HBO’s Juice WRLD Documentary Is an Intimate Showcase of the Rapper’s Personal Demons

Juice WRLD’s rapid rise and tragic death makes him the best lens to explore the last five years in hip-hop.

Juice WRLD in Juice WRLD Into the Abyss.

Juice WRLD in Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss.Courtesy of HBO.

A little over an hour in, HBO’s Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss depicts one of the most haunting moments in any recent music documentary. The young rapper–who died of a drug overdose in December 2019–looks around conspiratorially and turns to face his videographer. He shows the camera the five pills, presumably Percocets, that sit on his tongue. He washes them down with water and shudders the way most people do after taking a double shot of tequila.

“When we both die, we’re gonna have somebody put that out,” he says.

Into the Abyss is the sixth and final installment of HBO’s Music Box series, which has delved into the latter days of DMX, the phenomenon of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, and the chaos of Woodstock 1999. Executive produced by Bill Simmons, these films are very much focused on the pop cultural impact of their subjects, and Juice WRLD’s rapid rise and tragic death makes him probably the best lens to explore the last five years in hip-hop.

Even at a time when stars were being anointed quicker than ever, the Illinois-born rapper’s ascent happened with shocking speed. At first, news of the $3 million Interscope deal he signed at 19 nearly overshadowed his actual music, but singles like “Lucid Dreams” and “All Girls are the Same” broke through globally, and his debut album shot to triple-platinum status. Juice proved his love for emo bands like Panic! At the Disco and Escape the Fate with heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics and pained vocals that still stung through the smoothing effect of Auto-Tune.

Into the Abyss picks up in the middle of Juice’s run, chronicling a stretch of sold-out shows and late night studio sessions around 2019’s Death Race for Love. Renowned for his freestyle abilities, it’s most thrilling to watch Juice work out songs in real time. His records were not always terribly focused—lyrics about depression coexisted uneasily with brags about designer clothes or threats of retaliatory gun violence, sometimes within the same couplet.

Seeing him pull together “Fast,” one the truly great pop rap songs of the last few years, or work through issues with his late father on the unreleased “Life’s a Dungeon” is captivating. (“I hate you for dying before I could fix this / But I love you for making me, you made a legend,” he sings on the latter.) Think of it like the Gen Z version of watching Paul McCartney concoct “Get Back” in the new Beatles documentary.

The glimpses of unreleased music we get are also intriguing, particularly with the context of what ended up making it onto Fighting Demons, Juice’s second posthumous album, which came out a week before the film. The glossy pop songs like “Wandered to LA” with Justin Bieber and “Girl of My Dreams” with BTS’ Suga are true to the artist Juice was becoming–he was already working with producers like Benny Blanco and Louis Bell before he passed–but tracks like the operatic opener “Burn” or the caustic “Already Dead” really feel like faithful interpretations of his art.

Juice WRLD in Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss.Courtesy of HBO.

Into the Abyss is magnetic for big fans who are already familiar with the broad strokes of the Juice WRLD story, but its loose structure means the barrier for entry is pretty high. Director Tommy Oliver made the decision not to use a narrator, telling the Chicago Sun-Times he wanted the audience to hear the star’s story “in his own voice” and without “somebody coming in and telling you how to feel about what you just saw.” But Juice is relatively soft-spoken when he’s not making music–it’s not like he knew this footage was going to end up being a documentary. So many similar films opt to have a guiding voice, because it offers a way in for the uninitiated. A documentary that uses Juice WRLD as a lens to explore everything from the rise and fall of Soundcloud rap to the prescription drug abuse epidemic in music would be compelling and have a wider reach.

That’s not to say that Juice isn’t worthy of this intimate sketch. Captured largely between the ages of 19 and 20, the Jarad Higgins we see is a clever, relentlessly creative kid whose love of music is apparent in every scene. When he meets idols like Tyler, the Creator and ILoveMakonnen, he’s elated and earnest. (“That shit carried me through my childhood,” he says of Odd Future.) When he’s getting hyped backstage at a festival, freestyling over “Mo Bamba” by Sheck Wes or belting XXXtentacion’s “Fuck Love” alongside Cordae, he doesn’t seem that different from the thousands of teens in the crowd.

Many of the doc’s most moving moments come in the context of Juice’s performances, like when he gets sick coming off stage, smartly intercut with home footage of him working on “All Girls Are the Same” or when he changes the lyrics to the jilted love song “Robbery,” making them about how safe he feels with his girlfriend, Ally Lotti. Their relationship gives Into the Abyss a lot of its heart–and you can hear on Fighting Demons how their romance was beginning to open him up beyond his teen angst. (“So much has happened in the last few months / From broke to rich to finding love again,” he sings on “Doom.”)

After the overdose deaths of figures like Juice, Lil Peep, and Mac Miller, there has been discourse around whether the music industry is doing enough to care for the wellbeing of its artists. There are moments shown here where Juice’s state is extremely concerning. In a scene towards the film’s end, he seems to nod off while telling a story aboard a private jet, before coming to just long enough to crush up and snort what appears to be a Percocet off a Nintendo Switch.

“We’re gonna record, 24/7. Not press stop ever, even when we shoot up heroin. Gotta get it all on tape,” he says, miming the motion of tapping a vein. Juice had a dark sense of humor–in one scene he pretends a pill bottle is a finger puppet–but he’s still clearly a kid grappling with things beyond his control. The film shows him existing in a heliocentric world where his drug use was rarely, if ever questioned. (Earlier this year, Juice’s label Boss, Lil Bibby, said that Juice had reluctantly agreed to go to rehab shortly before his death.)

Lotti is an occasional voice of moderation, urging the rapper to stop drinking lean, and in one unnerving scene, Juice’s assistant and a rapper friend share how they would conspire to dilute his codeine mixes, pouring him one ounce when he was rapping about doing four. His actual passing is recounted in grim detail by those who witnessed it.

Juice was great at articulating how he felt and what he was doing to cope, but not always what caused him to feel the way he did. Into the Abyss suffers from a bit of that problem–it shows you what was happening in Juice WRLD’s life on a granular level, but it doesn’t necessarily connect all the dots.

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