What Pill-Popping In Hip-Hop Means For Mental Health


Some of the hottest rap hits have been made under the
influence of drugs — and depression. They’re hand-in-hand

Posted on October 08, 2017, 15:27 GMT

Flip through rap radio in the last couple years, and
patterns emerge. Between the bars of Future’s viral hit
“Mask Off” — “Percocets
/ Molly, Percocets” — there might be Logic’s hit “1-800-273-8255,”
describing suicidal thoughts, the title of the song itself
the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number. Lil
Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llf3” details
Xanax addiction and being pushed “to the edge” where he might
“blow my brain out.” XXXTentacion raps about suicidal
thoughts and simulated his own hanging in a recent video, as did
rapper Father in his clip for “Suicide Party.”
Mac Miller, Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, and
Kevin Gates also have
tracks dealing with narcotics abuse and the emotional woes
caused by their indulgences.

Drug use and self-harm are hot topics in popular rap songs by
chart-topping artists, and their simultaneous emergence is no
coincidence, with each topic bearing a long history in a
genre that’s typically dominated by black men.

“Self-medication is the name of the game in the culture of
young black men in hip-hop,” Vic Mensa told BuzzFeed News in
September. The Chicago emcee fought his way back from drug
addiction after a season of depression and suicidal thoughts
— which were brought on by prolonged use of pills among other
substances. He raps about it in “There’s a Lot Going On.”

Kid Cudi wrote a letter to his fans in
2016 describing his own mental health issues and why they led
him to rehab. “My anxiety and depression have ruled my life
for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house
because of it,” Cudi wrote. “I can’t make new friends because
of it. I don’t trust anyone because of it and I’m tired of
being held back in my life. I deserve to have peace. I
deserve to be happy and smiling. Why not me?”

Joe Budden has been open about his
addictive personality, and struggles with drug abuse on top
of his own mood disorder. “As somebody who’s been suicidal
and battled depression, I would like to see hip-hop address
it more,” he said during Complex’s Everyday
, an online show that he cohosts. “We’re so
powerful as a culture … we move things. Enough of us have
died from mental health issues for us to look into it. Most
of these rappers are telling us what they’re going through
and I try to listen for it.”

“As somebody who’s been suicidal and battled depression, I
would like to see hip-hop address it more.”

From heroin and cocaine in jazz and R&B, to acid in funk,
to marijuana and Ecstasy in hip-hop, narcotics have been a
not-so-silent partner to the sound and the subjects in black
music. In contemporary popular hip-hop, however, popping
prescription pills like Xanax, Oxycontin, benzodiazepines,
and MDMA along with lean — a mixture of soda and Actavis
syrup (if you can find it) — have become
a badge of honor in contemporary hip-hop as well as on
mainstream radio. Songs like these highlight the connection
between music, artists, and fans and how each reflects the

Hand in hand with the pill name-drops are health conditions —
addiction, depression, chronic pain — that some prescription
drugs are actually engineered to treat. The pill rap wave
dovetails with the growing heroin epidemic on top of suicide
becoming the number two cause of death in teens ages 15 to
19, according to the
Centers for Disease Control.

Hip-hop has moved from selling drugs to using drugs as a
point of pride, and that arc tracks with amplified numbers of
suicide and mental health concerns among hip-hop’s target
audience. The tandem rise isn’t a quirky coincidence: It’s a
serious cause for concern, if not only for the performers but
also for fans. Hip-hop has more than a minor ailment — the
culture’s got an addiction and it’s driving us mad.

Rich Polk, Kevin Winter, Bennett Raglin, Christopher Polk,
Bennett Raglin / Getty Images

Vic Mensa, Logic, Schoolboy Q, Mac Miller, Kid Cudi.

Drinking, smoking weed, and selling cocaine became staples in
hip-hop — lyrically, and in practice — beginning in the
mid-1990s, epitomized in albums like Jay-Z’s Reasonable
and Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. Tales
of South American suppliers, coke bricks, and depictions of
grimy dealers in the trap — a colloquialism for a drug and/or
stash house — pumped from speakers in songs like “Can’t Knock the
Hustle.” By the late ‘90s and early 2000s, rappers like
Ja Rule and 50 Cent moved on to include Ecstasy as a party
drug in their lyrics, though the inclusion of pills rarely
budged beyond that.

