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Xanax: the drug that defined the decade and changed rap

In the 2010s a crisis spread across America like wildfire, taking some of hip-hop’s brightest stars with it

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

Every decade has a drug that infiltrates music. In the 1960s and 1970s, LSD and heroin helped musicians break on through to the other side, while cocaine gave 1980s pop music its turbo charge. Fast-forward to the 2010s, and it’s opioids that now have a grip over some of music’s biggest stars. 

Their impact is particularly evident in the world of rap. Opioid-based drugs like lean (a potentially dangerous concoction created by combining codeine cough syrup with Sprite and hard candy) and Percocet, as well as benzodiazepines like Xanax, are more likely to be referenced on a hit song than weed or alcohol (Future’s gargantuan 2016 hit “Mask Off” was literally built around a chorus where the word Percocet is repeated over and over). And this is mirrored by the sound of the music itself, which has inherited slow, spaced-out drums and subdued bass, as rappers channel the numbing effects of the Xan bars they’ve just ingested via sleepy vocals and mumbled, melancholic lyrics. 

It isn’t uncommon to see rappers dribbling and falling asleep during interviews, or enthusiastically posting pictures with prescription pills on the tip of their tongue on Instagram (as Lil Peep did just hours before fatally overdosing on his tour bus). Meanwhile, Drake, still arguably the biggest rapper on the planet, nonchalantly referenced taking Xans to help him get to sleep on one of the biggest rap songs of the decade.

“It’s wild because in the 1980s and 1990s it was attractive to be the entrepreneurial dope dealer, but now it’s cooler for rappers to be the actual drug addicts; it’s a whole different flip,” says 25-year-old producer DJ Fu. He produces songs for Schoolboy Q, Meek Mill, and Lil Xan; the latter a rapper who made his name, quite literally, through his links with drugs, and someone Fu considers to be one of his “best friends”. “At one point, you were looked at as crazy and completely discredited if you were addicted to drugs, but now it’s cool to be barred out. It’s glorified. If LeBron wears Jordans then everyone wants to buy those sneakers, and it’s the same with rap. If Future is rapping about pissing codeine then people will want to imitate him as he’s the king.”

Yet following the shock death of Juice WRLD – who last week, aged just 21, reportedly consumed a fatal dose of percocet on his private jet, and was later described by his mother, Carmella Wallace, as having long “battled with prescription drug dependency” – some are asking whether rap culture’s ties to opioids and benzodiazepines is becoming a serious problem. It’s a view perhaps backed up by this decade’s deaths of Lil Peep and Mac Miller, who both accidentally overdosed on the opioid fentanyl by taking black market Xanax pills, as well as Kanye West’s claims that being “strung out” on opioids fuelled many of his mental health issues. 

New Jersey producer Clams Casino worked with both Lil Peep and Mac Miller at pivotal points in their careers, and has witnessed first hand how problematic drug use has crept into rap culture. “There’s a kid dying every weekend, and artists too,” he reflects soberly. “There are rappers who were making incredible music that was giving millions of young people hope, but now they’re dead and they can’t help anybody. There are artists who made good music for three years and then they died. Other rappers need to look at that and realise it’s not healthy. Maybe (because of the deaths of Miller and Peep) people who used to rap about drugs are now thinking about it differently. I sure hope so.”

“There’s a kid dying every weekend, and artists too. There are rappers who were making incredible music that was giving millions of young people hope, but now they’re dead and they can’t help anybody” – Clams Casino

References to lean have been common in rap for some time now, especially in the South, where late artists like DJ Screw and Pimp C turned holding double cups into an art form. But Clams credits Lil Wayne as being the first rapper to enigmatically talk about opioids and benzos in a way that really shifted people’s attention on a mass scale, perhaps lighting the fuse for artists like Lil Pump and Lil Xan to ignite their rap careers by using drug references as a pastiche, but also a gimmick. “Wayne was referencing drugs that people didn’t traditionally rap about using. It was a big turning point,” Clams explains.

However, not every artist is as comfortable with being seen as a drug rapper in 2019 as they were at the start of the decade. “I feel bad about it as I was at the forefront of this shit,” concedes Detroit rap renegade Danny Brown, an artist many credit with being one of the first rappers to explicitly reference using prescription drugs in his music, earning the nickname ‘the Adderall Admiral’ in the process. “Back then it was like, how can I be edgy?” he explains. “Everyone was talking about gangster shit and shooting or gangbanging, so talking about opioids and pills was my way to be different. I knew people could relate to that.”

