The death of Lil Peep: how the US prescription drug epidemic is changing hip-hop

This week, rapper Lil Peep died of a suspected overdose. Hip-hop has always been open about recreational drug use but how did constant references to depression and prescription painkillers move into the mainstream?

Pop a Perky just to start up / Pop two cups of purple just to warm up Quavos lyrics swim through the slow, narcotised production of Slippery, a track by rap trio Migos that has become one of the genres biggest hits of the year with nearly 150m views on YouTube. For the uninitiated, Perky is Percocet, a painkiller made up of paracetamol and the opioid oxycodone; purple is a drink made from codeine-based cough syrup. Quavos drug use is as improvisatory as it is blithe, and is just one example of a rap scene where substance abuse has become normalised.

This permissiveness has claimed a talented victim in Lil Peep, a New York-born 21-year-old rapper who died this week of a suspected overdose. On his Instagram in the hours leading up to his death, he said he was taking magic mushrooms and honey (a kind of super-concentrated version of marijuana, turned into a wax); another picture sees him with an unidentified substance broken into pieces on his tongue. He is also filmed dropping bars of Xanax, the anxiety medication that has become perhaps the most fashionable drug in 2017s rap scene, into his mouth.

Q&A

Why is there an opioid crisis in America?

Almost 100 people are dying every day across America from opioid overdoses more than car crashes and shootings combined. The majority of these fatalities reveal widespread addiction to powerful prescription painkillers. The crisis unfolded in the mid-90s when the US pharmaceutical industry began marketing legal narcotics, particularly OxyContin, to treat everyday pain. This slow-release opioid was vigorously promoted to doctors and, amid lax regulation and slick sales tactics, people were assured it was safe. But the drug was akin to luxury morphine, doled out like super aspirin, and highly addictive. What resulted was a commercial triumph and a public health tragedy. Belated efforts to rein in distribution fueled a resurgence of heroin and the emergence of a deadly, black market version of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The crisis is so deep because it affects all races, regions and incomes

Lil Peep also rapped about drug-taking: I hear voices in my head, they tellin me to call it quits / I found some Xanax in my bed, I took that shit, went back to sleep; Sniffin cocaine cause I didnt have no Actavis / Smokin propane with my clique and the bad bitches; Gettin high cause my life dont mean shit to me. His vision of drug-taking was not without pleasure, but certainly a means of escape as well as straightforward hedonism a marked change in rap culture.

Three drugs are most commonly associated with hip-hop: alcohol, weed and crack. The former is often used merely as a straightforward wealth signifier: Hennessy and Courvoisier cognac, Cristal champagne, Patrn tequila and Grey Goose vodka. Blended with a gin and juice, Snoop Dogg hymned the relaxing properties of marijuana (laaaaaid back…) while Cypress Hill synthesised its paranoia with the creepy malevolence of B-Reals voice.

Crack cocaine was a different prospect: the rappers never got high on their own supply. On Clipses Grindin, Pusha T says that four and half [ounces] will get you in the game and that he is known in the neighbourhood as Mr Sniffles, but his laser-precise flow suggests sobriety and business nous. On the 2014 mega-hit Trap Queen, Fetty Wap introduces his girl to his stove hes not showing off his new Aga, but rather where they will cook crack together. The songs pop beauty conjures a couple revelling not in the drugs high, but the emancipation it gives them as a result of cash from its sale. By shamelessly leveraging the glamour of criminality, these rappers appeal to prurient middle-class audiences (including a sizeable white demographic) and by pointing a route out of poverty, they appeal to working-class ones too.

Around the turn of the century, rappers increasingly started dabbling in designer drugs, too, particularly ecstasy. Eminem recorded two songs from The Slim Shady LP while high on it, while mentor Dr Dre suggested on Bad Intentions, take an X pill, how the sex feel? A little-noted detail is that the civic euphoria of Jay-Zs Empire State of Mind is powered by the drug: MDMA got you feeling like a champion / The city never sleeps, better slip you an Ambien. Kanye West sees a whole party melting like Dali after dropping molly, raps now-favoured name for ecstasy (also namechecked by the likes of Tyga, Rick Ross, Rihanna and, infamously, Miley Cyrus). In their songs at least, there are no comedowns, only the dizzy, meaningless highs.

