Juice WRLD, Lil Peep and XXXTentacion are symbols of a scene that trades off tragedy
After several high-profile deaths, hip-hop culture is in crisis. But these tragedies are part and parcel of a music world that romanticises, and profits from, artistic fatalism and human fallibility.
Image via Instagram
Juice WRLD, who passed away earlier this week, was supposed to fill the void left behind after the deaths of XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, and help bring emo rap into the 2020s.
His music helped young people navigate through their pain (on the melancholic "Empty", he pledges: “Hold my hand, through hell we go…”) and make sense of having their hearts broken. It showed them how to channel this misery into something positive.
The way the music glided between light and darkness made immediate sense to anyone who grew up digesting news through social media, and the fact Juice WRLD (real name Jarad Anthony Higgins) was unafraid to show chinks in his armour made him feel human and relatable, especially when you compare him to the traditional rap archetype. But his tragic death at just 21 means Juice WRLD won’t get the chance to heal young people anymore. He’s yet another artist gone far too soon, a voice of a generation that barely got a chance to lead.
Just like Peep and Mac Miller, Juice WRLD is reported to have died in his twenties because of overdosing on prescription pills. An estimated 10.3 million Americans misused opioids in 2018, including around 5.6 per cent of 18-25 year olds. But it would be simplistic to blame his death solely on drugs; it's deeper than that. Instead, one of the Soundcloud-spawned emo rap scene's defining characteristics is a lyrical fascination with death, fatalism and self-destructive behaviour; and an expectation that the artists themselves live their lives dangerously on the edge.
It isn’t a coincidence that this new generation of rappers idolise Kurt Cobain (Juice WRLD once referred to himself as the “Codeine Cobain”; Peep said he was like the Nirvana frontman because “bitches could see the pain”). Just like Nirvana, emo rap is built around soul-wrenching lyrics and exorcising personal demons, and its artists subsequently look to Kurt as the archetypal rock star, copying his punk rock desire to cathartically open up mosh pits at will. And it’s not surprising to find a new generation of fans embracing the tragic idol template embodied by Kurt, or fatalistic music that explores themes such as isolation and depression. For young people who have inherited the mistakes, particularly irreversible climate change, of their parents, and are forced to live through despotic world leaders, hearing artists like Lil Peep cathartically belt out tragic lines like: “Sometimes life gets fucked up, thats why we get fucked up” just makes the most sense. But when the lines between art and real life blur, and we create a toxic culture where artists like Peep and Juice WRLD feel like they must maintain a hedonistic lifestyle just in order to be seen as real, it puts young artists directly at risk.
These pressures were perfectly summarised by Future in a rare interview with The Fader earlier this year. Future’s music has long been defined by drugs, with the rapper talking about abusing opioids and benzodiazepines like codeine, Xanax and Percocets in a way that suggests they don’t just heal his anxiety, but also drive it. Yet his admission that he was scared to tell his fans he’d given up drinking lean -- the highly-addictive codeine cough syrup and soft drink concoction -- because it might damage his mythology was a stark reminder of the practical realities behind the rock star image.
On introspective cut "Beamer Boy", Lil Peep also spoke of the weight of expectation from fans and labels who only “want that drug talk”. Knowing he died in 2017 on his tour bus surrounded by fake friends, having overdosed on Xanax laced with Fentanyl, makes his cries of “I can’t let my bros down” sound even more haunting now.
For too long, fans have been taught that infallible status in hip-hop goes hand-in-hand with a fucked-up lifestyle. Getting caught up with gangs, recklessly threatening to maim enemies on camera (something both the murdered XXXTentaction -- who seemed to start a new fight every other week on IG while he was still alive – and the jailed Tekashi 6ix9ine made into an art form), or taking dangerous quantities of drugs are just building blocks on the road to becoming iconic. After all, if it was good enough for Kurt or even Tupac, then it’s almost certainly good enough for those next in line, too.
And in a genre that values realness over almost anything else, we want to be sure that artists who rap about not being afraid to die, taking Percocet on private jets (Juice WRLD's reported cause of death), or sprinkling drugs over their breakfast cereal are prepared to do, well, exactly that. Artists, labels, the media all play along, even as it puts young lives in danger.
Of course, it’s nothing new. Dying in your twenties has long been the hallmark of a musical legend, but in the 2020s we need to call this out for what it really is: senseless. Only then will we start to see artists make it to 30, and this nightmare might start to fade.