I'm no poptimist--or an essentialist of any sorts--but that doesn't mean I don't try to remain at least half-cognizant of pop music and what “the charts” attempt to approximate. Two strains impossible to ignore this year have been the upsurge in “SoundCloud” or meme rap and the frustrating endurance of tropical house (which has going strong since, what 2014?) I've danced around the former with bemused reservation while trying my best to listen to the barrage of 90bpm house and readily-identifiable sonic signatures and deneutering of the explosive creativity sampling can foster.
Both musics tend towards triumphing a sort-of unending hedonism, though in fairly disparate ways. Be it the late Lil Peep’s emo-rap hybridizing sound to Lil Pump’s more rote trap stylings, sonically the music seems to be slowly pushing towards a post-trap, there’s a lot to dissect within this new movement, not least the fact that the rap game is currently obsessed with youth and the committed fan fervor younger fan bring to the table. And this downward trend is fitting rap’s current status as America’s most popular genre, befitting of many artists embracing in samples sourced from the glut of mainstream early 00s pop emo (itself birthed from underground emo’s third-wave resurgence). Cock-swaggeringly assured pretty boys with guitars have become equally confident tatted-up-but-beautiful boys with shooters, Xan bars, and lean (codeine mixed with Sprite, yet another instance of the South’s status as the ur-tastemakers within rap today. Much like the preponderance of self- and World Star-funded posse music videos that have doubled as NRA recruitment vids, the abundance of substances on display in the videos and lyrics can be near-comical, painting a bleak picture of burgeoning addiction masked as a sort YOLO-on-meth who gives a fuck attitude topped off with heaps of rap star posturing (no matter how tongue-in-cheek it might be). The attitude towards drug consumption has began to near late 60s, 70s, and 80s rock-legend status, replete with rising stars felled in their prime by the drugs they champion (and to which they often become unwitting slaves).
I'm undoubtedly going to gloss over plenty of salient and counterintuitive details and I’m keeping my focus to just a handful of examples, but this is more an exercise in a quick-strike pop cultural observation; the sharing of a thought cluster birthed out of my own long-abiding interest in the philosophical and cultural influence of drugs throughout history. A couple weeks ago, learning that Lil Pump’s lazily catchy “Gucci Gang” had topped the pop charts, I found myself trawling through scene documentarian and entrepreneur Adam-22’s vlogs, getting sucked into one particular video that documented a night in the life of Lil Purp (or rather its way older videographer engaging with a bunch of teens who are pouring up, eating Activa pint cake, and just getting absolutely fucking obliterated with the type of committed, shortsighted zeal that the teens and twenties bring.) It was utterly terrifying for this was drug taking as sport almost with the kind of youthful abandon and insecurity fueling the who-can-do-more group dynamics. This is a scene that is usually played out in a seedy communal space amongst a group of junkies. But I’m sure not a single person involved in the video would dare utter the word junkie, especially when I’m sure plenty of them know a few of the countless Americans currently hooked on ‘heroin’ or are paving the path to it through their social use of opiates.
As is often the case when ruminating about drugs and rap, I think back to Lil Wayne's 2007 leaked song "I Feel Like Dying," which I first encountered when borrowing the iPod of a fellow courier at the garment district trim company I worked at. A student at NYU, a rabid rap fan, and the son of the dude who founded the AND1 clothing line(!), he forced his digital music player into my hands when learning I had never listened to Illmatic before. And that was cool. But then I moved on to the million Wayne tapes he had and while making my way through The Drought is Over 2, I was literally stopped in my tracks by the curious combination of a sample lifted from the South African folk singer Karma's song "Once"--repeating "Only once the drugs are gone, I feel like dying"--and Wayne's archetypical addict wavering back and forth between reveling in his excessive drug use and outwardly worrying where it might take him. Not to mention, his voice bore a rasp I presumed was from a codeine binge. As Kyle Kramer and Briana Younger discuss in their recent dissection of the song, which identifies it as a watermark moment for how drugs were discussed in rap, primarily the mixture of the well-established lean and a gamut of prescription drugs--in this case the Xanax bars behind which Weezy was locked. They write: "According to a study conducted by the Drug Slang in Hip Hop Project, 2007 is the point when pharmaceutical drugs—Xanax, Adderall, Percocet, Valium—begin to establish themselves in rap's lexicon." This seems to make sense when one considers the respective rates by which the prescription of anxiolytics, stimulants, and painkillers were growing from the late 90s throughout the 2000s, all exponential.
Having been prescribed a considerable amount of Clonazepam at that point--which is a benzodiazepine like Xanax--I was blown away by Weezy's candid and self-questioning exploration of what it mean to be an addict and a celebrity at the same time. And while rapers like Necro had made a career detailing the inner workings of his hard drug habits, here was something that at the time felt truly special by the then-reigning king of rap. A rote recitation of the amount of drugs he had moved or consumed this was not, though he wove an evocatively hallucinatory fever dream of what it meant to be a famous drug addict. Not only did the song remain a concern for mostly diehard Weezy fans, but it also was seemingly a one-off within rap itself; though there have been countless songs told from the user's perspective, none capture the nuance of Wayne's agonized euphoria, his willful self-imprisonment through substance abuse.
