What’s Behind Hip Hop’s Fascination with Prescription Drugs?

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Rappers have been getting fucked up forever, but with Lil Peep overdosing on Xanax last week—some outlets saying in combination with Fentanyl, which is what killed Prince—it seems like drug abuse may be a bigger problem than it ever was before.

It wasn’t always this way. Dr. Dre may have thrown a marijuana leaf on the cover of his classic album The Chronic, but shit, that was weed! Four years before that, when Dre was a member of N.W.A, he expressed proudly that he “Don’t smoke weed or sess / Cause it’s gonna give a brother brain damage.” Times change, apparently. These days, young rappers inhale prescription drugs like they’re air, and do much harder drugs without fail. Old heads like Pete Rock believe it’s a new era: “Our generation didn’t experiment with pills or syrup or anything synthetic,” he posted on IG. (Unless you count angel dust and, you know, crack.)

I don’t want us to Russ ourselves, and seem like we’re high-horsing about “crack is wack.” But is something not out of hand?

On the No Jumper vlog, rappers blow rails like it’s nothing—and are celebrated for it. Earlier this year, I myself interviewed a popular rapper. In broad daylight, he sniffed coke right there on the sidewalk. There was no fear, no stigma. Just another day for this kid.

Future’s “Mask Off” may be the song of 2017, and it’s primarily about Molly and Percocet. There’s a national opioid crisis going on, and “Mask Off” is like the national anthem. That doesn’t portend good things, especially when so many rappers idolize Future and are so quick to copy him.

Like Lil Pump. Pump’s having a moment, but Xanax and Percocet are so embedded in his brand that you have to wonder if it’s sustainable. Is the music that Pump makes an accurate reflection of his actual life? Probably not. But when he raps “Me and my grandma take meds” on the hit “Gucci Gang,” it does make you consider that almost half of opioid misuse comes from a friend or family member’s prescription. His music is clearly influenced by something.

And there are incidents of rappers really struggling—like Wifisfuneral, who has suffered multiple overdoses so far. Then there’s his buddy Smokepurpp, who is literally in a casket on the cover of his album DEADSTAR. In the video for ZillaKami’s “Shinners 13,” a scene depicts intravenous drug use in a party situation, the camera zooming in on the needle in the arm

Not to oversimplify the issue, but one would hope Lil Peep’s death might provoke a wave of more responsible drug use—or maybe just an avoidance of drugs, period. That seems to the case with producer Bighead, who’s behind Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” and Lil Peep’s “Benz Truck II.” He recently talked to Complex about the difficulties of trying to make music while sober, and has been tweeting with fans about experiencing withdrawals. But it’s tough to imagine moderation as the new “cool.” Irresponsibility is trending. Maybe it always was. Hip hop history is littered with addicts who did great things only to be destroyed by drugs: A$AP Yams. Pimp C. DJ Screw.

And we have addicts in our midst right now who, knock on wood, have thus far avoided similar fates. Heck, Lil Wayne is plagued by seizures said to be tied to his lean addiction. This is the same guy who once famously rapped about how he felt like dying after his dealer ran out of drugs. In the 2009 Carter documentary, Wayne’s inner circle broke down in tears about his addiction. Eight years later, he’s still going through it—a seizure put him in the hospital this September.

Now, some drug abuse is justified—one might argue that it helps people with their problems. Like depression. But there’s a thin line between help and abuse, and you have to consider this: depression is popular. Nobody wants to be depressed, but sometimes it can seem as if rappers are wearing depression almost like a badge of honor. There’s a braggy quality to it—everyone’s competing to see who can be the most depressed.

Lil Peep played a large role in this movement. His music was primarily about depression, coping with drug abuse, and wanting to die. “Sometimes life gets fucked up,” he sang. “That’s why we get fucked up. I can still feel your touch. I still do those same drugs.” That he was incredibly popular, that he resonated so much, shows just how many people identified with his pain—which says as much about him as it does the audience. Art rarely creates a reality, it merely magnifies one that already exists.

Let’s be real: drugs are not the underlying problem. What we’re seeing now is a mixture of self-medication, partying, and following whatever is perceived to be cool. Hip hop is fascinated with prescription drugs because everybody else is. And according to studies, Gen Z is “profoundly anxious.” And until that changes, hip hop’s drug problems will persist.

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