SoundCloud Rap and the Opioid Epidemic: In Defense of a Genre

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest writer Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

On 3 October 2018 Michael Jones, a relatively obscure rapper within the SoundCloud rap movement known as New Jerzey Devil, was arrested after a joint investigation involving the New York Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Authorities alleged that Jones was responsible for the drug overdose death of Diana Haikova, a 29-year old resident of New York, after providing her with heroin and fentanyl. According to DEA Special Agent in Charge James J. Hunt, “This investigation led us into the underbelly of emo rap and its glorification of opioid use.” 

Of course, the argument that hip hop has glorified the use of illicit substances is hardly new. The genre’s depictions of alcohol and narcotics have long attracted the attention of scholars interested in correlations between media exposure and drug practices. The results of a couple of the more contemporary studies are indicative of the general trend in academic investigations that have almost universally found hip hop particularly deleterious. “Positive portrayals of drug use have increased over time, and drug references increased overall,” Denise Herd, a professor of behavioral sciences, noted when summarizing a 2008 study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, that analyzed popular rap songs between 1979 and 1997, a conclusion that led ABCNEWS to simply declare that “rap music is glamorizing drug use.” Similarly, a 2018 study published in The Journal of Studies on Alcohol determined that “listening to rap music was significantly and positively associated with alcohol use, problematic alcohol use, illicit drug use, and aggressive behaviors.” Although this is just a sampling of the numerous studies that have appeared over the past three decades examining the individual and societal effects resulting from exposure to hip hop, their conclusions reflect an entrenched consensus that the genre possesses an extraordinary capacity to encourage antisocial and destructive behaviors, particularly alcohol and drug addiction. 

The rapid ascendancy of emo rap or SoundCloud rap during the 2010s has greatly intensified concerns regarding representations of drug use, especially given its coincidence with the burgeoning opioid epidemic. Due to its eclecticism, the controversial subgenre is notoriously difficult to define. Emo rap is often lauded for its incorporation of numerous, seemingly discordant, influences. Those who celebrate the scene point to the genre’s versatility, arguing that the SoundCloud era has significantly altered the musical landscape by infusing hip hop with elements of pop punk, emo and grunge rock, R&B, and, at least in the case of Post Malone, the genre’s most successful crossover star, country music. Critics and fans alike find the DIY entrepreneurialism animating the movement particularly refreshing. One defining and endearing (depending on who you ask) characteristic of emo rap is its lo-fi, minimalist sound—essentially all one needs is a laptop to self-produce entire albums that are then circulated on digital platforms and promoted through social media. For many, the democratic nature of emo rap lends the genre a certain authenticity by allowing artists to circumvent the mainstream music industry. 

Detractors of SoundCloud rap, meanwhile, have found many aspects of the genre to be unsettling. The prevalence of facial tattoos, so ubiquitous that they seem to critics to be the defining feature of the genre, has attracted much ridicule, as have the characteristically morbid, maudlin lyrics mumbled by apparently chronically heartbroken “sad boys.” “Death is everywhere in SoundCloud rap,” writes one paper. Tthe genre’s unofficial logo is a teardrop.” And then there are the invariably depressing monikers adopted by artists, such as nothing, nowhere and Softheart. What tends to especially perturb critics is the way drugs, specifically prescription and designer drugs, are represented. “They wanna see you dab,” rapper and ardent critic of the SoundCloud movement J. Cole sings on the track “1985.” “They wanna see you pop a pill/ They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels.”

The Look of Emo Rap. L: Lil Xan (Diego Leanos) and R: Post Malone (Austin Richard Post)

Indeed, while numerous aesthetic and sonic elements distinguishes SoundCloud rap from other iterations of hip hop, some of which I will touch on below, these distinctions all largely stem from the novel relationship between drugs and rap music spawned by the subgenre. Many commentators have discerned a marked shift in the way emo rap portrays drugs, echoing the DEA’s implied assertion that the SoundCloud scene is exceptionally pernicious. For example, the music producer DJ Fu declared that, “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.” “At one point,” he continued, “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.”

In an interview with The Guardian, the sociologist CalvinJohn Smiley similarly asserted that the SoundCloud era has fostered a new language and aesthetic for depicting narcotics that has significantly altered hip hop’s drug culture. When paraphrasing his argument, Smiley wrote that “Earlier generations of rappers used drugs as a tool to accrue wealth, speaking about selling them as a way out of poverty, rather than using narcotics themselves . . . That reality has shifted to a more flagrant form of glamorization.” 

