Sandwiched between Dec. 9’s inaugural Juice WRLD Day in Chicago and the premiere on the 16th of HBO Max’s “Into the Abyss” documentary, the next chapter in Juice WRLD’s melancholy story unfurls mirthlessly, but melodically, with “Fighting Demons.” As far as a packed, posthumous promotional schedule goes, this December is further proof that it’s Juice’s WRLD, even if the “Lucid Dreams” hitmaker isn’t here to live in it.
What the emo-inspired rapper-crooner would have thought of this collection, which includes laconic leftover freestyles and unused vocal tracks rewound to fit fresh beats, is a mystery. As far as posthumously released albums go, though, the dreary-dreamy “Fighting Demons” aptly shows off Juice’s penchant for disconsolate lyrics and dimly lit but infectious hooks. The tracks on this, this second of Juice’s posthumous releases (after 2020’s “Legends Never Die”), range from dully repetitive to dynamically adventurous, and include some surprisingly jazzy vocal tricks. The collection holds surprisingly (and happily) few features, the evil hallmark of too many post-mortem albums.
Juice, who died in Dec. 2019 due to an accidental drug overdose, had long-documented struggles with drug addiction and mental illness. This seeps through every pore of “Already Dead,” its lean vocal melody slithering insidiously through his angst-driven lyricism like a snake. Here, Juice’s desires and prayers to remove himself from that cycle are as evident (“All my suffering / Is really getting under my skin / Maybe I should try to pray again”) as his resignation (“Lost my heart, lost it all”). A lonely floating piano, played in what sounds like an imaginary distance from the singer, only bolsters the track’s empty feeling.
The Metro Boomin’-produced “Burn,” featuring an AutoTuned Juice, isn’t as gloomily poetic as “Already Dead” or as illustrative of a life in decline as “Feel Alone,” with its “Losing my mind / But it’s okay, it’s fine,” refrain. With “Burn,” the track’s producer and its vocal centerpiece seem to have a different mission: to drill its repetitious whistling effects and Juice’s maudlin, mantra-like lyrics into your head so that they bounce like balloons, then pop when exploded at the song’s finale. Another name-above-the-title producer, Dr. Luke, attempts a similar brand of hypnosis with “Not Enough,” by lifting Juice’s flat, but breezily melodic vocal tones through heavenly, upwards-moving chord changes — you know, like every Dr. Luke tune. Here, however, despite its inventive vocal, the vibe feels forced, and “Not Enough” is, indeed, barely sufficient.
Finding new versions of Juice WRLD’s steady baritone is what makes a cut such as “Wandered to LA” with Justin Bieber so delicious. Co-produced and co-written by Louis Bell and Harv (both of whom work with Biebs on the regular), the gently jiving and soulful track is there to support Juice’s jazziest-ever vocal line, with Bieber offering up a similarly slippery sing-song-iness. As a guest shot, Bieber and Juice sound as if they’re playing off one another – the very point of what a dynamic feature should sound like, whether or not its host is living or deceased.
Eminem’s appearance here, flinty and staccato as it is, also fits, albeit oddly, as Juice and his mellow flow were part of “Godzilla” from Em’s oft-ignored 2020 album “Music to Be Murdered By.”
This brings us to the most talked-about collab on “Fighting Demons,” “Girl of My Dreams,” with Suga of BTS. BTS has been hot to collaborate in 2021 with everyone from Coldplay to Megan Thee Stallion, and pairing Suga’s baritone with that of Juice’s is synchronistic.
Like the aforementioned Dr. Luke track, “Girl of My Dreams” is, yes, fluffily produced, but more potent and reliant on Juice’s preferred instrumental break from past recordings – the clicking, metronomic guitar. So, although downy and flossy, “Girl of My Dreams” works as its reiterative instrumentation and Suga’s looped lower-octave rap-sing wrap around Juice’s cut-and-pasted croon like a an elegantly fancy ribbon.
Not every collab on “Fighting Demons” works as well for Juice’s doom-drive lyrics and insistent, cantabile vocals. The remaining feature, “Feline,” is Juice’s wordiest rap, but its Police-like guitars and pairing with Polo G and Trippie Redd is merely OK. Alone, and on his own, Juice’s flanged, guitar-filled “You Wouldn’t Understand” is a lazy track across the board. “Relocate,” a ruminative tale of the singer’s Chicago life before fame, could have done with an arrangement beyond its simple burnt-rubber electronic squelch. So “Fighting Demons,” is, by far, not perfect.
Yet, as far as telling sad stories goes, the curation of this album comes with a final, dynamic one-two punch in “Feel Alone” and “My Life in a Nutshell.” While the former features Juice’s signature mellifluous moan and self-destructive solitude at the heights of his prowess, “My Life in a Nutshell” closes out the package with a harshly prescient and self-aware soliloquy dedicated to the game, and how it’s played.
“They say living’s harder than dying/ I’m willing to gamble that
Find me unresponsive in a hotel room / girl, can you handle that?
Worst case scenario / You still hear my songs on the stereo
You still hear my name on the radio
So I’ll live forever”
If the high-quality craft of “Fighting Demons” is proof, there is no doubt of Juice WRLD’s immortality.