Juice WRLD, the Young Rapper, Confronts Death at a Brooklyn Cemetery

Juice WRLD, the Young Rapper, Confronts Death at a Brooklyn Cemetery

April 19, 2019

“It’s not as scary as I thought it was going to be, as far as graveyards,” said Juice WRLD, the 20-year-old rapper from Chicago. He was visiting Green-Wood cemetery, the 478-acre burial ground in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

It was a bright and gusty April afternoon, but the spirits guided him correctly: The pastoral resting place of Boss Tweed, Bill the Butcher, Leonard Bernstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat is more a destination for picnickers than horror buffs.

“Damn near too much to take in, you almost gotta close your eyes,” Juice WRLD said cheerfully. “It’s so dead, it’s alive.”

He had arrived at Green-Wood with two friends and a record label publicist in a black 15-seat Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. He was in New York to promote his second album, “Death Race for Love,” which debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart and has remained among the Top 5 since March 8.

The whirlwind tour included a Spotify event at the Brooklyn Museum in which life-size statues of him, Cardi B, Gunna and Jaden Smith were unveiled for temporary display; an appearance on “The Tonight Show”; and shopping at Flight Club, a consignment sneaker store in Greenwich Village.

A detour at a Victorian cemetery seemed an appropriate setting for a fast-rising star with goth-leaning inclinations in both his music and style. “It’s an interesting subject,” Juice WRLD said of death. “It’s an enigma.”

Led by a pair of Green-Wood staffers, they trudged up a stone path that slipped between pale crucifixes, weathered tombstones and birches the color of palomino horses. Juice WRLD’s pink camouflage jacket and fuchsia Palm Angels hoodie were bubble gum bursts in a hillscape of matted grass and leafless trees.

He was good-natured and chatty. “This brings back memories, walking with you,” he said to Ty Fairconeture, whom he called his brother.

The group paused to snap photos of the Statue of Liberty, a puny figure beyond the Gowanus Bay. Nearby was a marble obelisk with a narrow, mailbox-like slit. Made by Sophie Calle, a French artist, and commissioned by Creative Time in 2017, the artwork encourages visitors to write down secrets and deposit them into a subterranean chamber that will be sealed for 25 years.

Juice WRLD was handed a pen and a scrap of yellow paper. He wrote intently for several minutes and slipped his note through the slot: ‘It’s too juicy for the music,” he said of his secret. “It has to go underground.”

One of his pals asked if he had signed it. “I did on purpose, after you told me not to,” he said. “They’re going to look at it, ‘Juice WRLD was here?’”

He already traffics in oversharing. His music is woozy, emotional goo, a disgorgement of heartbreak, boastfulness and drugged-out memento mori that reflects influences as disparate as rappers like Chief Keef and Drake, and early 2000s rock bands like Fall Out Boy and Escape the Fate.

In Gen Z fashion, he was first exposed to diverse sounds by the video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and learned keyboard chords through YouTube tutorials.

The atmospherics at Green-Wood were an easy segue into discussing the morbid bent of his music.

“I talk about stuff like that because those are subjects that people are a) too scared to touch on, or b) don’t do it the right way where people can learn from your mistakes,” he said. “I cherish every mini-second of this life.”

Next up was a frigid, manicotti-shaped structure: catacombs built in the 1850s for families who could not afford mausoleums of their own. Harry Weil, the director of public programming at Green-Wood, unlocked the imposing iron gates.

“What is this?” Juice WRLD said. “The gates of Hell? If it’s meant for me to go out like this. …” He trailed off.

Everyone in the caravan ducked out of the way as he recorded an Instagram story for his six million followers. It showed him entering the catacombs, and it included a coffin emoji.

Inside the dark tube, which is illuminated by skylights, he and his friends weighed bets on spending the night in small vaults that housed up to a dozen corpses. “Anything touch me, I’m running,” someone muttered.

After 20 minutes in the catacombs, it was time to visit the grave of Basquiat, the Brooklyn-born artist who died in 1988. Everyone piled out of the Sprinter and walked in the direction of Basquiat’s nondescript headstone, a popular attraction that was festooned with flowers.

Juice WRLD stayed in the vehicle, ostensibly to charge his Juul vape pen. “I’m going to get out in 45 seconds,” he said.

He did not. A few minutes later, he said he was suffering from a stomachache. “I didn’t know he died from a heroin overdose,” he said of Basquiat. “His art makes so much more sense to me. I look at him like I look at ’Pac” — referring to Tupac Shakur — “I’m not the biggest ’Pac fan, but I admire their work greatly.”

Juice WRLD, who was born Jarad Higgins, raps frequently about drug use, and, considering his oscillations between chipper acuity and heavy-lidded mumbling, it does not appear to be a stage persona. “When I was getting high at a young age, I’d be scared to tell people,” he said. “That wasn’t normal.”

Did learning about Basquiat’s death trigger something uncomfortable in his sense of mortality? “Every now and then I have concerns,” he said, revealing that he planned on undergoing a detox in Los Angeles, where he lives. “But at the end of the day, I’ll be fine. I was put on this earth for a reason.”

Soon the Sprinter was winding its way toward the Green-Wood gates and back to Manhattan. Juice WRLD plugged his phone into the stereo and played an untitled track that he had just recorded in the hotel. “When I die, put me in a tomb / That’s what zombies do,” he sang out.

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