As so claimed by pop culture luminaries like Kanye West and Lil Uzi Vert, rappers are the new rockstars. It may seem strange that big hair and power chords has been replaced by bigger chains and trap beats, but the idea feels irrefutable now—rappers occupy the cultural space rockstars once did. They’re the cool kids and less-cool kids are looking at them to know how to be cooler.
If that’s the case, you may be wondering what a rockstar looks like in 2017. For that, we somehow look to Post Malone, of all things. His latest smash record, tallying six weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, is called “rockstar.” Its hook: “I’ve been f***** hoes and poppin’ pillies / Man I feel just like a rockstar.”
While attracting women has always been included in the rockstar image, the “poppin’ pillies” line almost grates the ears for the unnitiated. Pill-popping means you’re a rockstar? But mentions of Xanax and Adderall and other name-brand pills have been creeping into hip hop for the past couple years. Golden Boy Chance the Rapper has admitted to overcoming a problematic relationship with Xanax while Lil Uzi Vert’s slimy, anti-summer anthem “XO Tour Llif3” screams out in pain, “Xanny, make it go away.”
The first memorable mention of this particular substance abuse alteration was probably Travis Scott’s zonked-out single “Antidote.” Caustically, he boasts, “Poppin’ pills is all we know.” His 2016 record Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight narratively dovetailed with Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade as two rappers tumbling into substance abuse battles, Xanax appearing chiefly yet again. By album’s end, each MC emerges hazy-eyed, achieving something approaching understanding, though you feel Rashad receding from the pillie demons while you worry over Scott’s intransigence that, really guys, he’s got it under control.
This all serves as prelude to our current tragedy. Reports last week announced the passing of Lil Peep. Aged only 21, he was the tattoo-covered rising star who so embodied the trending sad boy heartthrob aesthetic popular amongst the Instagram generation. One glance at his pink-dyed dreadlocks and emoji-like grin and anyone over the age of 30 would likely have dismissed him.
But many were convinced he’d be this generation’s biggest icon. Music critic Jon Caramanica wrote an extensive, positive New York Times story regarding rap’s new emo scene. It prominently featured Lil Peep, “who over the last 24 months has evolved into something like the scene’s Kurt Cobain, with several astonishingly gloomy and diabolically melodic releases, and a body that is in constant flux: hair dyed one color after another, an anarchy sign and the word ‘crybaby’ tattooed on his face.”
Like Cobain, Peep is gone too soon. The county medical examiner ruled that he died of a suspected overdose. He died in his sleep napping before his Tucson, Arizona show. His manager discovered him, attempted CPR, but she was unable to wake him.
This kind of tragedy causes massive ripple effects in a genre ripe with drug use glorification and one-upmanship. I previously wrote about this developing trend of wobbly, minor-key anthems drowning in sardonically flippant brags that carried the same tone of a desperate plea. It’s just as pervasive in mainstream artists like The Weeknd and Future, as it is in up-and-comers like Uzi and Lil Pump. I mean, there’s literally a guy who calls himself Lil Xan!
This trend caused various commentaries from those within the hip hop community. You had internet rap star Russ with his very acrid, very on-branded criticism, when he wore a shirt after a show that read, “How much xans and lean do you have to do before you realize you’re a fucking loser.” To which fellow rapper Fredo Santana replied he’ll stop when “I can stop thinking about my dead homies and the trauma that I’ve been through in my life.”
After show. Message. pic.twitter.com/O0SKRjELk7
— RUSS (@russdiemon) September 11, 2017
Until I can stop thinking bout my dead homies an the trauma that I been thru in my life that's when I'll stop ? https://t.co/DEPi82FvNL
— FREDO SANTANA SSR (@FREDOSANTANA300) September 12, 2017
However, you uncomfortably suspect some of this pill-popping culture is a sedative aesthetic used to attract attention. Future himself has admitted to lying about substance addiction in his song because “it’s a catch.” In one Hot 97 interview Meek Mill opening up about quitting Percocets than later freestyling for DJ Funk Flex about “poppin’ Percs” because it sounds cool.
You might scroll Lil Peep’s Instagram page and contend this was someone seriously struggling. But even for Peep the pain and pills were exaggerated.
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“It makes me laugh to think about the days we watched WWE together but [Peep] mentioned how being a hip-hop artist is like being a pro-wrestling character. You have to be an actor,” Peep’s brother Oskar told People. “He gets paid to be sad. It’s what he made his name on. It’s what his image was in a sense.”
Various members of the hip hop community reacted to Lil Peep’s death. These same criticisms of the genre’s glorification of drug abuse filtered in. Some defended the cultural and institutional pathologies that lead to such usage but none pierced through quite like Lil Uzi Vert’s. He posted the following:
We Would love 2 stop …..
But Do You Really Care Cause We Been On Xanax All Fucking Year ..????.
Rip Buddy I 100% Understand and I Don't Fault U ? ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;® pic.twitter.com/AYBvQCDcJy
— Uzi London ?☄️?® (@LILUZIVERT) November 16, 2017
Sober 2 day I have been shaking.
I have been cursing my love ones out and fighting
In the studio with no thoughts in my head
Teeth biting down because I just wanna be angry at something ……
maybe I will just smoke weed tonight ;;;;?®
— Uzi London ?☄️?® (@LILUZIVERT) November 17, 2017
Not many artists would be so honest, nor would you expect someone like Uzi to react with a stint of sobriety. But if Lil Peep’s passing teaches us anything, it’s that both may be more necessary than we thought.