For a second week, Juice WRLD’s sophomore album, Death Race for Love, is No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, moving 74,000 equivalent album units. That number adds to his first-week tally of 165,000 units, which was the largest streaming week for an R&B/hip-hop album in 2019. If you’ve doubted Juice’s career prospects up to this point, well, numbers don’t lie. And Juice WRLD can put numbers on the board.
So how does a bubbling SoundCloud rapper rise to the top of the charts so quickly? Is there a strategy behind the steady rise of two songs (“All Girls Are the Same” and “Lucid Dreams”) over the course of two years, which now have billions of combined streams? Is he the new face of emo rap, or is he breaking boundaries as a genre-defying artist?
For the answers to these questions, you need to start with Juice WRLD’s inner circle. He is signed to Grade A Productions and Interscope; his label management and partners are Lil Bibby and George “G-Money” Dickinson; and his day-to-day manager is Peter Jideonwo, who started booking and promoting shows for artists around Chicago (including Lil Bibby and G Herbo).
“A lot of people wasn't really fucking with Chicago artists like that, you know?” Jideonwo says. “Because they too violent and they rap [street], you know what I mean? I was the dude that would take that chance on 'em.”
After booking Lil Bibby for several shows early in his career, Jideonwo says the two bonded and became friends. When Bibby offered him an opportunity to help build a young Juice WRLD, he had to pause and consider if taking another gamble on a new artist was worth it. “It was a leap of faith,” says Jideonwo, who has been working with Juice WRLD since February 2018. “I was in a position, like, ‘Alright you gotta be ready to drop everything and put all your eggs in one basket and bet on black. Black was Juice. And shit, I did it, and it's paying off.”
Jideonwo was familiar with the young Chicago artist when he was rapping under the name Juice The Kidd and releasing older material like What Is Love? and JuiceWRLD 999. When he learned that Juice freestyles most of his songs, he was impressed. “‘Lucid Dreams’ is a freestyle, ‘All Girls Are the Same’ is a freestyle,” he points out. “Like, everything was a freestyle. When we call him the G.O.A.T., the shit is not a joke.”
“he is the GOAT and the only person that can take the throne away from you, or whoever else you want to put at the top of the rap game.” - Peter Jideonwo
“All Girls Are the Same” and “Lucid Dreams” are natural entry points for anyone new to Juice WRLD. The lyrics deal with regular teenage woes like heartache and picking yourself back up after a break-up. The producer behind these songs, Nick Mira, started working with Juice WRLD after Internet Money producer, DT, introduced them in 2016. First building a rapport with the rapper through Twitter, Juice was added to a group chat with Mira and DT, where they would send him beats and he would send ideas back.
“He just sent us songs to beats we sent,” Mira says, remembering the online communication. “He used to write to them in advance, and he would go to the studio later and record because he didn’t have a studio at the time.”
“Lucid Dreams” was created during the process of making Juice’s 999 tape, where the song landed when it was released in June 2017. “I was like, ‘Yo, this beat is crazy,” Mira remembers. “You should do something to it. He was like, ‘Yeah, this beat sounds insane. So I’m going to write to it.’ And then I didn’t hear back from him on that song until another week. He just sent the song out of nowhere. I started listening to it over and over and I was obsessed with it.”
“‘All Girls Are the Same’ came a whole year later,” Mira adds. “When ‘Lucid Dreams’ was blowing up on SoundCloud, it had like a million plays. 500,000 to 600,000 plays on SoundCloud. And ‘All Girls Are the Same’ came in. It just took off. It was one of the top 50 new songs. And then everybody loved it. A lot of people liked it more than ‘Lucid Dreams.’”
As both songs were becoming hits in their own right, Lil Bibby knew he had to act quickly after hearing “Lucid Dreams” for the first time. His brother G Money put him onto Juice, who heard of him through G Herbo’s DJ, DJ Victoriouz. G Money brought Juice’s music to Bibby, who sent him three songs: one of them being “All Girls Are the Same.” Bibby, like his brother, went on Juice’s SoundCloud to find “Lucid Dreams” and was blown away.
Bibby cites a wide range of music he listens to—everything from Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber to G-Eazy and JAY-Z—and felt “Lucid Dreams” was like nothing he had heard before.
“I think he can be like Drake, for real.” - Lil Bibby
“When I heard this song, it was like the best song I heard in 10 years,” Bibby says. “I was telling that to everybody.”
Shortly after hearing “Lucid Dreams,” Bibby went to work on signing Juice to Grade A Productions, finalizing the paperwork in February 2018.
“It was kind of early on and nobody was really on it like that,” Bibby says. “We was just willing to put everything in it, all the time, whatever money it would have been. And like all of the connections I have—a lot of label heads, a lot of label execs, all the A&Rs—they like me a lot and they kind of respect me, respect my decisions, and respect my opinion on music.”
In March 2018, Billboard reported that Juice WRLD had signed to Interscope for $3 million. But before that, Bibby says he was in discussions about getting Grade A Productions a label deal with Def Jam. With a track record of discovering artists early and forecasting what songs will pop next, Bibby met Def Jam EVP and head of A&R, Steven Victor, in New York to talk about a possible partnership.
“Maybe a day or two after I signed Juice, I was in New York just to talk about my label deal, and talk the numbers and stuff—terms with my label deal,” he says. “So I am meeting with Steve about a label deal and he’s like, ‘What artists [are you looking at?]’ He was just gonna give me the label deal just off my past record I was calling. He was like, ‘Who do you want to sign?’ So I am like, ‘Shit, I already got an artist.’ He like, ‘Who?’ I’m like, ‘His name is Juice WRLD.’
