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Feel the Pain: Drugs, Nihilism, and Anhedonia in 2017 Rap Music

In a year when many just wanted to go back to sleep and hope it was all a dream, rap took on an escapist quality. The death and music of Lil Peep, and the nihilistic boasts of Young Thug, Future, and Lil Uzi Vert sountracked a year of pain and identity crises.

Ringer illustration

Young Thug’s space yelps have transmitted more clearly this year than in the past, but did you think, when you heard “200” for the first time, that he said “I’m on a dieeeet,” or “I’m gonna die-eeeeee”?

This was on Super Slimey, his joint project with Future, released in late October (I’ll forgive you if you’ve already forgotten about it). On “200,” the duo bemoan empty pleasures. Future is bummed about popping a wheelie in his Lamborghini. But there’s that ad-lib—sitting there for you to contend with before the song even starts. Do you think Young Thug only drinks Actavis (lean, codeine, codeine-promethazine, “Prometh”)? Speaking of, do you think this photo was a cry for help, or just a good joke at everyone else’s expense?

Can you even tell the difference anymore?

This is a screencap from an Instagram story Young Thug posted in early December; it certainly looks like he’s receiving a lean IV. This made us upset, because it forced us to sidle up to some uncomfortable questions we might’ve previously ignored. Ones like: Are your favorite rappers OK?

It is fun to listen to Young Thug; it is not fun to think about what Young Thug is doing to his kidneys. That’s the central tension surrounding rap’s rock stars. They exhibit self-destructive tendencies and some semblance of control. That’s the tension. As a listener, you want that tension to manifest itself within the music, while hoping that it never appears in a TMZ story. Drugs and music have never been strangers, and problems with the former are not limited to rap. A study published in April by Addictions.com found that country bests both rap and rock for its volume of drug references. The study also states that since 2013, across all genres, drugs have been mentioned less often. However, Logan Freedman, a data scientist at Addictions.com, told Rolling Stone that some individual hip-hop artists were responsible for “an ‘extreme amount’” of references on their own.

I would guess that, along with Thug, Future is one of those individual artists. Have you forgotten already that he scored back-to-back no. 1 debuts this year? On Hndrxx, he proved himself to be a legitimate pop star in waiting—see the five-track run from “Damage” to “Fresh Air,” each a viable Song of Summer candidate, except for “Use Me,” which is devastating. Hndrxx sounded like the album that was promised by a long, rambling, emotional note dropped on his Instagram weeks before. Future, the first of these two no. 1s, was not that. In many ways, the self-titled project was the continuation of a bender that started with 2014’s Monster— after a very public split with Ciara. The most refreshing thing about the album was “Mask Off” which, riding on the back of a hashtag, shot to the top of the rhythmic radio, becoming Future’s highest charting single ever. And for a time, everyone was chanting his addictions right along with him:

Percocets / Molly, Percocets / Percocets / Molly, Percocets

Despite the pan flutes, this isn’t music for happy people, which might also have had something to do with the song’s ubiquity. The hook of one of the other biggest songs of 2017 was “all my friends are dead.” To illustrate the absurdity of this moment in time, here is a group of children in Philly singing it like a nursery rhyme.

If you’re a rap fan, you’ve listened to it millions of times this year, whether or not you previously liked Lil Uzi Vert. In a manner of speaking, “XO Tour Llif3” is a high he’s going to spend the rest of his career chasing. It strikes the perfect balance of anguish and aplomb, between Uzi’s own manic highs and lows. The dark, at times uncomfortable (and irresponsible) music video, released after the song had already gone three times platinum, is full of zombies and fake blood captured by jittery camera work. But there was a low-rent animated video before that one, before everyone was singing along.

It was just Uzi, alone, high as a Georgia pine, driving.

I have no cute adjectives or witty figures of speech to throw at this one: 2017 managed to be both shittier and dumber than 2016. So shitty and dumb was it, that we longed for the comparatively halcyon days of President Bush. Analyzing public apologies became a legitimate form of literary criticism; and the “real victims” sang “It’s OK to Be White.” This year has felt like one dispiriting Street Fighter “Game Over” screen, asking if we’d like to continue on to be KO’d for the millionth time. What’s worse, it’s difficult to remember what it was like to not feel this way.

Rap music reflected that anhedonia, especially the genre’s newest, most avant-garde artists, who cared even less about convention and form than the last generation. I’m talking about the AIM screen names that kept finding their way onto the charts this year, most of which belong to teenagers who were born in Florida and raised on the internet. The ideological through line from Smokepurpp, Lil Pump, XXXTentacion, Lil Xan, Wifisfuneral, and others with more ironic names, is that nothing matters. It’s an attitude, coupled with drug-addled downtime, that scans more defeatist than nihilist. And that manifests in violent ways—toward each other, between fans, and against women. It’s tough to know whether their emergence is a response to the fraught sociopolitical climate, or a linear progression that can mostly be attributed to time and the internet.

Upon hearing their intentionally less polished sound, you might ask: Where did they come from? What do they want? Why are they like this?

