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On Rap’s Commodification of Opiate Abuse

    Lil Wayne noted in a XXL interview that a recovering addict once complimented his drug-addled musical content because it made him feel high. ATLien Future has followed Wayne’s lead by flooding 2015 with projects that serve as odes to opiate consumption. The double cup, which many “pour up” into, has become a part of Hip-Hop iconography. Why does it feel like rap is becoming one big opiate commercial?

    Lyrics about drugs such as Xanax and opiates such as codeine cough syrup and Vicodin aren’t new, but they’re acutely prevalent in 2016. As with anything else namedropped in Hip-Hop, it’s become a part of popular culture. Over the past five years syrup, bka “lean”—a codeine based cough syrup/soda concoction– has become glorified to the point where people are selling socks and shirts of codeine syrup labels. Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates is even selling energy drinks with cans that resemble bottles of Actavis cough syrup.


    Lean is a major theme in modern trap music, as the subgenre’s murky soundscapes replicate the slowing effects of a codeine high. Lean has become to trap music what weed was to G-Funk, and what Cristal was to materialistic turn of the century Hip-Hop. Because of lean’s pervasive presence, it’s easy to see why so many Millennials are getting wrapped up in the “everything is purple” wave. As seen by the robo-tripping epidemic, teens and young adults are at considerable risk to fall prey to over-the-counter drug addiction. That may be exactly what the avaricious healthcare and prison industries want.

    Opiates are generally prescribed to people suffering from anxiety, and usage has skyrocketed in the past 20 years. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioid prescriptions have escalated from 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013. Excessive consumption of opiates depresses the respiratory system, and the effects can be fatal. Opioid overdoses tripled in that same period, with 16,651 deaths in 2010.

    The Hip-Hop world has seen its own tragedies, with Houston legends DJ Screw, Big Moe and Pimp C suffering syrup-related deaths. Budding Hip-Hop executive ASAP Yams died in January 2015 of a lethal drug combination including Xanax, Valium and codeine. Producer/rapper Speaker Knockers allegedly died of a heart attack at the premature age of 19. Though his death wasn’t definitively caused by codeine abuse, excessive consumption of lean can damage the lining of the heart muscles.


    Even as artists who’ve glorified the drug have died, it hasn’t put a halt to it’s popularity. It could be argued that lean, Xanax, and other opiates are as popular as ever in Hip-Hop culture. Trap music started as a drug dealer narrative but today’s incarnation consists of murky, autotune-dependent jingles that focus heavily on drug use.

    On an episode of the Tax Season podcast, lawyer Kenneth Montgomery and host Tax Stone noted the prevalence of opiates, specifically Xanax, in the Black community. Montgomery noted that the Black community is “refusing to embrace information” when it comes to the power of a propagandist media to sell destruction. Montgomery further noted that before the crack era, Black communities were plagued by a heroin epidemic. Today’s opiate obsession seems like a re-emergence of that plague, except now it has a soundtrack. Why is the dope fiend lean frowned upon but the codeine lean romanticized?


                                                  A Heroin User vs. a Lean User

    Perhaps it has something to do with the lucrativity of chemical dependency. Opiate prescriptions (and illegal usage) have spiked worldwide, and as mentioned in a previous article, the U.S. has attained control of Afghan poppy fields which gross billions in annual heroin sales. Guess what the New York Times noted as potential gateway drugs for heroin use?

    No individual artist is entitled to base their music on how socially redeeming it is, but it would seem that the overwhelmingly negative macro-consequences of opiate addiction would make more follow Lil Boosie’s lead and re-think their imbalanced representation of the concoction. It’s not as if the artists who champion lean usage are healthily staring down at a suffering society from ivory towers. They’re just as susceptible to the repercussions of addiction, which include seizures, kidney failure, constipation, and changes in nerve cell function.

    Wayne nearly died in 2013 after a seizure caused by a lean overdose, and is currently facing myriad financial problems. It could be argued that if he didn’t spend much of the past decade dealing with lean addiction, he would have been more on top of his paperwork.


    Trapstar Gucci Mane at one point embraced being a face of lean and pill use, and the Hip-Hop media gleefully made him a mascot for reckless living. As funny as it was to laugh at his “get money gut,” the protrusion was most likely a result of bloating and constipation that occurs with lean consumption. Gucci blames his 2013 twitter meltdown and subsequent erratic behavior on a lean addiction which “destroyed” him.


    LA rapper Schoolboy Q has admitted “I love [lean]. But I don’t want to.” He also said lean disrupted his creative process, lamenting in 2014 “music-wise I suck.” Combustible singer Chris Brown noted the same in a Hot 97 Interview, “crediting” the drug with making him irritable, impulsive, and too sleepy to create.

    Future’s “Substitute Everything” record was equally revelatory, as it discusses self-medicating with opiates (and other vices) to offset depression. When it comes to opiate abuse, there are some voices of reason, but they’re getting drowned out by groupthink and irresistible jingles.

    It would be easy to solely blame rappers for promoting drugs, but they’re suffering just as much as the average opiate abuser. In the midst of today’s painkiller/codeine epidemic, pharmaceutical companies, record labels, and jailhouses seem to be the primary entities benefitting from the destruction and disillusionment of millions.


    Is this circumstance a coincidence, or an example of Hip-Hop’s influence being used by its corporate infrastructure to irresponsibly advocate nihilism? Grown people are going to do what they want, but many youth simply do what they see. Lean is a sweet, colorful, highly addictive concoction. If that isn’t enough to sway impressionable minds, today’s biggest stars are venerating it nonstop over hypnotic beats.

    As much as Future’s “March Madness” bangs, it’s hard not to think about the travails of opiate use in the midst of it. Xan with that lean may sound like an intriguing combination, but shitting your pants from withdrawal isn’t as amusing. Opiates don’t have dire results when used in moderation, but the romanticism of lean within Hip-Hop culture doesn’t advocate for moderation.

    Opiates aren’t just killing people, they’re killing the productivity of artists, which ultimately affects the art. Additionally, there is an undeniable link between the ubiquity of opiate promotion and the financial windfall being experienced by the American corporatocracy.  For these reasons, artists would do better to put the double cup down, or at least sip slow enough to see the bigger picture with a clear head.
    Andre G is a writer, poet, music producer and co-founder of, a platform for young artists of color. @melaninaire