“I get to playing him records,” he continues. “Nobody really heard of Juice WRLD yet, because he didn’t have one video out. It was just ‘All Girls Are the Same.’ It was just all SoundCloud. His highest SoundCloud [song] was ‘All Girls’ and it had like 90,000 [plays]. That’s not really a lot, you know what I am saying? I’m telling him the music, and I am hyping him: ‘This is the best song I’ve heard in 10 years. I think he need a Grammy.’ He records so fast. He records like Future and Young Thug, but better. I’m vouching for him like that.”
Bibby says Def Jam was willing to sign Juice, putting “crazy offers” on the table: “$2 million, just off of me, you know what I am saying?” But when Bibby reached out to in-demand director Cole Bennett to shoot videos for Juice, securing visuals for “All Girls Are the Same” and “Lucid Dreams,” Bibby knew Juice was worth more. “Def Jam, they wanted to give us $2 million,” Bibby says now. “By the time I called Cole Bennett and I got the videos shot, I’m like, ‘Nah, we want three or more.’ But they was kind of capped off at the two because it was so new. It was so new, nobody really knew. They didn’t have a vision for it like I did.”
“this 999 brand that he has is really bigger than music. This is peoples’ lives. They get the shit tattooed on their bodies.” - Peter Jideonwo
Today, the team behind Juice WRLD is a close-knit circle. Jideonwo sees their work ethic as unlike any other management team, saying they don’t indulge in partying or take needless vacations. And it helps that Juice has managed to stay grounded: He would rather celebrate his birthday by playing Xbox at his mom’s house with friends than go to the club.
“Juice is one of the most down-to-earth artists, and everybody would tell you about it,” Jideonwo says. “He’s not on no Hollywood shit.”
While G Money maintains a hustler’s mentality for the team, Bibby uses his eight years of experience in the music industry to stay on top of the competition. After dealing with trust issues with his former manager, and a enduring a constant tug-of-war between artist and label about which single to drop, Bibby is older, wiser, and in a better position to draw up the right plays for Juice’s career.
“Since I first got in, I was never just an artist,” Bibby says. “I was always in on the business side of things. I’m always with top music people in the music business and I’m just all ears. A lot of artists just want to record and let everybody else deal with the rest of the stuff in their career. But me, I always wanted to know everything and I’ve been studying everything since I first got in.”
Now, the focus is on making Juice WRLD omnipresent in all industries: music, sports, film, video games, and more. Bibby uses Drake and JAY-Z as examples, watching how they’re able to be everywhere at once. “I try to tell Juice, ‘We need to be doing Duke and North Carolina courtside, we need to do this with Ninja, we need to try to get in on it.”
Knowing that Juice is still young, Bibby is careful to not push his limits. “I still can’t overdo it. I’m like, ‘He 19,’ and I know how I was at [that age],” he says. “I had a childhood, but when I started rapping, it was my full-time job. It kind of messed my childhood up, so I don't know if Juice want to go that hard. But I still try to bust all the moves that we can and that he's comfortable doing.”
As for Juice’s impact today and where his music is headed, Death Race for Love has proven that he can’t be boxed in. Whether he’s making sad, happy, rock, pop, or hip-hop songs, Juice continues to evolve as an artist, attempting to move beyond the image of an emo singing rapper that most knew him as when he first blew up. The hope is that Juice can become a superstar who breaks barriers and doesn’t care about genres.
“His music today is universal to me, like anybody can listen to it, from a kid to a teenager to an adult,” Bibby says. “And the good thing is he pronounces all of his words and you can understand everything that he’s saying. Then he still got concepts in his music, too.” He adds, “I think he can be like Drake, for real. I think he can be like that because his music can touch everybody. I just want his albums to be his real life story. I always try to ask him like, ‘What you going through right now? How you feeling? What’s the story you want to tell?’”
“He records like Future and Young Thug, but better. I’m vouching for him like that.” - Lil Bibby
Jideonwo is just as confident about Juice’s future. “I totally believe, deep in my heart, that he is the GOAT and the only person that can take the throne away from you, or whoever else you want to put at the top of the rap game—if it is Travis, if it is J. Cole. I feel like he is the future of this rap shit. It could take him five years, but I think he is going to get there, and that throne is gonna be his.”
Mira, who produced four songs on Death Race for Love, knows exactly why Juice’s music has risen to the top. “It’s not so vulgar,” he says. “It’s not the typical stereotypes of hip-hop like people think it is. Like, people who don’t even listen to it, they just think what hip-hop is, just rapping about money and girls the whole time. He’s rapping about relationships and problems and life and it is different. It’s not just like every song is braggadocious. People like to listen to songs that have meaning to them and they can relate to.”
Jideonwo believes that Juice has outgrown the “SoundCloud rapper” label because of strong album sales, Billboard Hot 100 chart positions, and streaming numbers. He also confirms that Juice has three more albums ready to go, which could each do similar first-week numbers as Death Race for Love, if not more.
“Juice plans on doing movies, documentaries,” Jideonwo says, hinting at even larger plans. “So, really getting beyond music, because this 999 brand that he has is really bigger than music. This is peoples’ lives. They get the shit tattooed on their bodies.
“He’s the new Tyler, the Creator, you know?” Jideonwo adds. “But more fluid. I mean fluid like water on the table, spreading everywhere. It’s not like a dot on the table. He’s everywhere. He’s covering every part of it. He’s got the black kids, he’s got the white kids. He got Asians. He got everybody. He got old people listening to him. I think his brand grows bigger because he is so marketable in many different areas, and he’s also like a fresh-faced, clean kid. He’s like the perfect American baby, and that is what America wants. America wants the clean kid that can do it all.”