The answer to the first question is that these rappers at the forefront of rap’s punk moment descended directly from the Raider Klan, a 2010s Miami rap outfit that borrowed a lot from Three 6 Mafia. The answer to the second somehow seems to be both nothing and everything. And the answer to the third, finally, and at the risk of oversimplifying, may lie with late-period Lil Wayne, although he famously had zero interest in being a role model.

At the height of his popularity post–Tha Carter III, Wayne insisted on pushing the boundaries of the hip-hop genre. (Remember his verse on “Dey Know”? Remember literally all of Rebirth?) Also, there likely wasn’t a single drug test he wouldn’t have failed at the time. Still, though, Lil Pump had a cake in the shape of a Xanny bar to celebrate reaching 1 million followers on Instagram, and that feels, for lack of a better word, like an homage.

Even knowing rap’s tradition of decrying its newest generation, it’s hard not to think of grungy SoundCloud rappers as the symptom of a troubling cause. Pick one—the opioid epidemic, image obsession, maybe some other neurosis rooted in internet immersion that we can’t even grasp the scope of yet.

Music is an escape, but this music feels uniquely escapist, and averse to exploring any inward darkness beyond the most surface level. This reticence could come from a cultural interest in sadness-as-aesthetic, but it might also be a product of the gulf that exists between who someone is privately and the persona they project online. Neither of these problems is specific to the colorfully dreaded and prematurely face-tattooed. Rap contains multitudes of nihilism. There was N.W.A’s anarchical brand of nihilism; there’s Vince Staples’s more intellectual variety; and then there’s the brain-deadening kind. The kind where you find some Xanax in your bed, take them, and go back to sleep.

Twenty-one-year-old Long Island rapper Lil Peep died on November 16 after taking a toxic combination of prescription drugs. In the hours before his death, he wrote on Instagram: “I need help but not when I have my pills but that’s temporary one day maybe I won’t die young and I’ll be happy?” At least part of the reason this went unnoticed can be attributed to internet fatigue—how often do you refresh your timelines? How much of what you see do you even remember, let alone engage with? How can you single out a genuine cry for help when emptiness and anxiety are so culturally relevant? After Peep’s death, Lil Uzi Vert tweeted condolences that read almost as accusatory. He also said that he’d be giving up drugs today, although he’d probably smoke weed tonight.

Speaking to Billboard last month, Vic Mensa, who has had his own experiences with addiction, was asked why he thought drugs were such a prevalent coping mechanism in young artists. “Well, what other coping mechanisms are presented to us?”

“Hip-hop’s always been thinking about the mental effects of situations that inform hip-hop,” Mensa said. “All the way back to Grandmaster Flash—kind of like, ‘Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head.’”

This year it just became “push me to the edge.”

Even amid 2017’s aggressive wretchedness, Gucci Mane is free and sober and fit and whole and self-actualized, beating both addiction and recidivism. Droptopwop came out in May, and it was his first post-prison project that felt buoyed by that sense of completion—so much so that I thought he’d managed to age in reverse. He and producer Metro Boomin got the best out of each other, and “Finesse the Plug” is deliriously fun proof of that return to form (“I love rifles / and I love white folks, I walk on a tightrope”).

His social media presence has been a source of daily affirmation that you are worth the effort of making the changes you need to make, the care that you often deny yourself. It’s a far cry from 2013, when he was suggesting on Twitter that Nicki Minaj slept her way into mainstream success. He affected that weird British-adjacent accent before, by the way. It was on 2009’s The Cold War: Part 2 (Great Brrritain), which dropped while he was in Fulton County Jail for violating his probation a second time. This year, he could legally visit the places he talked about, and did so with all the clumsy charm you might expect of someone experiencing something for the first time. By “Made It (Outro)” on Mr. Davis, he’d reached full enlightenment.

I act like I forgot but I was once a mental patient
Sittin’ still in a cell while my career deteriorated
Now every day I wake up I feel invigorated
Got Rihanna on IG talking about Gucci’s transformation

I realize I am experiencing this, Gucci’s transformation, through entirely secondary channels. I scroll through his tweets, I laugh at his Instagram Stories, I listen to his music and feel invincible. I also think about how Gucci’s success story paints Lil Wayne as a cautionary tale for today’s rappers as they trudge the murky territory between entertaining bad habits and succumbing to them, between steering into the skid and spinning out of control.

It was September, I think, when it dawned on me that this should be the Kennedy Center Honors phase of his career. Gucci had just released the third single for Mr. Davis, and Wayne was hospitalized with multiple seizures and had to cancel a show in Las Vegas. These episodes of Wayne’s have made the news at least three other times; in 2012, in 2013, and in 2016. Each time the revelation raises the question of whether these seizures are due solely to his epilepsy, or at least in part to codeine abuse, and whether anything could be done about either. It pulls the central tension of consuming Wayne’s music back to the forefront, and that makes us uneasy. We don’t mind rappers not caring about anything, but we want them to care about themselves. At least enough to keep making the music that helps us feel better.

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