Many rappers who grew up around drugs have positively portrayed substance use in their music. However, in recent years, some young rap artists have detailed the consequences of addiction and mental illness in an effort to spread awareness and eliminate stigma related to substance use disorders.
A New Movement
In February 2016, rapper Macklemore released “The Unruly Mess I’ve Made,” a record in which addiction is a recurring topic. A few months later, he met with President Barack Obama at the White House to discuss the realities of this disease.
“You have certain artists portraying these trends and don’t really have that lifestyle and then it gives off the wrong thing.”
“I’m here with President Obama because I take this personally,” Macklemore said in a YouTube video posted by the Obama White House. “I abused prescription drugs and battled addiction. If I hadn’t gotten the help I needed when I needed it, I might not be here today. And I want to help others facing the same challenges I did.”
Macklemore is not the first rap artist to speak out about the dangers of substance use. In a 2013 interview with The Arsenio Hall Show, Kendrick Lamar said in reference to molly and its popularity in rap music, “You have certain artists portraying these trends and don’t really have that lifestyle and then it gives off the wrong thing.”
For years, rap music has glorified substance use, portraying getting high as an activity with little consequence. Although this trend continues, more rappers today are using their platforms to spread awareness for addiction and mental illness.
By telling their own stories, recording artists can inspire others to abstain from drugs and alcohol, seek treatment for substance use disorders and eliminate the stigma associated with addiction.
Prevalence of Substance Use in Rap Music
Since the 1980s, rappers have referenced substance use in lyrics. Some have paid homage to drug use and its euphoric benefits. Others have expressed concern about drug culture, emphasizing the negative consequences, including addiction.
“There is research suggesting that a correlation exists between mentions of alcohol and drug use and teen substance use.”
But just how common are references to drugs and alcohol in rap music?
A 2008 study conducted by the University of California, Berkley found that drug references in rap music increased drastically from 1979 to 1997. Researchers examined drug mentions in 341 rap songs during that time.
Among the 38 most popular rap songs from 1979 to 1984, about 11 percent contained drug mentions. Nineteen percent of songs in the late 1980s that were included in the study made references to substance abuse. By 1993, about 69 percent of lyrics mentioned drug use.
A study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh in 2008 analyzed Billboard magazine’s list of the 279 most popular songs of 2005. The results showed that substance use was referenced in 77 percent of rap songs, the highest percentage of drug mentions among all genres included in the study.
References to Substance Use in Rap Songs
50 Cent – “Corner Bodega”
“Every four days in PA I move another brick. According to the DEA I sold dope in VA. My coupe stay in Queens but the plates read VA. I’ll show you where I rest at, it ain’t hard to find me”
Snoop Dogg – “Gin and Juice”
“Rollin’ down the street, smokin’ indo. Sippin’ on gin and juice, laid back. With my mind on my money. And my money on my mind”
Eminem – “Drug Ballad”
“Cause every time I go to try to leave. Something keeps pullin’ on my sleeve. I don’t wanna, but I gotta stay. These drugs really got a hold of me”
Lil Wayne – “I Feel Like Dying”
“Jumping off of a mountain. Into a sea of codeine. I’m at the top of the top. But still I climb”
Future – “56 Nights”
“Promethazine took my concentration. To another level then I elevated. Diamonds hanging on me I’m intoxicated. Diamonds hanging off me I’m intoxicated”
How Alcohol Mentions in Rap Music Can Influence Youths
Drug and alcohol mentions can influence adolescents to engage in substance use, according to Eric Beeson, a licensed professional counselor for the online master’s in counseling program at Northwestern University.
“Motivating factors for young people include esteem, respect, power, control and sex,” Beeson told DrugRehab.com. “When drugs and alcohol are paired with those factors, that’s when influence transforms a bit more.”
In 2017, Beeson and a team of researchers at Northwestern University conducted an analysis of the Billboard Hot 100 year-end charts from 2007 to 2016 to determine the frequency of alcohol-related terms in popular music.
