“Lord have mercy / I know that these Perkys finna hurt me, aye / Sometimes I feel like they doin' surgery” —Juice WRLD, “Black & White”
Let’s talk about crying for help. Communicating a need for help in any capacity is one of the most difficult things to do. In music, cries for help trend either overt or covert. That is, you can be screaming a la Denzel Curry, or you can sing through the pain a la Lil Uzi Vert. The perk of the Denzel Curry approach is that we know exactly what Curry demands of us. His music is immediately cutting and emotive. There are no unanswered questions. With Uzi, there is the business of unfolding. The dissonance between the sonics and the actual content are the main feature of his storytelling—they are the hook.
Take “XO TOUR Llif3,” a massive club smash that just so happens to be the most leveling cry for help. Arranging the single in this way, Lil Uzi Vert appears to be shouting into a void, and yet as the catchy tune gets picked up by listeners everywhere, the gravity of the lyrics have no other recourse but to eventually percolate in our heads and leave us with a lasting impression. That is, shit is not alright. There is absolutely cause for concern. Per Mac Miller, “somebody do something, please.” From those realizations, though, perhaps we can get off the proverbial ledge and get some necessary help. Such is the function of dissonance.
The art of dissonance in hip-hop has been well-documented. For an easy example, turn to Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools,” a fantastic song to drink to that just so happens to be about the perils of alcoholism. There is something gruesome in realizing that you are all the things wrong with you, mid-song, but there is also something redeeming. Creating a state of cognitive dissonance makes for often compelling and sometimes challenging music. At the least, the clash between the sonics and the lyrics forces us to strap in for further listens. We are given reason to revisit and unpack. The dissonance of “Swimming Pools” creates a space to interrogate yourself and from there, a space to grow. It also proves Lamar to be a layered and thoughtful storyteller, which makes for some excellent music.
Chicago rapper Juice WRLD is the shape of emo rap to come, for sure, and his boyish voice is everything we who grew up at basement gigs have ever wanted out of hip-hop’s new wave. But the most catching thing about Juice’s music comes by way of his jarring lyricism. On “Black & White,” Juice WRLD is delivering an infectious hook about doing drugs, only to slip into an equally sweet verse that just so happens to detail how his Percocet addiction is literally gutting his organs. From afar, “Black & White” is a jam, but even slightly in focus, the song requires—if not demands—several pauses to be taken in full. Not only does this shock build staying power into Juice WRLD’s music, but it also makes us self-assess much like “Swimming Pools.”
Most recently, Future and Juice WRLD even went so far as to adopt the dissonance model for their collaborative tape, WRLD ON DRUGS. From the cover art to the production, the album is majority bright, sugary, and sing-songy in tone. Yet, almost every song details the harsh realities of overdosing and the rabid need to drown out pain—in passing. Constant throwaway lines about getting tired of a specific drug slip along beside lines of fucking women and making money. Drug dependence sounds like just another day for the duo, and only when we zero in on the words do we realize the terrifying gravity of that nonchalance.
Even on “Different,” one of the album's dirtier and trappier cuts, Juice singing, “I still got Molly in my system / I still got Xannys on my mental / It's been a couple years since I quit 'em / I don't wanna relapse but I may relapse, that feelin' I miss it / I mean, Percs are cool, but I think I'm gettin' sick of em” appears woefully out of place next to “Uh, call the hotel lobby, tell 'em we need clean sheets / Knock that pussy out, I kill it, tell it, ‘Rest in peace.’” That’s because his voice is missing all manner of melodrama or trap energy. He’s merely delivering an easy-to-follow melody as if everything is fine on the surface. Quite obviously, nothing is fine. That’s the art of dissonance in action.
Then we have the more obvious “No Issue,” where the song structure is no more complex than that of a nursery rhyme. Juice WRLD’s hook has the finger-tapped simplicity of a children’s song, and yet every word he prattles is near dastardly: “Make her cry, cry, cry, she need tissue / I get high, high, high and have no issues.” The hook sounds like it spilled out of a toy box, but the lyrics are deadly, evident again on the verse: “Perky pop, love the pills, mix it with Klonopins.”
Do we take this as a sign that drug abuse has become child’s play, accessible and innate? Not exactly. For one, much of their project, with great thanks to Future—who, throughout his career, has expertly deployed dissonance, inserting sobering commentary about his drug abuse into riotous club bangers—does not make addiction seem glamorous. Of course, this is easily lost within the production, but unraveling is the main function of the tape. This is the unraveling of Future and Juice WRLD, and of our own habits and contradictions. How to party to a song when you realize both artists are reminding you of your death? Easier said than done; dissonance in action.
"I can hear these voices in my head / If I'm sober then I might be dead / I can see the devil in my bed (In my bed) / I was born a rebel, I'm not scared (I'm a rebel) / You been takin' drugs, and you been hidin' it from me (Hidin') / You been takin' drugs, and you've been lyin' to me (Yeah) / Ayy, I don't believe you (I don't believe you), I done popped off (Popped off)" —Future, Juice WRLD, “WRLD on Drugs”
The title track is at once horrifying and one of the slickest tunes to tap into and sing along. Future plays with his warbles, turning them into tricks to the effect of having us sync up with the track even more, and Juice WRLD acts as a drugged-out altar boy with his bevy of harmonies. The mutable “you” of the hook is perhaps most interesting. Certainly, it could be the enigmatic woman-you who we’ve come to blame for all of our troubles, or it could be the listener. “WRLD on Drugs” could just as easily be about dishonest partners as it could be a personal reckoning brought on by the harsh dissonance we’ve been tracking throughout the project.
No WRLD ON DRUGS track illustrates the function of dissonance more than the closer, “Hard Work Pays Off.” Even when the duo are meant to celebrate all that they’ve sowed, their addictions inform the writing. Fascinating, how you can have it all and have nothing, and actively be in a state of loss. Take Juice singing: “Money all on the kitchen counter / Call my doctor to handle my pain / Perky's taking my life away” in the tone and syncopation of a schoolyard rhyme. Moments later, Future breezes by with something equally harrowing: “I've been traumatized before but still I'm not afraid.” These moments are brisk and struggle to warrant full stops by themselves, but they should cause us, the listener, to regroup all the same.
Of course, a sweet melody is far more enticing than a strict drug PSA. This is how the duo gets our attention and plants roots in our minds. During the afterimage listening, when only bits of verses flash in our heads do we sit with the lyrics and realize Future and Juice WRLD are two neon signs about to burn out in an effort to get our attention. Losing track of the sinister is easy, but it does have an insidious way of striking us nonetheless.
The story of WRLD ON DRUGS is one of demanding the listener. To say this is a challenging tape would be disingenuous, but to suggest this project is devoid of meaning is just as well untrue. The onus to find meaning in WRLD ON DRUGS is on the listener, and whatever value judgment that places on the tape is secondary to how interactive dissonance makes the album. The art of dissonance is the art of double-takes, of cutting teeth, and of loud declarations like “Oh, fuck.” No one wants to yelp “God damn!” during a party, but sometimes, you’re left with no choice. That’s an artful thing.
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