But at the same time, prescription drug addiction took hold of the US last year, 91 people a day died of opioid overdoses. Thanks to a robust marketing campaign, sales of the opioid painkiller OxyContin grew from $48m (36.5m) in 1996 to $1.1bn in 2000; in 2012, 282m prescriptions were made for it a bottle for every American. Its popularity has tailed off slightly, but other prescription drugs often used recreationally have joined it, arguably in part thanks to the inadvertent marketing by rappers, who have swapped uppers for downers.

Lil
Lil Pump with a drug-shaped cake. Photograph: Jerritt Clark/WireImage

The attention-deficit medicine Adderall has been rapped about by Danny Brown and sung about by Justin Bieber; as well as Migoss championing of the aforementioned Percocet, Futures Mask Off, another huge rap hit this year, has a chorus that runs Percocet, molly, Percocet.

But its Xanax the drug Lil Peep boasted about taking six of in a video hours before his death that has become the most prevalent. Each pill is an oblong divided into five chunks, with X A N A X imprinted on each; as a design it has real visual impact that enhances its appeal. A$AP Mob-affiliated DJ crew Cozy Boys were formerly known as Blackout Boys, and used Xanax bars as their logo; current hot property Lil Pump celebrated getting a million Instagram followers with a Xanax-shaped cake. Etsy is weirdly full of Xanax jewellery. Guesting on iLoveMakonnens track Tuesday, even the clean-cut Drake admits to having Xans in an Advil bottle before swiftly reassuring us theyre just for that nights boo: I dont take them shits but you do.

Xanax now underpins an entire subgenre of rap: sometimes dubbed SoundCloud rap, as many of its progenitors upload it to that music streaming service, it is characterised by a fug-headed mumbling flow; raw, lo-fi production full of clouds of noise; and constant references to depression and prescription painkillers. Along with rappers such as Yung Lean, $uicideboy$ and Lil Xan, Lil Peep was at the heart of this scene; it has moved into the mainstream, too, with Lil Uzi Vert, whose track XO Tour Life features a couple discussing suicide. Spotify caught on, dedicating a playlist to the style called Tear Drop its top 10 is now full of Lil Peep, with a tribute reading: Gone too soon We will always remember you.

This style is also called emo, but where that word has previously been used to describe punks who analysed their own emotions with a forensic level of detail, here the emotion is underanalysed: these rappers feel bad, but theyre not sure why.

The fact that some of them are unable to verbalise what theyre feeling, leads them to fall back on rap cliches around bitches and clips, and simply compounds the overall feeling of desperation. This is an inevitable cultural byproduct of the US, where the marketplace has been allowed to triumph, and silence moral concerns about the availability of these drugs. Because theyre profitable, people are allowed to just get on with self-medicating, without trying to understand the reasons for their sadness.

But perhaps these rappers ennui goes wider than mere Xanax, and into a numbing effect of our wider culture. One of the most chilling aspects to Lil Peeps death is that his cries for help were so public, and yet went so unanswered perhaps as a result of the paradoxically distancing effect of social media. He wrote on Instagram hours before he died: I need help but not when I have my pills but thats temporary one day maybe I wont die young and Ill be happy? But were inured to see Instagram as performative, not real, and its inherently aspirational vibe along with the sheer visual noise of its scrolling feed drowns out individual torment. That Spotify named its playlist Tear Drop, selling back these artists real pain, doesnt help.

Rap has always told its drug stories in more than just its lyrics. Snoop conjured the sensuality of his own buzz through his very vocal cadence and languorous G-funk backing, as well as his words. In Houstons chopped and screwed scene, rap tracks are radically slowed down, designed to match and enhance the corporeal sluggishness that comes from drinking codeine cough syrup. And its the same with this new breed of rapper: their deadened flow and sad, anxious production replicates the anti-high of Xanax in sound. It can be hard to tell which of them are genuinely troubled and which are like the fake gangstas of the crack era trading off the glamour of drugs and pain. But the tens of millions of streams theyre getting mean it doesnt matter: their popularity shows that people are hearing their own pain, fellow participants in a culture that has been left to manage its own wellbeing.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/nov/16/death-lil-peep-us-prescription-drugs-epidemic-hip-hop-rapper

Author: Billy Roland

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