His team found that about 33.7 percent of rap songs on the Billboard charts contained at least one reference to alcohol. The rappers with the most alcohol mentions in their Billboard Hot 100 music during that time period were Flo Rida, Drake and Lil Wayne.
Beeson said alcohol mentions are not necessarily an endorsement of drinking. While some rap artists examined in the analysis promoted alcohol use, others stressed the dangers of heavy drinking.
“The music does not cause teens to drink, but it can influence them to do so,” said Beeson. “There is research suggesting that a correlation exists between mentions of alcohol and drug use and teen substance use.”
Rap music may have affected adolescent substance use in Texas. Denise Herd, author of the University of Pittsburgh study, told The Washington Post that references to prescription cough medicine misuse in southern rap music may have influenced teens in Houston to abuse codeine-laced cough syrup.
To combat the influence of rap music on teen drug use, Herd recommended that parents monitor their children’s music. She said learning slang terms — such as “angel dust,” code for PCP — could help parents better detect their children’s substance use.
Drug Trends in Rap Culture
In the ’80s, as rap music grew in popularity, crack cocaine use swept the nation. Processed with ammonia or baking soda, crack is a freebase form of cocaine that can be smoked to achieve a high. Because it is cheaper and more readily available than powdered cocaine, crack quickly took hold in poor urban communities.
The crack epidemic claimed thousands of lives. Those who survived their use of the drug dealt with severe physical and psychological problems that included hallucinations, seizures, psychosis, depression and addiction.
During this era, rap artists began releasing music that talked about the risks of crack and powdered cocaine. Kool Moe Dee and Public Enemy rapped about the perils of crack use, and Melle Mel said powdered cocaine users had “nothing to gain except killing your brain” in his song “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It).”
Many rappers saw evidence of the crack epidemic firsthand.
“You look out in the puddles on the curbs — crack vials are littered in the side of the curbs. You could smell it in the hallways, that putrid smell; I can’t explain it, but it’s still in my mind when I think about it.”
In songs and interviews, Jay-Z has discussed the ubiquity of drugs he saw while growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s. The streets of New York were rife with illicit substances, and Jay-Z saw evidence of crack use everywhere.
“You look out in the puddles on the curbs — crack vials are littered in the side of the curbs,” he told Vanity Fair in 2013. “You could smell it in the hallways, that putrid smell; I can’t explain it, but it’s still in my mind when I think about it.”
Despite his repulsion, Jay-Z began selling crack in the 1980s. When asked if he felt guilty for contributing to the crack epidemic, he expressed regret.
“Not until later, when I realized the effects on the community,” he said. “I started looking at the community on the whole, but in the beginning, no. I was thinking about surviving. I was thinking about improving my situation. I was thinking about buying clothes.”
“A lot of times, music is a way to communicate the existence of a culture. And [rap artists] often use their music to communicate and cope with the reality of that culture and the community they grew up in.”
Beeson says these artists may refer to substance use in their music because it once was their reality. They may not have participated in drug use or heavy drinking prior to experiencing fame, but they were surrounded by these behaviors growing up.
“A lot of times, music is a way to communicate the existence of a culture,” said Beeson. “And [rap artists] often use their music to communicate and cope with the reality of that culture and the community they grew up in.”
Rapper 50 Cent was exposed to drugs while living in the borough of Queens in New York City. His mother was a drug dealer and died when he was eight years old. Four years later, while living with his grandmother, he began selling crack. He was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover officer at age 19.
Like numerous other rappers, 50 Cent writes his experience selling drugs into his music. In “Corner Bodega,” he raps about his life as an interstate drug trafficker, and he spoke of his interactions as a cocaine dealer in “Ghetto Qu’ran.”
Denny Kolsch, an Orlando-based mental health counselor who specializes in addiction and mood-related disorders, says that socioeconomic factors may be another reason African-American rappers allude to drug use in their music.