The affordable low-risk high of lean made the drink a drug of
choice with Texas artists like DJ Screw, a pioneer of the
“chopped and screwed” style that fit nicely with the
beverage’s propensity for slowing down the world. Lean — aka
“dirty Sprite,” “drank,” “syrup,” “sizzurp,” “purp,” and
“barre” — started making its way into rhymes down South,
evidenced by hits like Three 6 Mafia’s “Sippin on Some
Sizzurp” and Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin’” featuring
UGK in 2000 (the same year Screw died from codeine-related
conditions). Lean’s popularity in the black music community
began long before the age of hip-hop, as retired University
of Texas Health Science Center professor Ronald Peters
told Noisey: In the
1950s, Houston blues musicians mixed cough syrup with beer
and wine coolers to get the high of Benadryl today without
garnering police attention.

But all along the way in hip-hop’s history, there’s been the
counternarrative about drugs, prescription or not.
Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five told a cautionary tale
about rap and drugs in 1984 with “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do
It),” and in 1988 and Public Enemy’s followed up with “Night
of the Living Baseheads.” Cash Money Records founder
Birdman’s (formerly Baby) regional 1993 track “I Need a Bag of Dope”
with the 32 Golds celebrated his love for snorting heroin but
then getting sick if he couldn’t score: “I started snortin’
and scratchin’ and throwing up.”

Southern hip-hop’s rise arguably crystallized in the national
popularity of Baby’s protégé Lil Wayne around the release of
2004’s “Go D.J.” Along with
his gravelly delivery, the rapper brought a lean-filled cup
and a penchant for the rockstar lifestyle; as Wayne recorded
his 2008 album Tha Carter III, that cup became a
mainstay in his interviews. The unauthorized documentary
The Carter
revealed his escalating narcotic dependence and the havoc it
caused. Musically, while other rappers rhymed about indulging
in weed and Ecstasy and privately snorted cocaine, this film
shows Wayne giddily mixing lean as his manager exasperatingly
dealt with his artist in the grip of addiction.

Elsewhere, Lil Wayne cuts like “Me and My Drank” and
“Viva La White Girl”
blatantly described the New Orleans MC’s predilections — and
it sounded great, unfortunately. Wayne also spoke to his lean
dependency during an interview with MTV News in 2008,
saying, “Everybody
wants me to stop all this and all that. It ain’t that easy. …
feels like death in your stomach when you stop doing that
shit.” (Lil Wayne declined BuzzFeed News’ request for

Darren Mccollester / Getty Images

Then came pills. In 1996, sufferers of chronic pain started
getting prescriptions for a new drug called Oxycontin. A
physician, Dr. Roneet Lev, chair of San Diego County Rx Drug
Abuse Medical Task Force, told to Fox 5 San Diego that
when Oxycontin hit the market, its parent company Purdue
Pharma told doctors that only 1% of patients became addicted
and furthermore that they were cruel if they didn’t prescribe
it. In reality, addiction was much more prevalent, and
ultimately helped to lead to America’s current opioid crisis,
President Trump declaring it a national
emergency in August. According to the
National Institute on Drug Abuse, the crisis was caused by
three main variables: the huge jump of scripts written;
“aggressive marketing” by pharmaceutical companies; and
“greater social acceptability for using medications for
different purposes.”

Elsewhere, Xanax, also known as happy pills, can be used to
take the anxiety-ridden edge off other drugs like Ecstasy and
soothe depression and unhappy feelings, making it a choice
party drug. And thanks to pill mills, establishments where
doctors loosely doled out prescriptions, drugs like Oxy,
Vicodin, Percocet, and others weren’t too tough to get as
long as one had the money. Users could cycle through several
pill mills in one day to maintain their supply for personal
use or for sale.

Speaking with BuzzFeed News, Ebro — host of New York’s Hot 97
morning show and Apple’s Beats 1 — wanted to clarify: Hip-hop
didn’t start the pill-popping epidemic, that pills’ entry
into rap’s vernacular is a reflection of whatever was already
happening in United States specifically with youth culture.

