Chicago rapper Juice Wrld and his musical legacy of vulnerability and heartache

Only hours before Juice Wrld’s death Sunday after going into cardiac arrest at Midway Airport, the 21-year-old rapper’s record label officially released “Let Me Know (I Wonder Why Freestyle).”

In the song, the top-selling artist – born Jarad Higgins in Chicago in 1998 – sounds forlorn. “Let me know, let me know, let me know … what’s up with you,” he pleads, at once scorning an ex and pledging his undying love for her. He sounds shattered.
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The song, which initially appeared on Soundcloud, is two years old. But with Juice Wrld’s continued ascent and the song’s exploding popularity on the social media app TikTok, Interscope Records decided to release “Let Me Know” anew over the weekend.

The song is in many ways quintessential Juice Wrld. He poses with a hard edge, underpinned by the foreboding bass tones emblematic of Chicago’s drill scene, only to let it all melt away as he becomes more vulnerable with each increasingly tender intonation of the “let me know” hook.

Those contradictions were part of Jarad Higgins’ life as well while growing up in suburban Homewood. He was transparent in interviews about his experimentation with drugs as a youth, and his songs continued to reference their presence in his life. At the same time, his musical savvy was apparent at an early age; his mother paid for piano lessons and he was highly regarded as a musician and aspiring songwriter while attending Homewood-Flossmoor High School.

The rapper broke through with “Lucid Dreams,” a track that repurposed the gossamer guitar hook from Sting’s 1993 track “Shape of My Heart.” His 2018 major-label debut, “Goodbye & Good Riddance,” sold a million copies. The 2019 follow-up, “Death Race for Love,” debuted at No. 1 on the Top 200 chart and was certified gold (500,000 sales) last June. He also toured European arenas with Nicki Minaj earlier this year.

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His musical tastes ranged from hip-hop to punk, and he admired the songwriting skill of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Kanye West. It was West’s 2008 album, “808s & Heartbreak,” that particularly inspired the teenage Juice Wrld as he began producing a steady stream of mix tapes. The rapper was struck by the heart-felt honesty in West’s break-up album, in which a revered artist searched for meaning in a life deprived of love.

Juice Wrld found that as he revealed more of himself through his music, he struck a deeper connection with his growing fan base, and plugged into a style that was already resonating through contemporaries such as Lil Peep and XXXTentacion. These rappers conflated heartbreak and depression with self-medication, not so much celebrating drugs as viewing them as a last resort, a way to tamp down the pain that was eating them alive. In this world, death seemed not only inevitable but imminent.

“Numb the pain, take these Percs to the mouth and the nose / I’m not a drug addict, got it all wrong / I’m just a love addict 'til my heart gone,” Juice Wrld rapped on the recent track “HeMotions.”

Juice Wrld now joins a tragic list of relatively recent hip-hop deaths: Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, Mac Miller, Nipsey Hussle. His reality-soaked music brims with pain. His gift was in how he universalized his specific reality – that of a young African-American man – by filtering it through a multitude of genres and letting it speak for generations of listeners who listened to blink-182 and Nirvana alongside Lil Wayne and Lil Uzi Vert.

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