“Being marginalized in society creates a massive barrier of entry into being a fully functional member of society,” Kolsch told DrugRehab.com. “I’d say the reason for rappers’ emphasis on drugs extends into the black community’s history of being marginalized.”
Marijuana and Rap Artists
The UC-Berkeley study found a shift in the social context of drug use in rap music in the early ’90s. Although many rappers in the 1980s warned of the dangers of drug use, a new wave of rap artists in the 1990s associated drugs such as marijuana with creativity, wealth and social status.
Derived from the dried flower of the cannabis plant, marijuana is a drug often used for recreational purposes. The active ingredient in the substance is THC, a psychoactive chemical that produces pleasurable effects.
Since the ’90s, countless rappers have portrayed smoking cannabis as recreational activity with therapeutic benefits. One of the first rap artists to celebrate marijuana use was Cypress Hill, whose 1991 debut album included “Stoned Is the Way of the Walk” and “Light Another.”
Around this time, rap songs praising marijuana use began to experience commercial success. Then other rappers, including Dr. Dre, started positively portraying smoking cannabis in their music and during interviews.
Since the beginning of his career, Snoop Dogg has made references to getting high in a collection of songs. One of his most successful tracks, “Gin and Juice,” includes lyrics about smoking “indo,” a slang term for marijuana.
He has been a vocal supporter of the legalization of marijuana and has spoken candidly about his affinity for the drug. In 2015, he launched Leafs by Snoop, a line of marijuana strains. The following year, he began producing a show for MTV about two snake people who run a marijuana-delivery business.
However, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and other rappers who have glamorized marijuana use often fail to mention its consequences. Short-term side effects of cannabis use include memory loss, hallucinations and psychosis. Long-term use of the drug has been linked to temporary paranoia, suicidal thoughts and worsening of symptoms of schizophrenia.
Despite its health risks, marijuana continues to be championed by rappers today.
Xanax, Ecstasy and Codeine Celebrated in Rap Community
In the 2000s, Xanax, ecstasy and codeine pervaded rap culture.
Xanax is a benzodiazepine that is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. The drug slows brain activity, helping people feel relaxed. Because of its euphoric properties, a host of rappers over the years — from Eminem to Kanye West — have espoused the drug in music.
Contemporary rap artist Future has bragged about his Xanax use in numerous songs. In his track “56 Nights,” the rap star claims to have taken 56 Xanax pills in a month. The song prompted fellow rapper OG Maco to accuse Future of encouraging people to use drugs.
In another song, “Just Like Bruddas,” Future talks about taking Xanax to deal with tough times in his life. The drug is commonly misused among Americans, including one of rap music’s largest demographic of fans: teens.
In 2016, approximately 8 percent of teens used tranquilizers and sedatives, including Xanax, according to the Monitoring the Future survey, an annual report funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that examines drug, alcohol and cigarette use and related attitudes among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders.
Ecstasy is another frequently referenced drug in rap music. This synthetic drug contains mood-altering properties that produce feelings of pleasure, warmth and energy. Also known as molly and MDMA, the drug often shows up at nightclubs and concerts.
In 2012, a string of rap songs referring to MDMA use were released. Kanye West’s hit “Mercy” alluded to the euphoric effects of e cstasy. By the end of the year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens website had experienced a spike in the number of searches for the term “molly.”
“When people with a social platform are willing to go public about their issues, it gives the rest of society permission to also talk about their struggles within their smaller social circles.”
References to codeine, a drug repeatedly cited in music over the last decade, may also influence fans. In recent years, a trend within the rap community has involved mixing codeine-based cough syrup with soda or candy to produce a drug cocktail called “sizzurp,” also known as “purple drank,” or “lean.”
Listeners often associate Lil Wayne with this codeine-based mixture. The artist raps about it in his music and openly drinks the concoction during media appearances.
