“I like lean, I like drugs”. These are the opening lyrics to ‘Slingshot’, a song which served as my introduction to the upcoming underground rapper, Lil Xan. Given these lyrics (lean referring to a syrup-based recreational drug), along with his name itself (an abbreviation for the drug Xanax), I presumed the California artist would be no more than another rapper who glorifies the use of drugs. However, in his hit single ‘Betrayed’, Xan insists that “Xans don’t make you” and “Xans gon’ betray you”, using his most popular song as an opportunity to deliver a cautionary message to listeners.
In a Genius video, he explains how he escaped addiction, and criticises that “A lot of rappers don’t really be talking ‘bout not doing drugs”. This got me thinking: why is the rap world so intrinsically connected to drugs? Have more efforts been made to change the tide?
In 1984, rap pioneer Grandmaster Melle Mell released his song ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It),’ in which he states that doing drugs is “nobody else’s fault” but that of the consumer. The track is one of the earliest examples we can trace of a rap song tackling the issue. By the end of the decade, hip-hop trio Run-DMC had reached the peak of the music mainstream. They used their position to present a strictly anti-drug message to their fan base. In their most famous hit, ‘It’s Tricky’, the group claims that “They offer us coke and lots of dope but we just leave it alone”. The song promotes a healthy lifestyle and is positive throughout; however, something about it feels, well…fake.
“The idea that doing drugs is only your fault has been losing traction in rap.”
The message was so overly-simplified and optimistic that 90s rap powerhouse NWA mocked it in their parody ‘Express Yourself’, in which Dr. Dre (who would later embrace marijuana in his album The Chronic) sarcastically states that he refuses to smoke weed. Later in the song, Dre attacks Run-DMC directly, with the line “Some say no to drugs and take a stand, but after the show they go looking for the dopeman.” In fact, we now know that Dre wasn’t lying in this accusation: in a 2016 interview with The Guardian, DMC confessed that he “smoked and snorted and guzzled” during every day in their era of stardom.
The idea that doing drugs is only your fault has been losing traction in rap. The most notable opposition to it is Eminem, who in numerous songs explains how it was his unstable mother who inflicted this issue into his life. In ‘My Mom’, he narrates how due to her Munchausen’s Syndrome (also mentioned in ‘Cleanin’ Out My Closet’), she would feed him drugs for fear of his being ill: “I am like I am cause I’m like her”.
Over time, there has been an interesting lyrical trend in rap. Songs are mentioning drugs more often, and although references to weed have been declining since 2010, references to harder drugs (most notably Xanax, Percocet and lean) are on the rise. Migos informed us in their song ‘Designer Drugs’ that “Sober n****s out of style.” Other recent rappers like Future have built large parts of their careers on the theme of using these dangerous drugs, and in the viral video for Lil Pump’s ‘Gucci Gang’, we see cups of lean being handed out at a fictional American high school.
“…rappers from all ends of the hip-hop spectrum have…criticised the use of…drugs based on bad personal experiences.”
Perhaps the allure comes from the past. Since Kanye West declared himself “the biggest rockstar on the planet” a few years ago, the image of the classic rock icon has gained popularity in rap. So much so that Post Malone compares himself to one in his song ‘Rockstar’, partly for the simple reason that he has been “poppin’ pillies.” This is a confusing aspiration and one that can prove to be destructive. It is widely-known, after all, that several of the most acclaimed rock legends of the 60s and 70s died due to drug overdose.
But perhaps this trend can change. As of 2017, braggadocio rapper Russ went on a Twitter tirade condemning rappers who promote the use of these drugs and posted a picture of himself wearing a t-shirt reading ‘How much Xans and lean do you have to do before you realize you’re a fucking loser’, which quickly went viral.
He received swift criticism from Chiraq staple Fredo Santana, who explained that he would stop drinking lean if he didn’t have PTSD from tragic experiences in his life. A month later, Santana was taken to hospital for lean-induced seizures. He passionately tweeted “We got our whole life ahead of us fuck being rock stars.” Other rappers from all ends of the hip-hop spectrum have also criticised the use of such drugs based on bad personal experiences, from the likes of Trippie Redd to Chance the Rapper.
However, there is still a conflict of interests. For every time we hear a new voice trying to lead an impressionable fan base in better directions, we hear another guiding them back into the darkness that has enclosed hip-hop for decades. Drugs, whether we like it or not, have become an integral part of rap as a genre and culture, but they don’t define it. Perhaps this current variety in views and messages is the healthiest option for the future, and we just have to choose how much we let them affect our own lives.
Mateus Kogut Lessa de Sá
Feautured Image via YouTube.