She has spoken about the fund being established as part of her son’s wishes to escape his demons, and that his unreleased art should be a gift given to the world in the wake of his death. It is not to promote drugs and depression; it shall hopefully normalise the conversation and help those who can relate to seek help. If you think having five or six pills in your right hand and codeine on your nightstand is cool, I suggest you listen to Righteous again.