In “We Takin’ Over,” he declares his love of drinking Sprite that has an “Easter-pink” hue, a color produced by mixing prescription codeine with soda. He reveres the mixture in “Me and My Drank” and exposes the highs and lows of codeine use in “I Feel Like Dying.”
Dr. Chris Johnson, an emergency room physician, said that codeine-based cough medicine can be as dangerous as other opioids and that misusing these medications can result in serious physical and psychological problems.
“It’s a controlled drug,” Johnson told DrugRehab.com. “You can’t buy codeine over the counter.”
Codeine misuse can cause shallow breathing, lightheadedness, hallucinations or confusion, low cortisol levels and seizures. Mixing codeine with prescription cough syrup can result in nervous system or respiratory depression.
In 2008, Lil Wayne talked to MTV about his dependence to lean, stating that loved ones have pleaded with him to stop using the drug but that cutting cold turkey is not easy. Abstaining from the drink, the New Orleans-based rapper said, makes his stomach feel “like death.”
Raising Awareness for Addiction, Mental Illness
Lil Wayne isn’t the only rap artist to deal with drug dependence. A number of rappers of all backgrounds have grappled with substance use disorders.
Eminem understands the pitfalls of addiction all too well. The Grammy Award-winning artist was addicted to prescription painkillers for years. When he began using opioids, he experienced a burst of euphoria he had never before felt.
“When I took my first Vicodin, it was like this feeling of ‘Ahh,'” he said in “How To Make Money Selling Drugs,” a 2012 documentary about drug dealing. “Like everything was not only mellow, but [I] didn’t feel any pain.”
Eminem isn’t sure when his opioid addiction developed. In 2006, after the death of a friend, he began abusing Vicodin, one of the most dispensed prescription painkillers in the United States. During this time, he also began misusing Xanax and other sedative medications.
“I couldn’t believe that anybody could be naturally happy without being on something. So I would say to anybody: ‘It does get better.'”
But one opioid led to another, and in 2007, Eminem accidentally overdosed on methadone, an opioid agonist medication, and was rushed to the emergency room.
“My organs were shutting down,” he said. “My liver, kidneys, everything.”
A month after his release from the hospital, Eminem relapsed. At that point, he thought addiction would kill him. He eventually entered long-term sobriety after detoxing without medical supervision, though this practice is considered by physicians to be a dangerous approach to overcoming addiction.
He stays sober by meeting with a rehab counselor once a week.
He told the director of the film, “I couldn’t believe that anybody could be naturally happy without being on something. So I would say to anybody: ‘It does get better.'”
Eminem has spoken candidly about his past struggles with substance use. Several other rappers, from Macklemore to Kendrick Lamar, have relayed the dangers of drug abuse through song. Instead of glorifying the behavior, a bevy of rap artists speak of addiction in a more somber tone.
One of those artists is Chance the Rapper. In his song “Finish Line/Drown,” he explained how his addiction to Xanax led to memory problems and lost opportunities in his career. In an interview with GQ magazine, he spoke more extensively about his addiction to the antianxiety medication.
Xanax the new Heroin. Don't let em fool u— Lil Chano From 79th (@chancetherapper) March 2, 2015
As he explained, in 2014, when he began experiencing success in his career, Chance moved to North Hollywood and was high on Xanax every day. His addiction resulted in broken relationships and a lack of productivity. Six months later, he moved back to Chicago, his hometown, and stopped using drugs.
Before his death from a suspected overdose in 2017, Lil Peep talked about his depression in an interview with Pitchfork. The rapper and YouTube star said that he moved to California to distance himself from the people and places that led to his mental illness. But he continued to battle depressive thoughts, including suicidal ideations.
“Some days I’ll be very down and out, but you won’t be able to tell, really, because I don’t express that side of myself on social media. That’s the side of myself that I express through music.”
“Some days I’ll be very down and out, but you won’t be able to tell, really, because I don’t express that side of myself on social media,” he said. “That’s the side of myself that I express through music.”
