Sunday, March 10, 2019

album review: 'death race for love' by juice WRLD

So some of you might be a little confused why I'm reviewing this. If you've been following my series Billboard BREAKDOWN you might remember Juice WRLD as a perennial frustration for me, and that the reviews of this solo sophomore project haven't been good to start with even from the critics inclined to give him a pass - and I'm not one of those people. So why do this to myself? Why listen to a project that is comfortably over a hour long in a blatant stream trolling maneuver by Interscope who is well-aware this guy might not last too long?

Well, part of this is a matter of deeper investigation, because in the wake of the deaths of XXXTENTACION and Lil Peep, two of the biggest personalities within the new breed of emo rap left considerable voids, and Juice WRLD could well fill them - he's certainly more accessible than both acts thanks to his ability to construct a hook, and there's absolutely a market for what he delivers. So yeah, part of this comes from me keeping my ear to the ground especially if this kid might stick around - and while thanks to his terrible singles choices he seems committed to burning out fast, I do think he has some talent on a technical level. Yeah, his autotuned caterwauling is annoying, but he can structure bars and construct a hook. And if I'm going to be humiliatingly honest, I do get Juice WRLD's appeal to a specific demographic... mostly because fifteen years ago I was in that demo, and there's a way to make music that appeals to that group and not suck. I didn't expect it would happen with Juice WRLD, but I figured I'd give him a chance... so what did we find on Death Race For Love?

You know, I'll be very honest: my original plan with this review was just to make fun of this album for a while - it's not hard, I could just quote the majority of lyrics here and call it a day, the jokes write themselves! And make no mistake, we'll be doing a fair amount of that anyway because there's a gold mine of atrocious lines on this twenty-two song project, and I'm sure as hell not taking this seriously - along with everyone else who treats this as a meme going stale - but keep in mind there's a whole audience of kids who do take this seriously, just like you might have taken certain acts seriously when you were young and now look back and wince. So while I'll come here and say this album is goddamn terrible - and it is, as the shield of irony runs thin about twelve songs in - let's dig into the base appeal of something like this, which to me runs somewhere between Lil Yachty's uncanny penchant for melody, the insufferable whinging of Simple Plan, the rampant aggro nihilism of Limp Bizkit, and the atrocious writing of all three.

Now before we get into the heavy stuff, let's get through the obvious points of criticism, and let's start with production. Given my suspicions that Interscope is trying to milk Juice WRLD's popularity for as short-lived as it'll be, you can absolutely tell there are moments that are rushed as all hell in terms of mixing and mastering this thing: the bass beats are way too clunky and heavy, when the melodies aren't drowned out they're often a much cleaner pickup on pianos or a guitar line that shows his producers are looking to grab as much of the Lil Peep market as possible. But when you then choose to drown said guitars in reverb or utterly kill any real sizzle behind them, and then tack on Juice WRLD's voice which is nearly always too loud or peaking in the mix - especially on 'Syphilis' and 'Ring Ring' - because this album has precisely zero sense of balance and even less atmosphere, nothing feels well-blended or cohesive. This is especially apparent on the songs where after maybe two verses the production will just run for a few extra bars to pad out of the song, or some out of nowhere beat-switches or samples that don't match the mood of the song at all - 'Big' probably has the most obvious example of this, but we also get it on 'The Bees Knees' courtesy of No I.D. of all people, and then on '10 Feet' we get a very liberal Daniel Caesar sample that I'm frankly disappointed he cleared. Then we get Juice WRLD himself... and he's probably a better rapper than he is a singer, mostly because the autotuned wails he attempts are hysterical even before the bad ad-libs, but on the flip side as an MC he doesn't have much personality, with some songs clearly trying for a Future imitation like 'Big' and with 'On God' with Young Thug he's mostly a lesser version of him - we have Gunna for that, we don't need Juice WRLD too! But those are the component parts of this album - what's more alarming to me is how rushed and unpolished it feels, not like the pretensions towards lo-fi and punk that XXXTENTACION was working, but rather because they know most of their audience won't care about good mixing or mastering so long as the hook is there! And while you maybe could excuse it on a short, tossed-off EP, it's less excusable on a project that is this long and sloppily sequenced - why they felt the need to tack on an interlude that's just Brent Faiyaz is beyond me, but if only to break up the Juice WRLD it should have been deeper in the tracklist! Now on the production angle, are there at least a few cuts that kind of work? Well, certainly nothing that conveys any sense of menace or darkness or grit or serious melancholy, but I guess if I were to find anything that worked... eh, the spare atmospherics and snap around Brent Faiyaz's interlude 'Demonz' is decently mellow, and I did like the Daniel Caesar sample, and both 'Won't Let Go' and 'Make Believe' have some momentum. But on the flip side, who thought that tropical bounce was a good idea on 'Hear Me Calling' especially with his attempts at a Jamaican accent, or the rinky-dink keys on 'Feeling' and 'She's The One', or the terrible guitar mixing on 'Who Shot Cupid?', or that gross chipmunk effect drizzled throughout 'Desire', or the oily mess of 'The Bees Knees'?

