Let me start off this review by saying that I have something in common with Juice WRLD: we both miss Lil Peep. To suggest that Juice’s newest offering, Death Race for Love, is not his attempt at a winding extension of Lil Peep’s Hellboy would be all the way disingenuous. Made in five days, Juice’s sophomore album is just as downtrodden, hip-hop-leaning, indie-obsessed, and drug-laced as Hellboy. The major difference is Juice WRLD brings sing-song melody and a gloss that Lil Peep shied away from until Come Over When You’re Sober.
None of this is to say Juice is derivative, just that he knows his lineage. Skyrocketing to the top of the charts—and sitting pretty there for over 40 weeks—with “Lucid Dreams,” there is no question that Juice WRLD understands his neo-emo rap roots. The problem lies in him not knowing how to explore themes beyond his roots. On Death Race’s “Maze,” he suggests his story is “to be continued,” but we never quite get the continuation.
As Juice WRLD said in his Billboard profile, he is an imperfect person, and in that same breath, Death Race is an imperfect album. It is without thesis, without clear artistic direction, and most notably without stakes. Despite how good it sounds, the album plays as if we are feeling things just for the sake of feeling them. Juice is not chasing after “Lucid Dreams” in tone, and that is admirable, but we are never told why we should stay in the same emotional range as his major hit. Even when we take a major turn, as on “She’s The One,” and delve into love, we are sonically still in the doldrums.
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What it lacks in range, Death Race makes up for in convincing emotional performances and an impressive vocal tone that, when not marred by excessive Auto-Tune, has us on Juice WRLD’s team. In particular, his singing on “Empty” and “Robbery” is guttural and technically well done. His voice is catching and we are inclined to hear more. Juice WRLD can carry an impressive note and his singing is altogether evocative enough to have us looking fondly on our “emo phase”s. He does not deal in nostalgia, but the effect is all the same.
When Juice raps, too, it’s a thrill. He’s a true spitter, which is easy to forget when the big single is an emo-pop-punk-hip-hop sensation. “Syphilis,” “The Bees Knees,” and “10 Feet” range from rowdy to authentic anthems, boisterous and blown out forays into a sound Juice WRLD should pursue more often. Particularly “10 Feet,” which is the most traditional rap song on the album, proves Juice to be capable of far more than he presents.
The great misfire of Death Race is not that the album is too emotional, but rather that Juice WRLD has no idea how to pace his emotions. Going back to “Empty,” we really do begin Death Race in a fascinating place: his drug abuse and broken heart. Yet, while those are compelling topics, there is no setup. Everything is too enigmatic. Who broke his heart? Why is he using? These unanswered questions are missed opportunities to build layers into the album and move the needle on emo rap forward.
Juice WRLD is adept at stewing in a feeling, but he cannot stir the pot. Eventually everything inside clumps together. Especially considering the 22-track long runtime, the album begs for Juice WRLD to do something novel in order to keep the record from becoming exhausting. The album is not a failure, but it is a coalsencing of emotion when it should be a fluttering out of feeling.
Standout Track: “Empty”
Best Bar: “I problem solve with Styrofoam / My heart revolves around a black hole”
Favorite Moment: The beat on “10 Feet”