His music covers topics ranging from depression and suicide to benzodiazepine use. In his song “U Said,” he talks about dealing with the emotional pain of a broken relationship by popping pills and getting high.
In November 2017, Lil Peep posted a series of messages, images and videos to Instagram. In one post, he talked about how he relied on prescription pills for happiness, but that the feeling was always fleeting.
Another post read: “When I die You’ll Love me.”
On Nov. 15, 2017, Lil Peep was found unresponsive in his tour bus prior to a show in Tucson, Arizona. He was pronounced dead after emergency responders were unable to revive him. Police believe that he might have overdosed on Xanax.
More artists have opened up about mental illness, which often co-occurs with addiction. Mainstream rappers have spoken candidly about topics such as anxiety and depression to raise awareness and eliminate stigma.
In 2017, the rapper Logic released “1-800-273-8255,” a song intended to bring awareness to suicide — a common outcome of drug addiction and mental health disorders. CNN reported that after Logic performed the song at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline rose by 50 percent.
Like many other successful rappers, Logic has a painful past.
His parents were addicted to alcohol. His father also battled a crack cocaine addiction. His brothers sold crack and were frequently incarcerated, and his mother and sisters endured sexual abuse. His traumatic upbringing brought on bouts of anxiety and depression.
In his music, he reveals the mental health problems that have plagued him for years.
“I’ve never talked about this subject matter before, and I was scared out of my mind,” Logic told talk show host Tavis Smiley. “I discuss … race, mental health, suicide, anxiety, so many things. It was very scary [to talk about]. But I’m glad I did it.”
Opening the dialogue about these topics can reduce the negativity associated with mental illness and steer impressionable listeners away from drugs and alcohol.
“The more people share their own struggles of addiction and mental health issues, the less the stigma associated with these issues will exist,” said Kolsch. “Shame about the issues perpetuates the stigma. Talking about it goes against the shame that keeps people sick in their secrets.”
The Importance of Treatment
People of all backgrounds can experience mental illness. But African-Americans are 20 percent more likely than the general population to endure a severe mental health disorder, such as major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“My anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house because of it.”
Despite this, African-Americans, who account for the majority of mainstream rap artists, largely do not seek treatment. This may be due to socio-economic factors or distrust of the U.S. health care system. As a result, many black rappers are not getting the help they need.
But Jay-Z believes that black musicians should be cognizant of their well-being.
“We have to watch our health — our physical health and what we’re doing with our bodies, but also our mental health.” Jay-Z said on Rap Radar podcast, a leg of the music streaming service TIDAL. “A lot of people [are] going through trauma … and you’re too embarrassed to get help for it.”
Rapper Kid Cudi’s troubles with co-occurring disorders are well-known. Early in his career, he used cocaine and marijuana to cope with newfound fame and alleviate his years-long battle with anxiety and depression.
In October 2016, he reluctantly sought treatment for depression and suicidal urges.
“My anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house because of it,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “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.”
Kid Cudi isn’t alone. Through the years, various high-profile rappers have entered rehab for substance abuse or mental health problems.
Macklemore, who struggled with opioid addiction, entered a rehab facility at age 25. He told MTV in 2014 that treatment saved his life. Today, he regularly attends 12-step programs, which are self-help meetings designed to treat destructive behaviors, including substance misuse.
“In terms of recovery, it has been very important for me to be a part of a recovery community, to actively be around my people because they understand me,” said Macklemore.
A shifting attitude toward addiction and mental illness has taken place among the rap community. From Macklemore speaking with Obama about opioid abuse to Logic releasing a song about suicide awareness, more rappers today are bringing these subjects to the forefront.
“When people with a social platform are willing to go public about their issues,” explained Kolsch, “it gives the rest of society permission to also talk about their struggles within their smaller social circles.”
This evolution in rap music may be one that benefits society.
“For years, artists have talked about their struggles in lyrics, but it’s metaphorical and hard to identify,” said Beeson. “Now they are making it more explicit and providing hope for recovery, and that completes the narrative.”