As described above, since hip hop’s inception in the late 1970s, drugs have largely figured in the medium as a means to negotiate the travails of everyday life inside urban ghettos where violence, deprivation, and destitution were endemic. Artists gave lyrical expression to the brutal realities of the projects, articulating how the circulation and consumption of illicit drugs provided an escape—a material escape for sellers and a psychological one for buyers—from daily oppression, while at the same time perpetuating and exacerbating the subjugation engendered by systemic racism. A more nuanced appraisal of drug representations in hip hop’s early trajectory would, I think, yield less sweeping conclusions than found in the studies noted above. The glamorization of drug use is certainly prevalent but often tinged with mournful ambivalence, the grim nature of the drug game being ever omnipresent in a genre largely envisioned to expose grim realities. “If I wasn’t in the rap game,” The Notorious B. I. G. famously declared in the song “Things Done Changed,” “I’d probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game/Because the streets is a short stop/Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot/Shit it’s hard being young from the slums.” It’s biting commentary on racial injustices and indignities constituting ghetto life where opportunity was systematically and sharply delimited for individuals like Biggie Smalls.           

SoundCloud rap has its fair share of depictions glorifying drug use but, as with other variations of hip hop, the blanket assertion that the genre glamorizes illicit substances needs to be problematized. Before complicating the assessments mentioned above, I must confess that I am a fervent fan of the subgenre. I find the form remarkably innovative, dynamic, and rather subversive given its promiscuous fusion of multiple styles to engender a radically new movement or scene. As an emo rap, or Soundcloud rap, enthusiast I thus find generalizations of the genre’s glorification of drug consumption deeply misguided and reductive.

The DEA’s recent focus on emo rap is yet another attempt to divert attention away from the socioeconomic forces largely responsible for the opioid crisis. According to this logic, popular demand for illicit drugs stems not from the epidemic of despair wrought by the sharp contraction of horizons of opportunity for millions of Americans futilely navigating the neoliberal order. Rather, the drug problem is merely the result of exposure to supposedly pernicious cultural influences, a well-worn explanation whereby demonization precludes more sophisticated analyses of the structural and social factors engendering the feelings of desperation and vulnerability responsible for a more general cultural malaise that drives alienated individuals to find solace or escape in drugs and alcohol. 

These feelings of despair are pointedly explored by the vast majority of performers within the SoundCloud genre, helping to explain the astonishing popularity of emo rap. Young Americans in particular could easily relate to this soundtrack of ennui-induced despair and demoralization, “the feelings of angst, frustration, [and] powerlessness,” according to Erik Nielson, a scholar of rap music. “These [emo] rappers feel bad,” writes The Guardian, “but they don’t know why.” The meteoric rise of emo rap during the 2010s coincided with a remarkably disorienting period of monumental and bewildering changes, punctuated by the spread of authoritarianism, financial upheaval, and the global climate crisis. As The Guardian cogently explains, “[emo rappers’] popularity shows that people are hearing their own pain, fellow participants in a culture that has been left to manage its own wellbeing.” In the characteristically anguished, emotionally raw flow used to deliver their mournful lyrics, artists frame their drug use as a means to cope with an increasingly volatile world and their own inner turmoil. Consider the song “too much” by Softheart and guccihighwaters, its bleak lyrics expressing feelings of crippling isolation and numbness as they grapple with the claustrophobic void of their everyday existence  

Lost in my head again
I keep seeing visions of what I lost (ay)
Anythings better than this
I can’t help myself
No I can’t help myself, never get as much as I want
Know it but still, I can never get my fill
I can never have too much (have too much)

I’m a loner, I’m a stoner
Sit still ’till the days over (yeah)
I don’t touch dope smoke kosher
Won’t lie though I can’t stay sober

Can’t make it on my own
These tough times burn holes
Feel burnt out, but cold
Breath slow but, I choke

Rather than glamorized, their drug dependencies are lamented, painfully acknowledged as a temporary fix to or refuge from a vast range of seemingly insurmountable personal, social, even global problems.   

