During a recent tweet storm, mercurial New Jersey-born, Atlanta-based rapper Russ stated, “Doing Xanax and lean (because) your favorite rapper makes it sound cool is all fun and games, ‘til your impressionable ass gets addicted. Stop.”
Technically, he’s right, but that simple “stop” at the end sounds sort of like when I see my people say or tweet out “Black people have to do better” — as if those eight letters automatically infuse us with everything we need to immediately reverse the effects of 400 years of oppression.
It’s rarely ever as simple as “I stopped doing highly addictive substances because someone said stop.” I’m sure the 91 people who die everyday from an opioid overdose wish, on some level, that they could “just stop.” Russ has the right sentiment — even if it’s not as earth-shattering as he believes to say drugs are bad — but his approach, from the tweets, to the “f*cking loser” condemnation on his shirt was a little heavy-handed, and his tonality is not really a big surprise for those who’ve been following his career thus far.
Russ has quickly built up a reputation as the kind of guy who says what’s on his mind and doesn’t have any qualms about it, which is exactly what you’d expect someone named “Vitale” from New Jersey to be like. His heart-on-the-sleeve approach is admirable, but an issue like drug use in hip-hop, which is an extension of drug use in the black community (and in the greater American community), deserves a more complicated examination than a GOP-esque “you’re a f*cking loser” stamp.
Perhaps fellow rapper Fredo Santana’s reply that he’ll stop using Xanax and lean when “I can stop thinking about my dead homies and the trauma that I’ve been through in my life,” was lost amidst the memes and wholehearted co-signs of Russ’s rant. But trauma, and its lingering psychological effects, isn’t something that can be dismissed or retorted to in 140 characters.
Now, Russ’ calling out of the commodification of drug use in hip-hop isn’t completely off base. I hate it. I hated that Meek Mill talked to Hot 97 about getting off Percocets, then went and freestyled about “poppin’ Percs” because he thinks it still sounds fly.
I hate that many misguided, impressionable kids may start pouring up and popping pills because of social conditioning and the fact that music can and does influence behavior on some level. I think that Future being able to make a smash merely rhyming “molly, Percocet” on the hook sounds like something straight off The Boondocks. Songs full of nihilism — whatever the explanation — are a scourge in hip-hop that sometimes makes it feel like a guilty pleasure.
A glance through Youtube at the video interviews of rappers bragging about how much they spend on lean a month/year will also pull up related suggestions where they’re also talking about being shot, being shot at, having people around them get killed, and/or growing up in squalor. There are numerous studies stating that youth facing the kind of violent realities that many of these artists rap about are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological condition that’s primarily associated with war veterans. But can you imagine Russ calling a veteran suffering from addiction a “f*cking loser”” No — no one would.
Rigid moralism aside, most adults can honestly admit that they partake in a couple (or maybe more) bad habits to get by — and most of us don’t have to block out walking outside and worrying about getting killed everyday, as G Herbo, among others, has admitted about his hometown of Chicago.
The insensitivity to that trauma is what’s lost in Russ’ impromptu anti-drugs campaign, which is why so many people simply scoffed at it, in the same way Dame Dash’s legitimate points about economic empowerment get washed away in his “you should call your boss daddy” hyperbole. The absence of any nuance in Russ’ tweets made them sound less like a legitimate call for hip-hop to confront addiction and more like a self-serving ploy to keep his run of mainstream press going.
When it comes to hip-hop, it’s never just about the glorification of subtances if you listen hard enough. Of all the artists most tabbed with glorifying drug use, including Future, Lil Wayne, and Gucci Mane, each of them have songs that shed light on the trauma and depression behind their drug use.
Take Future for example. It was literally a joke that we tend to just turn up to his depressed, existential musings, like “I gave up on my conscience, gotta live with it” on DS2’s moody “I Serve The Base.” But back on one of my favorite Future songs, the 2013 track “Substitute Everything,” he delves honestly into his addictions. Despite his denial in the past over extensive drug use (during a custody battle with ex-fiance Ciara over their son), I don’t think these rhymes are purely fictional:
I believe hard times made me like this
I don’t leave the studio, I like making hits
There’s broken relationships that I can’t fix
I got bad habits I picked up, I can’t kick
I need my herb, I need my syrup
Now I’m free like a bird
I make a lot of mill’s, I had to pop a pill
Just to get a thrill
You don’t know how I feel
On the other hand, Gucci Mane’s transformation is one of the best things to happen recently in hip-hop, as he changed from a guy who was giddy at the sight of lean to frank, public conversation about how his abuse fed his dysfunction, and vice versa.
Every time Lil Wayne winds up in the hospital with a seizure, despite the protests that he and his team put forth that these are the result of a long-time battle with epilepsy, I think about the lyrics to “I Feel Like Dying” and “weed and syrup ‘til I die / as a matter of fact, it’s probably gonna kill me.” While the official word is that he is an epileptic who doesn’t get enough rest, between him being photographed with double styrofoam cups and doctors advising that Promethazine can cause seizures, something isn’t right there.
Thinking through the issue beyond soapbox fodder has made me realize, as I’ve noted in the past, that hip-hop artists are not diabolical tacticians strategizing on a blackboard about ways to destroy America, they’re reflections of the same broken system that other addicts are trying to navigate. Furthermore, it would serve Russ and others well to realize that not all social commentary in hip-hop has to be positive or political. Artists reflect the times, no matter what topics they explore. The sheer prevalence of rappers using their artistic license to chronicle this epidemic is in itself commentary on society in the same way that the grit of Menace 2 Society or Boyz N The Hood shed light on LA gang violence. Even if it’s ugly, the art begs notice, not condemnation.
Calling these purveyors “f*cking losers” — on a shirt Russ may have designs on selling — isn’t how you reach them. And it’s certainly not the way to start any kind of substantive conversation. It’s the exact kind of dehumanizing sentiment that sustains a “war on drugs” where addicts are seen as suspects instead of victims, given jail sentences instead of rehab, and alienated from their community because of their struggles. If Russ wanted to really help anyone, he’d realize artists lost to drug addictions aren’t “f*cking losers,” they’re f*cking people.