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.
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.