The subdued, melancholic nature and style of the genre is crucial to how we should approach interpreting the meanings behind these representations of drugs and intoxicated states. SoundCloud rap’s soundscape, comprised of distorted, woozy compositions, depicts the subjective experience of drug consumption not only lyrically but also tonally through the languid, sluggish delivery typical of the form. As one journalist aptly put it “[SoundCloud] rappers channel the numbing effects of the Xan bars they’ve just ingested via sleepy vocals and mumbled, melancholic lyrics.” “[T]heir deadened flow and sad anxious production,” states another critic, “replicates the anti-high of Xanax in sound.” In her fascinating examination of the aesthetics of emo rap, Che Yeun argues that “The repetitive listing of . . . substances achieves a particular dizzying effect, a dizziness that echoes throughout the aesthetics of the performance, in which words are mumbled and strung along . . . The layering of substances, as a formal technique, mimics and invokes the habitual mixing of medications. The ultimate effect is, at time, neither calm nor despair, but a haziness in between.”

It is exactly this murky liminal state that artists and their fans feel suspended in while navigating, or maybe opting not to navigate, the current social order. The catatonic pacing of emo rap has crept into mainstream music, reflective of the growing despondency pervading American society. According to VICE, “Pop music, throughout the ’10s, has gotten measurably slower and sadder. . . the change in tempo seemed to correlate with the state of the world.” “[The lack of fast pop] seems to coincide with the national mood,” asserts Sean Ross, a pop radio analyst, “Whoever you are, whatever you believe, there’s something to be angry and morose about in this moment.” These observations help explain the staggering popularity of SoundCloud rap, where its top artists have garnered millions, and in some cases billions, of streams and downloads on platforms such as Spotify, making emo rap the fastest growing genre in popularity. 

The tragic overdose deaths of the scene’s two biggest stars are illustrative of the genre’s complicated relationship with drugs. Just prior to performing in Tucson, Arizona on 15 November 2017, the wildly popular artist Lil Peep (Gustav Åhr) died suddenly on his tour bus after accidentally consuming Xanax laced with fentanyl. Only twenty-one years old, Peep’s rise to stardom had been meteoric. Unafraid of displaying his delicate vulnerability and his willingness to disclose the multitude of troubles which tormented him led VICE, in an article entitled “Lil Peep is the Artist of the Decade,” to describe Peep as “a voice for a generation of kids who shared his powerful demons and sense of doom . . . [for those] who felt like they were bearing an ungodly weight in the same way.”

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Lil Peep (Gustav Åhr)

The pressures surrounding fame exacerbated the underlying mental health and substance abuse issues Peep candidly documented in his music, however. In addition to his songs, Peep left behind a lengthy documentary trail suggesting that he resorted to copious amounts of prescription drugs to manage his chronic despair. I need help but not when I have my pills but that’s temporary one day maybe I won’t die young and I’ll be happy . . . I’m getting so tired of this,” read one of his many social media posts discussing his depression and drug dependency. In the doleful song “Pray to the Sky,” Peep articulated an eerily similar feeling. “I found some Xanax in my bed, I took that shit, went back to sleep/They gon’ miss me when I’m dead, I lay my head and rest in peace.” Although many of his tracks are rife with macabre references to polydrug use as a means to muddle through bouts of severe depression, Peep also expressed a desire to abandon these substances. But popular demand for his sad boy persona seemed to preclude that. After noting the material success and sexual prowess celebrity afforded him, in the hit “Beamer Boy” he goes on to lament “But they don’t wanna hear that, they want that real shit/ They want that drug talk, that ‘I can’t feel’ shit.” Karl Åhr captured the pressure his brother felt to meet the demand that the artist helped create, telling People Magazine that “he gets paid to be sad. It’s what he made his name on. It’s what his image was in a sense.” 

One cannot help but grapple with this deep sadness when watching the recently released documentary on Peep entitled Everybody’s Everything (2019). Of the many disturbing sequences strewn throughout the film, one scene is particularly chilling and difficult to watch, indicating as it does a deeply troubled individual with serious substance abuse problems. Peep mumbled incoherently while attempting to perform the song “Hellboy,” incapable of remembering the lyrics while fumbling the microphone. Tour managers attempted to conceal Peep’s intoxicated state, and thus prevent having to cancel the show, by flooding the stage with smoke so as to obscure the star who had, at this point, turned to stare at a wall of screens behind him, transfixed by images of fire. Suddenly, Peep arose from his stupor to perform a stunning set. “He was dying in front of us and nobody did nothing,” commented one YouTube user. Indeed, in less than six months he would be dead.