I’ve been around my share of seedy drug scenarios over the course of my thirty-three years, have struggled with addiction in my own life, and lost my best friend five years ago to what I believe was fentanyl-based heroin--this was three months before Phillip Seymour Hoffmann OD’d and suddenly we had a national crisis on our hands. I'll never forget surveying the scene and counting out the Xanax he was prescribed at the time following a former junkie friend of his suggestion that the two might have been combined, a deadly combination. In keeping with my friend always being a few years ahead of the curve, our home state of Ohio has been in the midst of an absolute drug epidemic unlike anything I’ve really seen before. Not that it’s ultimately surprising. Doctors in Ohio (and across the county) were notorious for copious over-prescribing of prescription painkillers since the mid-90s, a trend that has was instrumental in both of us being exposed to this class of drugs in our teens along with countless others. Ohio now has the second-highest rate of fentanyl-related drug deaths in the country, with 4,050 total overdose deaths in 2016 and 3,050 in 2015, a number that would be far higher if small town police were not required to carry the naloxone-based Narcan nasal spray that can instantly reverse the effects of an overdose.* Last summer when I visited my hometown of Ohio, I saw something that I had previously only seen in New York: ghost-like junkies. But these souls were like vampires, entering the summer sun only to run from one domicile to another it seemed. It was a scene not unlike the one I saw in a BBC documentary that took place in the Cleveland suburb of Avon Lake of all places, a dull little city where I played traveling soccer as a young. In the television documentary, what is most striking is that as the camera crews drive through recording the empty streets and quiet houses, there is a total lack of any indication that this is an area in the grips of addition. For a generation raised on the images of heroin and crack addicts in the streets of New York City, this is a far more genteel (and suburban) take on addiction, something that can exist behind closed doors for years before even beginning to have any noticeable effect on an individual.
So the fact that we have a culture of bedroom rappers and rap stars like Future celebrating the joys of consuming opiate-based lean and blackout-inducing Xanax bars has had me worried for a hot minute. Of course, this has been a concern of mine and many others’ for well over a decade back when Lil Jon was popularizing double cups in the wake of the mainstream’s brief fixation with the lean-powered chop n’ screwed style pioneered by overdose victim DJ Screw (who, alongside fellow Houstonian Pimp C were early symbols of the dangers of lean, which briefly fell out of style during the Molly Rap craze of the early 2010s, though its presence has been enduring in many facets of rap culture throughout). But I didn't realize how worried I truly was though until bringing up the news that the twenty-one-year-old Lil Peep had died, knowing it was an overdose well before additional news reports began to confirm that some Dark Web Xanax had been the cause. Just this past week I learned from a DJ friend that one of her acquaintances also died around that time, also from black market Xan’s, which often have fentanyl in them in addition to its anxiolytic properties. Basically, they sound like an overdose in pill form.
And that brings us to the bland pop overground occupied by endless tropical house copycats whose videos often feel like government-subsidized commercials aimed at the tourist class. One song I’ve found particularly aggravating is the Seeb remix of Mike Posner’s insufferable “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” a song that despite peaking last year is still pouring from Manhattan shop speakers as of this morning and only hit my radar a few months ago, so forgive me for being dated. In writing this little tirade, I finally read Posner’s lyrics and realized that in the grand tradition of Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” is an anti-drug song buried deep beneath a pop veneer. For in Seeb’s placating remix, the hook-y title comes to the center in a way that Posner’s acoustic guitar-rendered original does not, a greater emphasis put on the refrain of “You don’t want to be high like me.” But when a song namechecks Avicii in its opening bars and whose video conjures loved-up days spent clubbing in the mainstream dance music paradise, it inoculates it from having any real “message,” especially as it’s played most commonly as a soundtrack to lifestyle consumerism in the form of department store playlists and unquestioning dance club DJ’s.
It’s a much more insidious means of normalizing addiction and reckless self-medication than the all-in stylings of Pump, Purp, and especially Peep whose choice of melodically melancholic beats and a general lyrical style with distress and depression undercutting the dick-swagging provides a millennial update on rap’s longstanding commitment to drawing inspiration from one’s immediate environs. After all, it takes a certain degree of privilege to even begin dreaming about Taking a Pill in Ibiza and pop music has long pushed its own agenda of consumer-based catharsis through partying though one could also argue that there is a newly pronounced sense of escapism purveying American pop culture these days. The transition from the post-racial utopia that was momentarily believable thanks to Obama’s marketing acumen alongside what he represented to those who voted for him and saw in him a flawed president we could at least feel proud about to a divisive moment where a genuine moral reckoning has erupted out of the past few especially tense years. The uprise in shootings and terrorist attacks paired with a divided country in which both sides seem to be doubling down--though at the moment those on the right are appearing more blindly obstinate than principled--is seemingly at odds with much of the mainstream fare in music, film, and television where regardless of whether your thing is Marvel or Maidens, the entertainment provided by dystopian near-futures are infinitely preferable to our current dystopian moment.
