Juice Wrld onstage at the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash in Douglas Park this past June Credit: Kathleen Hinkel for Chicago Reader

For kids obsessed with pop, few rappers have loomed as large as Chicagoan Jarad Higgins, better known as Juice Wrld—and he was well on the way to becoming a household name to everyone else. In the brief time since Interscope signed him to a reported $3 million deal in March 2018, he’d dropped three albums that peaked in the top five on the Billboard 200, including March’s Death Race for Love, which debuted at number one.

Higgins drew on 2000s emo and 2010s underground hip-hop for his bristling bars and honeyed melodies, and his hooks went down so smoothly you could forget he was talking about heartbreak, depression, anxiety, and drug abuse—lyrical content typical of Soundcloud rap, a bustling hip-hop movement that he both typified and transcended. In the past 14 months, he’d also released a collaborative full-length with Atlanta star Future (Wrld on Drugs) and toured with Nicki Minaj, and he would’ve gone even bigger if he hadn’t died early Sunday morning, six days after he turned 21. The cause of death is unknown—he suffered a medical emergency at Midway Airport (various sources have reported a seizure or cardiac arrest) and was pronounced dead at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. An autopsy is pending.

Higgins ascended astonishingly quickly, and because he moved to Los Angeles as soon as that happened—before he’d had time to play more than a couple shows here—it’s easy to see him as disconnected from the narrative of Chicago hip-hop, without local bona fides. Born in Chicago on December 2, 1998, Higgins grew up in the south suburbs and honed his skills while attending Homewood-Flossmoor High School. While you can hear his fondness for Paramore and Panic! at the Disco in the exaggerated and occasionally saccharine half-sung hooks on his biggest songs, his love of Chicago rap is at least as obvious: late in his verse on “2k17 Goosebumps,” a track he made with rappers Teddystax and Freejay for Homewood-Flossmoor’s class of 2017, he seems to deliver his words from the back of his throat, sounding like controversial Chicago rapper Famous Dex.

Higgins also spoke fondly of Chief Keef, whose ever-evolving, melodically inventive style had a hard-to-quantify influence on him. On Sunday morning, Chicago hip-hop critic David Drake tweeted a video from producer DJ L that shows Higgins freestyling in the studio, nonchalantly punctuating his lines with “yeah” or “huh” in a way that makes Keef’s impact plain.

Higgins started posting tracks to Soundcloud in 2015, but he had little success till the June 2017 EP 9 9 9—which made a fan of DJ Victoriouz, who’d hosted Chief Keef’s 2012 Back From the Dead mixtape and spins for G Herbo. Victoriouz brought Higgins to the attention of G Money, brother of drill rapper Lil Bibby—the brothers run the Grade A Productions label, which signed Higgins in February 2018 and has supported his career ever since. Higgins hired Cole Bennett, founder of Chicago-based hip-hop blog Lyrical Lemonade and an in-demand video director, to work on “All Girls Are the Same”; the video dropped at the end of February 2018, and Higgins’s career began its rapid climb.

Juice Wrld at the Summer SmashCredit: Kathleen Hinkel for Chicago Reader

“All Girls Are the Same” has since accumulated more than 389 million Spotify streams, but it’s been eclipsed by a song from 9 9 9, “Lucid Dreams,” which got a video in May 2018. In the streaming era, songs flit in and out of the zeitgeist at an unprecedented speed, and yet “Lucid Dreams” has seemed to hang around forever—it’s gone platinum six times and is closing in on a seventh, with nearly a billion Spotify streams. The track’s lissome acoustic-guitar melody, which producer Nick Mira lifted from the 1993 Sting hit “Shape of My Heart,” floated in the air throughout summer 2018, and that October, Sting joked that the royalties he’d earn from “Lucid Dreams” would put his kids through college.

In the following months, Higgins racked up more platinum certifications for the singles “Lean Wit Me,” “Wasted,” “Armed & Dangerous,” and “Black and White,” all of which appear on his major-label debut, Goodbye & Good Riddance, which also came out in May 2018 and went platinum as an album. His collaborative track with Future, “Fine China,” where Higgins Trojan-horses some of his most misogynistic lyrics into a strangely euphoric hook, went platinum too, and so did “Robbery,” the lead single from Death Race for Love. His list of gold-certified songs is even longer, and includes “Roses,” a Benny Blanco track that also features Panic! at the Disco front man Brendon Urie.

Songs seemed to flow out of Higgins, and lyrics definitely did—he wrote all his verses by freestyling, which lends them an urgent edge. That energy didn’t always come across in concert—at this year’s Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash, for instance, he made no attempt to match the climbing-the-walls intensity of some of the other young acts. But whenever I saw him perform, he looked like he was always meant to be on that stage.  v

Kathleen Hinkel for Chicago Reader