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Juice WRLD (Jarad Higgens)

In the opening scene of the music video for his hit song “Lean Wit Me,” Juice WRLD (Jarad Higgins) stands reciting the serenity prayer in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. After asked to share his story with the group, Juice launches into a verse relating the desperation accompanying drug withdrawal: “Drugs got me sweatin’, but the room gettin’ colder/ Lookin’ at the Angel and the Devil on my shoulder/ Will I die tonight? I don’t know, is it over?/ Lookin’ for my next high, I’m lookin’ for closure.” The video ends with a somber but also encouraging message. “RIP to too many young legends that left us early. If you or somebody you know is suffering from addiction call . . . to take the first step.”

The music video is a distillation of Juice’s tortuous relationship with drugs. They imbue his music—it’s difficult to find a song let alone a single lyric from his prolific career that doesn’t incorporate narcotics in some fashion. But it was invariably a love/hate relationship in which he understood, and sadly predicted, the outcome of the toxic affair. “They tell me the death of me gon’ be the Perkys,” he wailed on “Rich and Blind.” Experiencing “Percocet fever” on “Feeling,” he tellingly declared “I told my mom I’m here to stay no she won’t catch me dead.” This perhaps continues a discussion first broached in “I’ll Be Fine” when Juice raps, “My momma told me ‘stop the pain killers’ them shits is killing me.” Although lean, a combination of codeine and soda, was possibly the most frequently referenced substance in Juice’s catalog, Percocet figured heavily, and appeared more ominously, in lyrics relating the profound sadness he sought to escape. 

Juice had reached pop stardom by the time he arrived in his hometown of Chicago on the early morning of 8 December 2019 to continue the celebration of his twenty-first birthday. The hit single “Lucid Dreams” from his debut album approached one billion streams on Spotify. He had just released a new record after signing a multimillion dollar contract with a major label. What was to be a joyous reunion with family and friends quickly took a tragic turn, however. Authorities had been contacted by the pilot of Juice’s private plane who alerted them to the possibility that illegal drugs and firearms were onboard. In an attempt to hide the Percocet on his person in a moment of desperation, Juice swallowed an undisclosed amount of pills causing a seizure resulting in his untimely death. 

Only months earlier he had released the track “Legends” in honor of Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, a troubled star who died from gun inflicted wounds. “What’s the 27 Club,” he asked, “We ain’t making it past 21.” Speculating on the psychological toll of being a star, he rapped “They tell me I’ma be a legend/ I don’t want that title now/ ‘Cause all the legends seem to die out.” It was but one eerie prophecy in a vast compendium of morbid ruminations. In the posthumously released song “Wishing Well,” he again confronts the magnitude of his drug dependency while contemplating the imminence of his death, lamenting, “If it wasn’t for the pills I wouldn’t be here/ But if I keep taking these pills I won’t be here.” There’s a powerful sense of resignation, of profound hopelessness, that is more palpable here as he relates the existential bind induced by drug addiction (he’s nobody or at least not “Juice” without Percocet; he’s literally no one with it) in his trademark wounded cadence that alternates abruptly between gravelly and melodic tones to more intensely convey the misery and dread consuming him.

Drugs typically figured in Juice’s music as an antidote to heartbreak, but the overwhelming sorrow expressed in “Wishing Well”–as he concludes with “It’s tearing me to pieces/ I really think I need them/ I stopped taking the drugs and now the drugs took me”–registers differently, indicating a deeper, more complex kind of pain much darker than heartache. “The world often speaks of black boys and their anger but rarely of their sadness,” writes Briana Younger of The New Yorker. “Juice forced us to see. He poured out his anxieties, fears, and insecurities in harrowing detail, painting pictures of depression .  . .with unblinking candor.” I’m particularly struck by Younger’s poignant description of Juice’s work as collectively constituting the “mourning for oneself,” a kind of grief that millions related to. “He dwelled with his demons in public so that those who do so in private could feel less alone.”       

The rampant references to drugs and their abuse indeed suggests a preoccupation within the genre. But rather than hastily rushing to condemn emo rap for glorifying the use of these drugs, we need a better understanding of what leads these artists to reference them in the first place and the reasons why millions are attracted to the genre. Emo rap reflects on and critiques the larger, structural problems plaguing society and the attendant psychological pain underpinning the national opioid crisis. Above all, SoundCloud rap articulates the anguish and hopeless frustration felt by many Americans struggling under the oftentimes unbearable weight of socioeconomic and emotional distress. When the DEA ventures further into that “underbelly of emo rap,” this is what it will find.