Lil Wayne in “The Carter” documentary / Via vimeo.com

As artists like Lil Wayne rose in ranks in the mid-aughts,
they “broke away from hood-centered paradigms in hip-hop
culture,” said Langston Wilkins, ethnomusicologist and
program officer with the State Humanities Council of
Tennessee in Nashville. They brought with them “different
cultural influences, whether it was Wayne’s skateboarding and
pseudo-rock thing or Kanye’s high-fashion experiences. They
also attracted different audiences and with them came
different ways of partying or escaping your problems, like
popping pills or tabs of Xanax and other drugs.”

Atlanta emcee Gucci Mane broke onto the larger hip-hop
landscape in 2006 with “Pillz,” boasting a chorus asking “Is
you rolling?” and him responding, “Bitch, I might be.”

“I was high as hell when I made ‘Pillz,’ and the next day
when they played it, I was like, ‘Don’t do that,’ because
it’s like I’m telling on myself!” said a now-sober Gucci
during a recent event for YouTube in New York, speaking on
his new book The Autobiography of Gucci Mane. “At the
end of the day, I made millions but I was tripping.”

By 2011, Future debuted with his Dirty Sprite mixtape,
directly shouting out lean, continuing on his career
trajectory by touting drug use. As for his most recent summer
hit “Mask Off,” he said in 2015 that all of the drug lingo is
just for show. “I don’t have to do it all the time. I am
sober,” he told Clique TV. “I’m not
like super drugged out or a drug addict.” He raps about
drugs, not because it’s his personal habit but “because I
feel like that’s the number one thing everybody likes to talk
about. … It’s the number one seller.” (Future declined
BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.)

Kevin Winter, Bennett Raglin, Christopher Polk, Rachel
Murray, Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Future, Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert, Kevin Gates, Chance the

The CDC lists suicide as the #2 cause of death for teens in
the US, sandwiched between homicides and unintentional
injuries, which can include accidental overdoses.
Historically, black people don’t often see therapists
or doctors as much as we should, and like our ancestors
who often took their issues to the Lord in prayer, rappers
take theirs to the recording booth. Artists like Kendrick Lamar and
Gates, who’ve both fought depression, have called music their
therapy; however, it might also be good to also talk with a

“There is something to be said for creative expression, but I
wouldn’t say that’s enough,” said Inger Burnett-Zeigler,
professor and clinical psychologist in Northwestern
University’s department of psychiatry. “Therapy is really
about identifying dysfunctional thoughts and how your
feelings can be a product of that, and you need someone else
to step in and identify that.”

According to the Handbook of African American
, anxiety is the “most prevalent class of
mental disorders in the United States” in terms of mental
health for people of all ethnicities; 28% of people
experience it at some point in their lives. Anxiety disorder
includes “panic disorder, specific phobias, social phobia,
generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), and obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD),”
demonstrated by persistent and debilitating fear. Anxiety is
often flanked by depression and drug abuse, born as a way to
tackle uncomfortable feelings. More than a few music artists
may be exposed to nonprescribed medication when they’re on
the road and maintaining a pace that allows them to
consistently perform in front of thousands of screaming fans.
But that pattern can be a slippery slope to unhealthy and
addictive self-soothing habits.

“I don’t think self-medication is a conscious act. With
entertainers, they’re in an environment with drugs and
alcohol, and at some point you realize these substances numb
your feelings,” said Burnett-Zeigler. “They’re a means of
escape and you repeat that behavior, but often people can’t
say that or even realize that’s what they’re doing.”

The cover art of 21 Savage’s Issa Album is an
illustration of the rapper holding a foam cup, intimating the
rapper’s own lean habit, which he raps about on “Numb the Pain,”
rhyming, “I’m sippin’ codeine, not brandy / And I’m sippin’
codeine, I’mma addict … Numb the pain with the money.”
Gucci writes something similar in his autobiography: “This is
how these downward spirals in my life always went. Some
stressful situation would arise and I would turn to the drugs
to cope. Abusing lean, weed, and pills would end up with me
sleeping and eating poorly. … I wouldn’t be on point to
handle the original stressful situation. I’d compound bad
choices … lead[ing] to more problems, stress and drugs. A
cycle with no end. No good one at least.”