People can definitely relate. Although opioids and benzos were once associated with bored housewives, they’ve filtered through to every part of American society, particularly the inner cities. An estimated 10.3 million Americans aged 12 and older misused opioids in 2018, including 9.9 million prescription pain reliever abusers and 808,000 heroin users. And Xanax, in particular, was a factor in more than a third of fatal prescription drug overdoses in the US, according to data released last year from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Benzos like Xanax and Valium are no longer just available for America’s middle classes, but easily purchasable on street corners and the dark web. Rap is just mirroring the issues of wider society, as it did when the crack epidemic tore across America in the 1980s and 90s. “I knew that only a certain amount of people could relate to hustling, but everyone right now can relate to drugs and sex in America,” reaffirms Brown of his initial aims.

“I knew that only a certain amount of people could relate to hustling, but everyone right now can relate to drugs and sex in America” – Danny Brown

The mature, philosophical, 38-year-old Danny Brown I’m talking to today is a lot different to the manic one with unkempt hair and dilated pupils who freely joked about dangerously taking drugs on albums like 2011’s XXX and 2013’s Old, once describing going to rehab as “pussy” and using Xanax in order to “maintain”. It’s worth noting that on these records Brown was showing drug abuse as a form of self-destruction, delivering these lyrics with a dread-inducing enthusiasm intended to mirror a rock star dangerously caught up in their own mythology and staring into the abyss, even while sitting on the top of the world. This is evident in the satirical music video of “Ain’t It Funny”, which shows how tragic people, who are clearly in pain, have become commodities and everyday entertainment fixtures in American pop culture.

Yet the fact Brown now regrets these kind of lyrics feels significant, an admission that perhaps this message didn’t filter through to everybody and that just referencing these drugs might be problematic, particularly now he’s aware of how the record industry recklessly uses addiction as a form of entertainment to sell records and appeal directly to young people (the music video for “Be Like Me” by Lil Pump, who is signed to Warner, literally shows him advising a school full of young students how to do lean). “I feel bad about it as it sparked a whole bunch of kids rapping about drugs,” Brown adds. “Back in the day you had studio gangsters, people who weren’t at all active in the street, but still rapped about shooting millions of people. Now it’s the same with these drug rappers; they don’t even do Xans like that, yet they rap about them just to sound cool.”

It’s something DJ Fu very much agrees with. “Remember, this is a business,” he advises. “If you think all these kids are on Xanax barred out of their mind, then that’s ridiculous. If that was the case, there would be no music, there would be no shows, as their productivity would not exist. In my experience, 80 per cent of the big rappers who talk about these drugs don’t do them. It’s all a marketing plan. It’s entertainment, like the WWE.”

Although the UK isn’t experiencing a full-blown opioid epidemic like America, the numbers show it’s still becoming a problem – prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers have increased by more than 60 per cent in the past decade. Official statistics show Tramadol was implicated in 220 drug-related deaths in England in 2018 compared to just seven in 1998. And Oxycodone, the opioid many believe is at the centre of America’s epidemic, was implicated in 79 deaths in England in 2018 compared to zero deaths just ten years earlier.

“What I can say for certain is that four or five years ago we might hear Xanax or Lean mentioned one in every 20 or so sets of young people,” notes Nick Hickmott, who works as a harm reduction worker at drug charity Addaction UK. “Now we cover them in 95 per cent of our sessions. To give you an idea, the majority of these groups are with 15 to 21-year-olds. There is no way to tell by looking at these drugs how strong they might be so from a harm reduction point of view, it’s very tough to manage.”

Although he is keen to point out the fact that 52 per cent of all drugs are now available through the dark web, and that this accessibility has also fuelled a rise in opioid and benzo use, Hickmott claims that rap has, in part, helped boost their popularity, a view the DEA has also pushed in the US. “The fact SoundCloud and mumble rap directly references these drugs is a coping mechanism to take the edge off the devastation of living within an opiate crisis in US society,” Hickmott adds. “This coping mechanism was streamed straight into the ears of young people who could relate to the troubled artists, who are not dissimilar in age and have this shared suffering. The way we dress, how we speak, the drugs we choose to use – our identities are shaped by the culture we are immersed in (and that right now is rap). high profile celebrities using Xanax has played a role in increasing numbers of young people using the drug, especially the ones we see.”