But now on to the fun stuff: because while Juice WRLD might be a marginally better rapper than singer, it doesn't mean he's not going to flub entirely too many rhymes, and we have a wealth of terrible lines on this project! And I'm going to highlight this because not only is he not trying to be funny or self-aware, they're moments that utterly take you out of the song and shatter any mood he's trying to create - lines as bad as you'd hear on Lil Yachty's Teenage Emotions, but delivered with the melodramatic sincerity of Simple Plan. And while I could focus on his weird tendency of trying to overexplain his references to force rhymes - 'Big' is full of this - or I could highlight the weirdly clingy and pathetic way he approaches all relationships, I'm going to split the bad lyrics into three categories, and let's start with the ones that are just goddamn stupid, such as on 'Hear Me Calling' where he says he's going to 'hit the beach in LA like you a beach ball', or on 'Out My Way' he says 'I don't give a shit, and I don't give a Hoover damn', or on 'The Bees Knees' we get the classic 'Dicked up in her brain, concussion' - and while we're on the topic of sex references, we also got on 'She's The One' a line about her getting so fucking wet he had to build a dam, and then how he's going to eat her like 'studio cookies', and that's not even getting into the entire second verse of 'Feeling', check it out for yourself. Then we have the emo lyrics that are trying way too hard and just come across as laughable, starting on 'Empty' with how much the black hole is in the place of his soul, but the only thing suicide is suicide doors, followed by 'Hemotions' where he's going through muddy emotions and then says, 'back on my bullshit, devil emoji' - gravitas! Then deeper on we have 'Won't Let Go' where if she dies you should bury him with her - on a song where he calls her a ho who 'buys her soul', but let's not forget 'Rider' where he says 'she gets me high as supplier and I'm on fire / will she be my firefighter'! And while I could make fun of 'Robbery' for its hysterical conceit and awful delivery, finally, we have the lines that are way more revealing of Juice WRLD's psyche than they should be, especially around women, bars like on 'Robbery' like how he should flex on a ho every time they're insecure, or how on 'Syphilis' there's a dick on his gun that he's going to fuck your face with, or how on 'Big' he pisses on your dead homie's grave, and let's not forget 'ON GOD' with Young Thug where all of Thugger's first verse is about making her into a trophy and Juice WRLD's verse has the line 'I'm Paul Walker when I'm taking off'. 

And since I've already pissed everyone off, let's pile on and bring up toxic masculinity, specifically in the realm of its appeal. Because while there are so many terrible lines on this project I don't see how anyone can empathize... I do get it. On some level to exercise and live out our darker impulses and vices as guys a lot of us want to be the swaggering, macho chads who starts fights, gets bitches, fires off guns, and smacks the posers in line to earn our place at the top of the pyramid, brah - all of this is not the whole picture of how to be a man, guys, just the worst possible projection of it that hurts us more in the long run! But there's a baseline, animalistic appeal to it and one that Juice WRLD isn't afraid to acknowledge, often in the same song where he's going to whinge about how much he hates himself and tries to numb the pain through meaningless sex, drugs, and piles of money. And I'm not excusing emo sadbois here either, who might not project strength but absolutely can carry some of the same projections towards themselves and women to often even worse results - it's been rampant in the scene since at least the 80s, Juice WRLD is just another figure in the pantheon. And hell, when you match that to a bunch of insidiously catchy hooks and you don't stop to think about all the contradictions - as most of the audience won't - you have a recipe for success and young fans of both genders, because we're drawn to what we're told is toxic by authority figures and society, especially at that age, and when you pair it with adolescent disillusionment and a (relatively) unpolished figure who represents all the contradictions to which you think you can relate, I totally see why this guy has an audience, in the exact same way nu-metal did. Now I'll question anyone who spends their money to hear this - that's an endorsement ledge I'm avoiding and a larger capitalism conversation that's much bigger than Juice WRLD will ever be - but there's a space in art for negative or even toxic emotions and content... provided, of course, there is context.

And here's where the toxic masculinity and nihilism becomes a problem, because not only is this material marketed at kids who aren't even trying to see deeper context - especially when there isn't any - the framing of it is goddamn terrible, especially when he has songs like 'Out My Way' where he outright says it's a facade! The most I'll give this project is that the hooks can sometimes materialize, but drill even a bit a deeper and this project fails on principle, because the flexing isn't appealing or convincing and the sadboi depression prompts a lot of hysterical laughter, and that's not even getting into the wishy-washy but highly questionable approach he takes to drug abuse! The best material in this emotional territory can balance the huge hooks with the angst and the anger and the vices, provide a real emotional root to this - it's why Linkin Park's early albums have had so much staying power to their audiences even to this day - but Juice WRLD doesn't seem to care about tonal balance and it leads to songs that feel unfocused, cringey, and by the time you're running up on an hour of it, really repetitive and boring! I mean, if you're going to be toxic, have something to say about it, make it interesting, but Juice WRLD's not providing us insight or storytelling or really much complexity at all - presumably because he probably feels he doesn't have to, because his audience isn't asking for it! And this is where I can't avoid how sterile, corporate, and lazy it all feels - because even if Juice WRLD believes all of what he's selling, all I can see is an Interscope executive behind him who knows he can't drown out the snickering forever and is going to wring as much money out of this kid as possible, especially after Sting took so much in the splits of 'Lucid Dreams'! That's why he's put out three projects in less than a year and they're mining old recording sessions to stream troll an album that should have been cut in half - twice!

So at the end of the day... you know, I've always been told you should know what your name says about you, and the fact this kid is named 'Juice WRLD' is very telling. Beyond juice being an obvious drug reference, it's also empty, sugary calories primarily consumed by kids, and 'WRLD' shows that most people will get onboard regardless, even if it's a sugar rush that'll lead to a migraine afterwards - also 'world' is spelled wrong because it's America and of course it is. And this is crap: a rushed, unbearably long, tonally incoherent mess that thanks to streaming stripping away any vague sense of consumer accountability - and a bunch of playlist payola, because the only way this'll move units is streaming - will be consumed en masse by kids who'll take all of it at face value... which is what's really toxic. And I'll say it: this is worse than XXXTENTACION, because whatever you could say about that kid, his music came from a real place, whereas this is slapdash, and astonishingly low-quality, junk music perfect for a junk food nation. In other words, a light 2/10, and while I wouldn't claim to be an expert in all things trap, I know when I'm getting sold garbage - I'd take your money elsewhere.

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