‘I wanted to show what happened’: the tragic story of Juice WRLD

An HBO documentary shares the rapper and singer’s ascent filled with anxiety, depression and drug use before he died at 21

Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss, the HBO documentary on one of Gen Z’s biggest music stars, opens with the late poster child of “SoundCloud rap” freestyling straight to camera nudged only by a woozy, hymned beat. A 19-year-old Juice, real name Jarad Anthony Higgins, appears at ease toggling between disconsolation and winking bravado off the cuff: “I gotta admit myself, I’m on these drugs, feel like I can’t save myself,” he says, pausing for a cigarette pull. “Nobody’s ever felt the pain I’ve felt / so I share it / put it out to the whole world, I ain’t embarrassed.”

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The five-minute freestyle is an arresting introduction to Juice’s prodigious talent for rhyming “from the dome” that now doubles as an elegy. In the early hours of 8 December 2019, less than a week after his 21st birthday, Juice WRLD died of an accidental overdose of oxycodone and codeine shortly after landing at Chicago’s Midway airport. Two years later, he remains one of the most popular music artists in the world – according to Spotify, the third most streamed in the US of 2021, behind Drake and Taylor Swift – and a beloved icon of a genre whose stars burned bright and too fast.

The brief life and career of Juice WRLD was one of mind-boggling singularity: one of the most vertiginous rockets to superstardom, even by internet standards; one of the most ubiquitous and influential artists of his generation, with streams in the billions for a career that lasted barely two years. And as Into the Abyss, the final instalment of HBO’s Music Box series (which also includes Jagged and Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage) illustrates, through archival footage of his near-ceaseless freestyling and testaments from collaborators, Juice was a singular talent, both in the prolificness of his output and the rawness of his lyrics.

“He was both willing and able to discuss the things that he was going through without a filter and without shame or regard for how it was received,” Tommy Oliver, the film’s director, told the Guardian. “For so many people who tend to bottle things up or don’t have the language to discuss something … to be able to see somebody who is willing to do that and can make incredible music with that, I think that was something really special.”

Oliver never got the chance to meet Juice; he came aboard the project after the singer’s death, distilling behind the scenes footage shot by videographers Steve Cannon and Chris Long into a loose, unvarnished portrait of the superstar in the final year and a half of his life – his creative powers turbocharged, his demons dissembling into full-blown addiction.

The person Oliver and co-editor Joe Kehoe got to know through hundreds of hours of footage was sweet, goofy, anxious about losing himself to superstardom. He was a virtual spigot of rhymes, in love with and committed to his girlfriend, the influencer Ally Lotti, a near constant presence at his side. He was an enthusiastic artist on the vanguard of blending drug-infused rap with the pop-punk influences of Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco and Blink-182. In both the hyperbolic stakes of his lyrics and his signature aching delivery, Juice’s music embodied ripping your heart open and throwing blood on the wall. To quote Lucid Dreams, his breakout teenage breakup anthem from 2018: “You were my everything / Thoughts of a wedding ring / Now I’m just better off dead.”

He was also a kid struggling with longstanding depression and anxiety exacerbated by the hyper-onset of fame. Raised in the south suburbs of Chicago by a single mother, Juice posted an EP, JuiceWRLD 9 9 9, on SoundCloud in 2017, the year he graduated from high school, which caught the attention of Chicago music figures Gmoney and G Herbo, who both appear in the film. His first music video, for All Girls Are The Same, was released in February 2018 to overnight success; within a year, he had moved to Los Angeles, scored a record deal at Interscope for $3m, topped the Billboard charts, and occupied the Gen Z zeitgeist just as emo rap lost its forebears. Lil Peep, the subject of the similar posthumous documentary Everybody’s Everything, died of an accidental overdose just after his 21st birthday in 2017; the rapper XXXTentacion, controversial for his domestic abuse charges, was murdered at 20 in 2018. “What’s the 27 Club? We’re not making it past 21,” Juice WRLD, who released a tribute EP, Too Soon … for the pair, once rapped.

Into the Abyss mostly skips over that early ascent, instead embedding in the day-to-day of its brief cruising altitude – a remarkably homespun touring operation of creative hangs, ATV joyrides and continuous, casual drug use. Juice’s fraught relationship with drugs, especially Percocet pills and “lean” (codeine syrup mixed with soda) is well documented in his lyrics and on frequent display here. There’s barely a moment when he doesn’t appear to be on something; he mixes lean while freestyling about “dark Sprite”, flashes a tongue dotted with pills to the camera, dozes off mid-sentence. At one point, he offers a Percocet to the videographer, who accepts, then snorts more off his Nintendo Switch with Lotti passed out in his lap.

For all Juice’s talent and the electricity of his stage moments, the film often plays like a slow-rolling funeral, particularly as Juice’s drug use starts impinging on his ability to complete a 45-minute set in his final weeks. “It came down to never wanting to be exploitative, never wanting to glamorize, never wanting to sensationalize,” said Oliver of the decision to include such moments. “And beyond that it was just him being him, and the situation being what it was, without judgment, good or bad.”

“He can no longer speak for himself, but he chose to have this stuff recorded,” Oliver said of the heavy reliance of archival footage, which eschews narration and incorporates sparse interviews. The goal became to “get out of the way and allow him to tell his own story, and for us to see who he was without the bias of an agenda, or a bias of trying to fit him into some preconceived idea of who he was or who he could’ve been, or shying away from certain things.”

The tour footage is bookended with interviews from people in his orbit – collaborators such as the video director Cole Bennett and producer Benny Blanco, who calls him “a therapist to millions of kids”; managers Gmoney and Lil Bibby; a still-devastated Lotti and Juice’s mother, Carmela Wallace. There are no appearances from people not seen in the archival footage, just “the people whom he chose to have around him,” said Oliver, “who spent time with him, who understood him best. That was it.”

This includes recollections from the entourage with him the night he died, with graphic descriptions of the seizure that occurred as the plane was searched for drugs and weapons by federal agents. Though the police presence has spawned theories over his death, Into the Abyss doesn’t suggest a mystery: it was addiction. The singer probably consumed a pint of lean and more than 20 pills the day he died. “I just wanted to show what happened,” said Oliver, “and I didn’t feel the need to address what didn’t happen” such as the rumor that, afraid of authorities, he suddenly swallowed a handful of pills.

Throughout the film and his lyrics, Juice WRLD exhibited a fixation with his own demise that now reads prophetic. “It seemed like he was keenly aware of the possibility or the likelihood [of death],” said Oliver, and that “is probably one of the reasons why he lived his life as fast as he did.” As Lotti says, eyes closed, in her brief interview: “he knew, he fucking knew.”

Juice WRLD’s legacy carries on, in two posthumous albums, 2020’s Legends Never Die, which set a Billboard record for five singles in the Top 10, and this month’s Fighting Demons. His protege, the Australian emo rapper the Kid LAROI (real name Charlton Kenneth Jeffrey Howard), who appears in the film and was on the plane with Juice when he died, scored the biggest pop song of the year with Stay, featuring Justin Bieber. His songs remain as anthemic to a generation of stressed-out kids as their supersonic debut.

“[Executive producer] Bill Simmons asked me why people don’t think of Juice like Kurt Cobain,” Oliver said of Juice’s legacy as a generational star gone too soon. “And I said, because they haven’t seen the film yet.”

  • Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss airs on HBO on 16 December with a UK date to be announced