Rap music was once synonymous with bravado. The musical equivalent of a bragging Instagram profile, it was awash with fast cars, diamond jewellery and mansions dwarfed only by even bigger entourages.
But this idealised life of luxury, of paradisiacal fortresses and eternal contentment, has given way to a more sombre style of hip hop. “Mumble rap” is a phrase generally only used by its detractors. However, it covers a number of subgenres which have some unusual similarities.
Lyrics which talk about anxiety, depression and self-loathing are now making regular appearances in chart rap music. Artists like Lil Pump, Lil Xan and Tekashi 6ix9ine have helped bring this style of music to the masses. However, while parents used to worry about rap inciting violence, it is a self-destructive violence about which parents are now concerned.
Originally used to describe unclear lyrics, the phrase "mumble rap" now covers a range of hip hop which relies more on melody and less on lyricism. However, the “mumble” aspect is still often linked to lean culture and Xan culture. Purple drank (or “lean”) is a drink comprised of lemonade, dissolvable sweets, promethazine and codeine. Having caused long term health problems for big stars such as Lil Wayne, the prescription-strength cough syrup cocktail continues to be popular.
Xanax, a brand of anxiety medication, has become a popular semi-recreational drug. Along with purple drank, it is a key constituent of mumble rap. “I drop a Xan in my Snapple, you walk in the mall and you looking for samples,” raps Lil Pump in the song Lean in my Fanta. A highly medicalised subculture, the line between getting high and treating a serious condition has become blurred. “My bitch act like she Freemason,” Lil Pump adds. “Sippin on lean like a patient.”
Rap was a genre defined by ego where artists would promote ideas of their own infallibility. However, mumble rap has helped normalise discussions around mental health issues and helped young people to understand that it’s OK to have imperfections.
However, in the case of many young rappers, the use of prescription medication becomes a bigger issue than any problem it was originally meant to treat. Lil Peep became the first victim of Xanax abuse to make global headlines. “I took six Xanax and I was lit,” he told fans over social media on 15 November 2017. This followed a video of him dropping pills into his mouth. A subsequent post was captioned: “When I die, you'll love me.” Not long after, he died of an overdose.
The cause of death was an accidental overdose of Xanax and Fentanyl, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner toxicology report. Peep was found to have cannabis, cocaine and Tramadol in his blood. His urine tested positive for all of these substances, in addition to a multitude of opiates such as Hydrocodone, Hydromorphone, Oxycodone and Oxymorphone.
There was speculation that Peep unwittingly took fake Xanax given to him by a fan.
Tragically, his housemate and fellow rapper Bexey filmed Lil Peep, thinking he was simply asleep on his tour bus. On reflection, it seems that he is already dead in the video.
Peep spoke openly about his battle with depression, anxiety and addiction. “I have horrible anxiety,” he told VICE. “That's why I took Xanax before this interview.” Peep stated publicly that he had bipolar disorder. In his final interview, he stated: “Things just get worse. Things already get worse and worse and worse every day.”
This caused many people to speculate on whether his death could, in fact, have been a suicide. But Peep’s older brother, known as Oskar, protested: “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,” he 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.”
This sense that Peep’s problems were merely part of an act adds another layer to an already muddled situation. “My brother didn’t take five Xanax pills every day, but he would take them and then post on Instagram about it,” Oskar added. “He was super happy with where he was in life.”
Originating on SoundCloud, mumble rap is a truly organic genre. Artists such as Drake helped popularise melancholy storytelling in hip hop and, in this sense, had already pushed boundaries. However, mumble rap has helped normalise the idea of mental health problems among young people and has promoted conversation around this. But there are questions to be asked as to whether it is reaching demographics which previously stigmatised mental health issues. Also known as “emo rap”, it is a style of hip hop notable for its white, middle class following.
Whether the genre itself is dangerous opens up an age-old argument about whether music is a driver behind or merely a reflection of culture. From Eminem to NWA, rap music has often been the subject of moral outrage. As always, the overall question seems to be “won't somebody please think of the children?”
“What if an 11-year-old kid imitates you, Cam'ron?” Bill O’Reilly asked rapper Cam’ron on his show The O'Reilly Factor in 2003. “What if he uses four-letter words and he develops a lifestyle based upon the street, he gets tattooed, he gets all of this. Do you feel badly about that?”
The interview is immortalised in a Fox News article entitled Is Gangsta Rap Hurting America's Children? Also immortalised is Cam’ron’s answer: “No, I don't.” Short and simple, this makes for an apt answer to a big question because chiefly, artists should not be constrained by what may or may not happen to fans who are easily led. As for Xan culture, it’s a different story.
For performers, Xan culture appears to create a vicious cycle of drug abuse, public scrutiny and anxiety. Encouraged to use technology to be more available to their fans, it may seem to artists that these people want to see drug addiction and disorder - as this is what they’ve become accustomed to. Ultimately, the effect of Xan culture on impressionable, young people has the potential to be deadly, regardless of whether they are music fans or celebrities.