Overloaded and Undercooked: Juice WRLD's 'Death Race for Love'
The type of personality drawn in by a hyperviolent fantasy demolition derby headed up by a killer clown is likely very similar to that which most closely identifies with Juice WRLD's unfocused emotional ramblings.
Death Race for Love
Grade A / Interscope
8 March 2019
Jarad Higgins, better known as Juice WRLD, is young -- he's 20 years old, not even old enough to drink, though that little detail doesn't stop him from walking around with a bottle of Hennessy in his latest video. Juice WRLD is famous -- "Lucid Dreams", the hit single from last year's Goodbye and Good Riddance, hit #2 on Billboard and was impossible to escape on pop radio for months on end. Most importantly, Juice WRLD is hungry. In the last year or so, he has released two solo albums, one album-length mixtape with Future, two EPs, a smattering of non-album singles, and double-digit guest spots, with another collaborative mixtape (with Ski Mask the Slump God) on the way this year. That is a ridiculous amount of product for a single artist in a year, but the iron is hot, and Higgins is determined to strike.
Did I mention that Death Race for Love has 22 tracks? Death Race for Love has 22 tracks.
There is almost certainly a calculated strategy behind this -- the more opportunities an audience already familiar with "Lucid Dreams" has to latch on to the next potential hit single, the higher the likelihood that there will actually be a next hit single. Still, 22 tracks. It's a lot. Death Race for Love is, by any measure, a lot, far more Juice WRLD than anyone other than his most devoted followers will be able to handle. Does any of it stick? Sure! With this many tracks to go around, something is bound to. The ratio of bangers to duds, however, is not great, and Death Race for Love feels an awful lot like an unabridged teenage diary; while the occasional clever turn of phrase and moment of profundity is sure to bubble up, most of it is simple self-indulgence, an onslaught of pure emotion whose sincerity is never in question, but all of which starts to blur together after a mere few pages or songs.
The album begins with the actually-pretty-good "Empty", which will be a warm blanket to anyone taken in by "Lucid Dreams", though Nick Mira's twinkly keyboard lines aren't a replacement exactly for the iconic Sting guitar line that winds its way through that hit. Still, "Empty" is just calculated enough and just stream-of-consciousness enough to serve as the prototypical Juice WRLD vibe. "Empty / I feel so goddamn empty / Don't tempt me / I may go rogue," he sings in the chorus, alternating between suicidal and homicidal impulses in the verses, though never sticking with one or the other long enough for it to be taken too seriously. It's an ode to clinical depression that worms its way into your head not by some insidious melody, not through some particularly slamming beat, but by sheer blunt force. At no point do you hear it and think it's particularly quality music on any objective scale, but it works.
The same could be said for "Robbery", an obnoxiously catchy track delivered at the top of Higgins' vocal range, possibly through a wall of tears. "She told me put my heart in the bag and nobody gets hurt / Now I'm running from her love, I'm not fast, so I'm making it worse" is a funny and weirdly-relatable couplet from a jilted lover who goes through the seven stages of grief over the course of a mere four minutes. This really is Higgins' wheelhouse, a pattern he repeats to slightly less effective but still passable effect on tracks like "Who Shot Cupid?", "Won't Let Go", and the hilariously-named "HeMotions". The effect dulls after a while, but any one of these tracks would do fine on a heartbreak-themed playlist.
Where Death Race for Love starts to slip into the inane and off-putting is when Higgins goes after an audience wider than that which his emo stream-of-consciousness style is bound to pull in. He never quite goes full scream-rap (as he did last year on Ski Mask the Slump God's "Nuketown") but he gets awfully close with the rancid "Syphilis". Its two minutes feel exponentially longer as Higgins rants in the tuneless hook: "I got lean in my piss, I got beams on my blick / On that gun is a dick, I'm gon' fuck your face with it". It's hardly the first time hip-hop has ventured into that sort of sexualized violence, but it feels especially desperate in context with all of the pop-leaning songs about girls and feelings. It's not shocking, it's not inventive, it's just kind of gross, a stretch for credibility that falls way short. Less off-putting but still ineffective are tracks like "Fast", which leans a little bit into tuneful EDM-backed pop, and "Ring Ring", which sounds like Green Day's "When I Come Around" sapped of a sensible chord progression.
Death Race for Love sports a cover inspired by Twisted Metal, an adrenaline and testosterone-fueled gaming experience that involves picking a vehicle outfitted with imaginative and ridiculous weapons and trying to destroy other vehicles with different imaginative and ridiculous weapons. The image that lasts, the one that was cemented in players' minds, is of one vehicle in particular: a killer ice cream truck piloted by an evil smiling clown whose hair was actual fire. Why is this relevant? Because the type of personality drawn in by a hyperviolent fantasy demolition derby headed up by a killer clown is likely very similar to that which most closely identifies with Juice WRLD's unfocused emotional ramblings. For that crowd, Death Race for Love will be gold. For everyone else, it will be too much of a not-all-that-good thing. Mostly, it makes you wonder if the kids are okay.