After the quadruple platinum success of 2018’s “Lucid Dreams,” it would have been easy for Juice WRLD to put together another collection of maudlin, emo rap tunes for his follow-up to Goodbye & Good Riddance. But on his sophomore album, the 22-track Death Race for Love, the rapper/singer born Jarad Higgins tries to find a balance between codeine-coated breakup anthems and various other rap subgenres, but often doesn’t give us a plausible reason as to why he’s straying from the formula that brought him success in the first place.
When Higgins does lean fully into his inner crestfallen crooner, it yields some of the catchiest tracks and strongest melodies of his catalog to date, proving that he’s continued to improve as a writer. The album starts strong with “Empty,” a wayward anthem produced by his regular collaborator Nick Mira, who surrounds Higgins with somber piano. “Robbery” – which Higgins partially sings in a drunken, dejected slur – is endearingly unhinged, even if the stickup metaphor at its center is a bit muddled.
“Fast” is perhaps the track with the most potential to usurp “Lucid Dreams” as Juice WRLD’s biggest hit. Produced by Frank Dukes and Louis Bell, who also helmed Post Malone’s “Better Now,” the song is pretty and poignant, and Higgins offers some perspective on his whirlwind rise that feels fresh. “I go through so much, I’m 19 years old/ It’s been months since I felt at home/ But it’s okay ’cause I’m rich/ Psych, I’m still sad as a bitch,” he sings.
But too often, Juice WRLD plays the trap tough guy on Death Race, and it comes off as generic, lacking the original spark that animates his ballads. “Big” feels like a throwaway by his WRLD on Drugs partner Future, and it’s even replete with Migos-style ad-libs. With “On God,” Juice becomes the latest in a long list of artists to be outshined on their own song by Young Thug.
“Syphilis” is a South Florida SoundCloud rap homage in the style of his Ski Mask the Slump God collab “Nuketown,” but without a foil to bounce his manic energy off of, Higgins’ rage doesn’t build to a satisfying conclusion. His unbridled anger on these songs simply feels performative in a way that his demeanor on songs like “Empty’ and “Fast” does not.
There’s a moment in Juice WRLD’s “Robbery” music video where he breaks his morose character that I can’t stop revisiting. While singing the undeniably problematic line, “One thing my dad told me was, ‘Never let your woman know when you’re insecure,’” he crosses his arms and does a little finger wag, finishing with a flourish and a wry smile. It’s a small reminder that Higgins can have fun with himself, something that is almost entirely absent on Death Race for Love, where even the braggadocious moments suffer from a lack of joy.
Juice WRLD has said he freestyled the entirety of this album, but the lyrics lack the exuberance and spontaneity of his best radio freestyles. He’s shown an increasing fascination with more traditional rap violence and gun-related threats, but hasn’t found a way to blend that organically into his love songs, leading to awkward moments where his two fascinations coexist in the same verse.
“If I can’t make her smile, I’ma be acting wild/ She got a new man, I’m gon’ pull up on him and shoot him down,” he sings dispassionately on the catchy-to-a-fault “HeMotions.” The marriage is even more uneasy on “Big” when he spits, “Told my shooter I gotta prove myself no lame/ Even when I stand up and hit it from the back I’ma still get laid/ Your bitch a dragon, she run up on me, she get slayed/ I took a piss in your dead homie grave.”
One of the exceptions where Juice does make a compelling case for himself in a new musical context is “10 Feet.” The instrumental is spacious and sullen, as Arin Ray and Camden Bench flip Daniel Caesar’s “Who Hurt You?,” punctuating it with hard-hitting drums. Higgins’ flow has an urgency and a yearning quality as he mulls over heaven and hell with graphic imagery.
As a showcase for Juice WRLD’s ambition and his desire to expand his sound, Death Race deserves praise. But he still hasn’t figured out a way to make any of those other personas as invigorating as the heartbroken, bitter one that made him a star. “They think I’m a bitch because they heard the sad songs, that’s a façade,” he warns on the smug “Out My Way,” but if Juice WRLD is going to establish himself as more than just an emo rap crooner, he’ll need to work more to make those other aspects of his personality feel as authentic and relatable as that “façade.”