Riana Anderson, associate professor of social work at
University of Souther California, told BuzzFeed News that
drugs can be a means of escape for a rapper (or listener),
for when one doesn’t engage in healthier options like therapy
or benefit from the buffer of supportive friends and family.
If trauma is met with phrases like “stop crying” or “man up,”
people may learn to deal with their pain in other ways, like

Over the past couple years, while watching many of his
friends become addicted in real time, Mensa found himself
forced to make a choice in one single moment. “I was in a
dark place and putting myself through a lot, so that one acid
trip was a tipping point in an already sinking ship and I
came to a place where I had forgotten my smile and how to see
the sunlight,” he said. “There was not a 10-minute span when
I wasn’t thinking of killing myself, and that’s very taxing.
Being in that position mentally — and having drained my brain
of the serotonin, dopamine, and everything that brings us joy
as humans — it was was either I change or I’m going to die
from this.”

“No one realizes that lean is liquid heroin. I hate

While Mensa got clean thanks to help from his girlfriend at
the time, some of his friends are still dealing with the
effects of drug abuse. He said one experiences from seizures
and another faces life behind bars after getting high and
shooting up a crowded party.

Atlanta rapper OG Maco told Splinter in 2016,
“No one realizes that lean is liquid heroin.” Heroin can be
the next step after other drugs become too expensive, and
lean has similar withdrawal effects. “I hate lean.”

But there is hope. Maco — who spoke out against the
glamorization of drug use in 2015 and had a beef with Future
because of it — has stepped away from lean. Chance the
Rapper, one of Mensa’s hometown friends, recovered from a
Xanax addiction; he went on to win three 2017 Grammy awards
and a guest spot on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo
album (plus cuddles from Beyoncé).
Mac Miller had an addiction to lean among other drugs and is
also in recovery.

Russ recently wore a shirt saying “How much Xanis and lean do
you have to do before you realize you’re a fucking loser” and
unleashed a Twitter rant similar to Maco’s this month. “Doing
Xanax and lean cuz your favorite rapper makes it sound cool
is all fun and games till your impressionable ass gets
addicted. Stop,” Russ tweeted.

But, by far, the addiction recovery star is Gucci, whose
sobriety and clarity has paved a new path for him. Despite
building a career on the glorification of drug sales and his
own addiction, his final 39 months in prison starting in 2013
became his wake-up call to face his demons and address his
drug abuse.

“Gucci Mane is a brilliant example of bringing that shine
back to your life,” Mensa said. “He’s a great example from a
physical and spiritual standpoint of how a change can be
overwhelmingly positive, not lame. He’s a real affirmation of
what it means to be a man and not these convoluted and
twisted ideas about masculinity.”

In August, both Lil Uzi Vert and Logic performed their
respective songs about suicide on the MTV Video Music Awards
stage, cementing mental health in the country’s pop
consciousness. And while awareness about drug abuse helps, it
means little if there is no policy change or funding for
affordable rehabilitation centers to stop addiction before it
begins or curtail it after it has taken hold.

“Mental health continues to be a neglected issue in the black
community,” say Burnett-Ziegler. “Policy makers and funders
need to do something. People say, ‘Oh, let’s talk about
mental health’ [and] ‘These kids are dying or having multiple
exposure to trauma,’ so it’s a part of the conversation and
that’s positive. But there are few concrete initiatives to
address those needs, so it’s still just talk.”

Indeed, some of the hottest hits have been created by hip-hop
artists who are not only under the influence of drugs but
also anxiety and depression. Still, a chart-topping hit
shouldn’t be made at the expense of a person’s stability and
the very lives of those creating America’s soundtrack.

“Are these albums that I have in my arsenal drug-induced?
Definitely,” Miller tells the camera in a
Fader documentary. “Are these albums dope? Definitely.” ●

To learn more about depression, check out the resources at
the National Institute of Mental Health here.

If you are thinking about suicide, talk to someone. You can
speak to someone by calling the National Suicide Prevention
Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and or by texting HOME
to 741741, the Crisis Text Line.
Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

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