Just a week after the posthumous release of Pop Smoke’s debut album, “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon” comes another new album from yet another young rapper gone far too soon. Brooklyn drill master Pop Smoke and Chicago emo-inflected MC Juice WRLD were both lively innovators, utilizing melancholy, memorable and at times pretty melodies to croon-rap tales of heartbreak, anger and joy. If anything, each rapper was exploring new ways for hip-hop to be assimilated.
However, comparisons between the two should end there. While Pop Smoke utilized ambient R&B as a basis for many of his softer tracks, Juice WRLD — who died in December at 21 due to an accidental drug overdose — was gloom-dreamy, a soft vocalist and freestyler with a penchant for bleak lyrics and darkly edgy but infectious music.
Through no fault of Juice WLRD’s, “Legends Never Die” may be a presumptuous title — “legend” is a big word, and he didn’t have much time to become one. But the prolific MC was on a fast upward trajectory from his two previously released albums (2018’s “Goodbye & Good Riddance,” 2019’s “Death Race for Love”) and his 2018 collaboration with Future, “WRLD on Drugs.”
Little on the new album, cobbled together from tracks he’d finished and those he was working on before his death, is quite as dark and distressing as “Lucid Dreams,” with its “You left me falling and landing inside my grave/ I know that you want me dead/ I take prescriptions to make me feel OK/ I know it’s all in my head” refrain. However, there’s no shortage of moody blues and red flags. In “Fighting Demons,” he raps, “On my knees/ I pray for a better day,” and the flickering “Bad Energy,” with its autotuned vocals dreamy synths features the lines:
“Swallow all these pills with my pride/ Married to my highs, you may kiss the bride.
Trouble in my brain, see it in my eyes/ I got voices in my head, they keep me up at night
Said I was okay, but I’m lying, feel like that I’m dying/ Soul screaming and crying, feel my brain frying.”
Then again, Juice WRLD did like floating shadowy emotions and mournful titles. On the hazy “Life’s a Mess,” with Halsey (and co-produced byRick Rubin), he gets ruminative and romantic rather than his usual psychological disturbance or death obsessions — he’s even corny, with lyrics like “Have you ever fallen head over heels for someone?”
Sonically, compared with Juice WRLD’s early SoundCloud material, “Legends Never Die,” is positively lush — not over-produced, but comparatively elaborately arranged. “Wishing Well,” coproduced by Dr. Luke, has an Edge-like guitar intro and lyrics about fame, pride and Percocet; the guitar-strumming “Hate the Other Side,” featuring Marshmello, Polo G and Kid Laroi, is “Wishing Well”’s dozy hip-hop equivalent. And while several cuts such as the Skrillex-collab “Man of the Year” have a snarly, punk feel to them (Juice was a self-professed Billy Idol fan), “Tell Me U Luv Me” is the most intricate song on “Legends Never Die,” if not the entire hip-hop canon.
And there are also moments of pure magnificence: “Tell Me U Luv Me” combines the fractal guitar jut of King Crimson, the skitter of drum n’ bass and Trippie Redd’s rapid-fire raps with Juice’s dry, emotive croon, hypnotically moaning the track’s title. Moments like that — and the dreamy vocal on “Righteous” and the off-beat “Screw Juice” — are a tantalizing and heartbreaking glimpse of what Juice WRLD’s future could have been.