Still, when I watch an older soul like Adam-22 laughing along like a lemming to the adolescent humor propagated by his mostly adolescent subject matter while inquiring about their rituals regarding “pouring up,” I can’t help but want to reach through the screen and throttle him, screaming “At least show them how to do this responsibly so they can make it to your age, you opportunistic bald fuck!” Of course, I don’t know the man outside of his videos and he seems like someone uniquely fixated by artifice--I’ll never forget stumbling upon his “Become the meme” mantra as reported in the Times’ piece on the nascent scene in which 22’s No Jumper brand served as both scene reporter and scene shaper, a phrase I still find bafflingly beautiful and marking him as someone I would genuinely love to interview. And it’s unfair to peg one person with a responsibility that should truly be shared by all of us: to educate ourselves on the nuances of polydrug abuse and understand which substances should never be mixed. I also can’t really foster Posner in creating a song that has become a symbol of privileged as well as aspirational pleasure. After all, what else are you going to do in Ibiza?
As I hope it would be clear by now, I am not someone who is opposed to drug use in the least. I think it’s something we all do in one way or another--how many times have you heard someone say “exercise is my drug?”--and it’s better to be cognizant of our individual impulses and inclination and open a dialogue about them than wall ourselves off in our suburban cul-de-sacs, both figuratively and literally. But when we’ve had rappers of all order celebrating the joys of prescription opiates and anxiolytics--not that they aren’t enjoyable, especially if you suffer from anxiety, which many seem to these days--for the past five years and can see how that has trickled down to those eager to emulate, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t room for at least some common sense to pierce through. In the 90s, organizations like DanceSafe were comparatively quick to pop up to help (mostly white suburban) ravers test their pills for non-MDMA chemicals that were far less deadly than fentanyl. I also recall a Newsweek cover story pinned on the wall of my eighth grade history teacher’s wall--who also had a “Alcohol is a Drug Too!” sticker planted on the front panel of her desk--detailing the heroin-related deaths of over a dozen white teens from an affluent Dallas suburb and the Time Magazine cover story preferencing speculation over fact in its fear mongering over ecstasy use. With a drug crisis that has truly permeated every facet of society at a scale never seen before, it’s staggering the silence both within and outside pop culture regarding simple education about drugs.
Getting prescribed painkillers doesn’t mean you’ll become a heroin junkie. But it’s also something that should be given along with plenty of information on how to take them responsibly, something that never occurred once in my or many others I know’s experience having opiates prescribed to them in their teens and twenties. It’s clear now that when billions of dollars are to be made, no one--not drug dealers and not pharmaceutical CEOs--is going to exercise any kind of caution, not when addiction equals more money. And I guess that’s what I’m ultimately hoping we’ll start to see, at least in the underground, people being “woke” about drug use as well, especially so many of us music fans at least know someone who has struggled with substances at one point in their lives. While no one likely had the tools to ensure Peep’s pills were above the level, perhaps one day drug testing kits will be as readily available as condoms and narcan will continue to be more readily at hand to more individuals--it’s a 90-second process to get licensed to obtain Narcan, something I need to do as do you.
Ultimately, however, before any real material measure takes place, I'm truly curious how artists might start shading their championing of polysubstance drug use. Where has this decade's "I Feel Like Dying?" As molly got added to the raft of popular rap drugs--if only for a minute--thus entered another substance that now could be tainted with fentanyl for all its users know. What I feel we really need is more artists talking to their fellow addict fanbase (or rather those within their fanbase struggling with addiction). And for that matter, Peep's brutal forthrightness is what seemed to have him tipped for near-Cobain greatness. Our government has only ever worsened drug problems within the US and abroad; our pop culture treats drug use at best glibly and at worst with a tint of romanticism. We need more messages from the grey area, from artists in the thrall of addiction issuing more than a bar or two (no pun intended) of intoxicated self-reflection, like Chance The Rapper's Xanax habit of which the artist has addressed, but not with the fervor he has for so many other social causes. Drug abuse literally effects every single person in this country, often without their knowing. Unless we start screaming into the abyss and hear a message back, too many will be afloat without that most-essential raft: meaningful music.
*Narcan isn’t a complete life-saver though. As the effects of a heroin-overdose can go on for some time, the Naloxone offer wears off before the opioids do and I have heard of several stories of individuals overdosing twice in a nice off the same dose. NEVER leave an overdosed individual’s side until the effects have fully passed.