Xanax is a benzodiazepine that enhances gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain and regulates electrical activity. As GABA increases during a Xanax high, neurons are dampened down, causing a depressant effect. This can reduce anxiety and associated stress and make the user feel relaxed and calm, but it can also drive paranoia and feelings of isolation. Perhaps, therefore, it was inevitable that a genre like rap, which is built on artists exorcising their demons and cathartically sharing their inner turmoil, would eventually be gripped by Xanax, a drug that essentially numbs pain and destroy their inhibitions.

On Lil Peep’s dark “Beamer Boy”, an anthem for anyone who has ever felt anxious and like they’re drowning under the weight of expectation, the artist lists through all the pressures modern rappers face, particularly maintaining an image of being always high, as he reveals: “They want that real shit / They want that drug talk, that I can’t feel shit.” Yet later in the verse, Peep admits that trying to live up to this legend has only led to him feeling isolated and detached from reality. It’s particularly difficult to listen to now knowing Peep was found dead on his tour bus, with his mother currently suing his management for neglect. As the years go by, “Beamer Boy” sounds more and more like a cautionary tale.

It makes me wonder if many of the rappers who use opioids and benzos are doing so because they can’t escape their own mythology. This anxiety was seemingly backed up by Future’s admission that he was scared to tell his fans he had given up taking lean for fear of losing popularity. “Sounds about right to me,” agrees DJ Fu. “Rappers get caught up in the hype and the illusion too though. At one point, I was scared Lil Xan was going to die, but he stopped hanging out with the wrong people and that helped. He wants to be a positive force now.” Fu adds that Xanax has “become a muse. Some rappers need a muse to make their music, and the numbness of Xanax speaks to how isolated they feel. But the pressure to maintain that kind of energy also isn’t easy.”

“Some rappers need a muse to make their music, and the numbness of Xanax speaks to how isolated they feel. But the pressure to maintain that kind of energy also isn’t easy” – DJ Fu

So what about the next generation of rappers? And do they feel a pressure to rap about Xans in order to sell records? “Things are shifting as of late, especially the last six to 12 months, and I think the drug talk in music has gone way down,” says emerging St. Louis rapper and singer JAYLIEN, whose melodic pop rap song “We Fcuk” has over three million streams on Spotify. “You still hear the occasional molly or cocaine talk, but it’s not glorified as much since the deaths of some of our peers. I think music is shifting back to good vibes, fun, and quality.”

For Chicago’s Chris Crack – a promising underground emcee with surrealist lyrics and a co-sign from Earl Sweatshirt, who is currently in the studio with Madlib working on a new album – history won’t be kind to rap’s Xanax era at all. “This era of history will be tucked away to never be seen again,” he claims. “It’s like how nobody talks about how flamboyant the rappers of the 80s dressed. The goofy ass zombie rappers on xans will be laughed at and made fun of like clowns. It is not ‘cool’ anymore. The people who keep on doing it just won’t admit that they have a problem and can’t stop.”

His comments are harsh, but it does feel like rap built around Xanax references has started to fade as the decade closes out. No one wants to become another casualty like Juice WRLD or Lil Peep. Hearing rappers like Lil Pump rap, “Yes I’m ignorant and don’t give a fuck / I take drugs like Vitamin C,” on hit singles just doesn’t feel like the right message in an era where thousands of young people are addicted to opioids and dying well before their time. But for Danny Brown, the fact so much of the media’s attention is focused on rappers talking about opioids is ultimately a distraction and the wrong place to direct their anger. “Where I’m from (Detroit), fentanyl and heroin is killing people right now. But prescription drugs are what started this wave. These big pharmaceutical companies are the worst in the sense that some of them are government owned and they are making profits from people being addicted (to opioids).” 

For Chris Crack, the fact that opioids and benzos started as drugs used by middle class white people to deal with anxiety and have graduated to a full-blown epidemic carries a twisted irony. “The opioid crisis is to white people what crack was to black, although they don’t go to jail or die nearly as much as we did,” he says. “Hmm, I wonder why that is?”

History might be kind to the Xan era for the psychedelic trap and experimental emo rap it inspired, but we might equally look back at these years as a nightmare where promising artists sleepwalked into early graves. What is undeniable is that Xanax is a drug that speaks deeply to the anxiety-riddled social media age of the 2010s, a decade where artists lived their lives through the instant gratification of social media and young people coped with an increase in precarity, a decline in living standards, and a planet caught in an irreversible climate emergency. For many people, Xans were a way to cope with these pressures, and rap was the soundtrack.