I’m an early-1980s baby, which put me squarely in the crosshairs of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug use campaign. It was quite effective on me – during my formative years, I was entirely convinced that smoking marijuana would lead me down a path of self-destruction and utter iniquity; I figured just one snort of cocaine would kill me instantly. Decades later, I’m still scared that taking an Ecstasy pill will take me out of this mortal plane like dude at the beginning of Bad Boys II.
The government eased up on the public service announcement aspect of the War on Drugs sometime between the early 1990s and now, likely because it realized at some point that it wasn’t so much a “war” as it was heavily-armored soldiers with Gatling guns (drug cartels) mowing down rock- and bottle-flinging rebels (lawmakers). Also, we’ve become more libertarian in our approach to drug use in general, evidenced by the fact that we’re moving ever closer to the federal decriminalization of marijuana.
Unsurprisingly, this generation of youngsters, unencumbered by the late First Lady’s fear-inducing commercials, are finding newer and more inventive ways to get high. Having worked in public schools throughout Chicago, I’ve seen even the “good kids” (of all ethnic backgrounds) get hype over the recreational use of Xanax, Adderall, Percocets and, of course, good ol’ Mary Jane. The new wave of young rappers who top charts with lyrics about drug use might be either a corollary or a cause of this behavior.
Hip-hop has historically championed drug sales, if not drug use – even Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments” insists that one not get high on their own supply. But many of the young rappers who connect with the youngest listeners are using their repetitive, minimalist bars to rap about drug use in a fashion that seems at once to be a promotion of the lifestyle and a cry for help; they aren’t rapping about narcotics use in the way that, say, Bone Thugs N’ Harmony rapped about smoking weed. I liken the lyrics of artists like Lil’ Peep and XXXtentacion to those of the early-1990s grunge rock artists, many of whom died of drug overdoses and suicides in their 20s.
Future is likely among the most popular of these druggie rappers, having built an impressive mainstream career throughout this decade rapping about Xanax-fueled descents into darkness while we all shake our asses. At 34, Future seems to be the oldest of his ilk by far — 17-year-old (!) Lil’ Pump rode the ubiquitous “Gucci Gang,” on which he name-drops cocaine and percocets, to platinum success. Outta-nowhere white-boy rapper G-Eazy raps liberally about drug use and was videotaped in 2016 snorting what I’m guessing was not baking soda. New York rapper Lil’ Peep rapped so openly about his descent into drug abuse that when he left us in November from an apparent overdose, even his agent was expecting the shit.
Drug use is actually one of three trends that seem consistent among these young, YouTube-famous rappers; the second is a terrible tapestry of tattoos, many of which pockmark their faces with blobs of often-undecipherable ink that scream, “Shitcan my resume, please!” Tekashi69, whose “Gummo” video has more than 100 million YouTube hits, is only 21 years old and has the number “69” tattooed all over his body, including his fucking forehead.
As a man with both arms completely adorned in ink, I’m intimately aware of the difference between quality, pricey work that can be covered up by regular clothes and some Z-grade shit done in someone’s grimy basement that will prevent even the most liberal of employers from being bothered. Since young people are getting tattooed much sooner than folks of my generation, I hope they can take an objective look at a zeitgeisty rapper like Tekashi, recognizing that the days of his fame – and likely his dough – are numbered and that he’ll likely have a hell of a time using his mug to make an honest living someday.
The third, and most troubling, aspect of these viral rappers is that most of them seem to have a well-publicized criminal background. For as long as rappers have been droning on about blowing cats’ heads off, most listeners know that it’s usually much ado about a front. But these kids have real cases that threaten to destroy their careers before they truly get started.
XXXtentacion, whose music is so dark it makes me wanna slice my own fucking wrists, was charged with physically attacking his pregnant girlfriend, which was publicly recounted in grimy detail. Tekashi69 pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct with a minor. Kodak Black – who once had the unmitigated gall to trash black girls while resembling one of those devil dolls from Tales From the Hood – is in jail right now for being a total fucking idiot on Instagram.
Perhaps the most sobering aspect of all this is that most of these rappers aren’t even old enough to legally crack a brew, and they’re making a litany of terrible decisions armed with a little bit of money and likely a few opportunistic, sycophantic enablers behind them. There’s also likely a mental health aspect to their behavior that’s going unchecked by the people who claim to care about them, as long as the checks keep rolling in.
With very few exceptions, protracted mainstream success is unlikely for these rappers, since most of them lack discernible talent. We’ll be talking about adroit lyricists like Kendrick Lamar 20 years from now, just like we still talk about Jay Z nearly 25 years after the beginning of his career. But I’ll be surprised if we’re having a meaningful conversation about Tekashi69 or any of the endless bevy of “Lil’s” currently trying to get YouTube famous at this time next year. Meanwhile, they still have lives to live – hopefully they won’t do so while battling addictions and the law.
Or, like Lil’ Peep, not live them at all.