In a January 2019 profile for Rolling Stone, Future said he was “sorry” for the way he had sung about drugs in the past. “Oh shit,” I exclaimed. He exclaimed, “What the fuck have I done?” When I thought about it, it bothered me a lot… To what extent have I persuaded other sixth graders to take up lean drinking? Rapper Juice WRLD, who died later that year of a heroin overdose and is the subject of the new HBO documentary Into the Abyss, was the person Future was recalling talking to. It must be humbling to learn that your music is being utilized as a narcotic by the youth of today, especially by the Soundcloud rappers who create gloomy, drug-tinged beats. Juice claimed he was motivated to try to learn after hearing Future rap about it. Tragically, Juice didn’t make it to the point where he could face a similar moment of truth about his drug use.
HBO’s Music Box series installment Into the Abyss, directed by Tommy Oliver, chronicles the life of rapper Juice WRLD from the time he recorded the album Death Race for Love until his untimely death at the age of 21 due to an unintentional overdose of codeine and oxycodone. The video demonstrates why Juice was the most visible representative of the aggressive Soundcloud rap scene and how his rise and demise were connected.
We need to be clear that Juice’s drug use is only one subplot in this film. In it, we see Juice’s humble nature and the respect he garnered from his elders (Young Thug calls him at one point, and it seems like he and Juice already have a true rapport). He is surrounded by people who care about him, including his manager, friends, and girlfriend, Ally. The film’s visual style, which is naturalistic and minimal on talking heads, makes the characters seem like they may have existed. The images themselves serve as explanations, leaving you free to draw your conclusions.
Because of his pop sensibilities, natural freestyle talent, and seductive voice, Juice was Soundcloud rap’s best hope and champion. His inherent charisma and love of the camera won over admirers even though he wasn’t above a clichéd bar (e.g., Blink-182 was the only band on his iPod when he was a teenager). His ability to freestyle entire songs is on full display in Into the Abyss. Starting with “Nobody ever felt the sorrow I felt/So I share it, put it out in the world, I’m not embarrassed,” a three-minute freestyle sets the tone for the first scene. He mentions Tupac and Nas in the same freestyle. To increase their listenership, some rappers are developing pop punk and embracing hip-hop. The juice was a true hip-hop artist who made excellent use of his many guises. The film explores every facet of his musicality. I was raised on rock, rap, and heavy metal; now I’m giving it all I’ve got. This man has convinced you.
It reveals his mysterious and tender side as well. Some of the better moments involve Juice narrating his ascent to fame or doing mundane tasks like making a joke about how he and his fiancée met in law school. He was able to express his anguish through music without letting it consume him. He had contagious optimism and a strong sense of community. If XXXTentacion exposed the negative and troubling aspects of emo rap, Juice WRLD exposed the reasons for the genre’s rising tide of popularity.
The documentary does not avoid the subject of Juice’s drug use. A particularly disturbing moment occurs when he breaks medicines and snorts the powder with a twenty-dollar bill. There is an air of silence and informality. The documentary is not heartless toward the addict it depicts. However, the opposite is true: Into the Abyss implies that a 21-year-old battling with anxiety and depression would be particularly ill-suited to a life of constant travel, touring, and recording while on the road. While the documentary doesn’t lay blame or provide extensive background, it also doesn’t outline concrete steps the business community may do to aid children like Juice. Others need to pick up that slack. The music industry provides young people with the means to support themselves, avoid difficulty, and combat the demons and leeches that might stifle their careers as rap artists. To sum up, the rise and fall of artists like Juice WRLD and others of the Soundcloud period weren’t justified by the music’s ability to accurately portray the criminality and sorrow of the new generation.
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