Hip-hop isn’t the first musical genre tied inextricably to drugs – just think back to the trippy tunes of the 1960s and 1970s. But rap’s celebration of all things intoxicating outpaces that of even its wildest pop-culture predecessors, by a long shot.
Drug mentions in rap lyrics have been enormous is quantity and explicit in quality since the genre’s earliest days. From sale to use and even overdose, rap verses reflect the history of drug culture. But how has the relationship between drugs and hip-hop changed over the years? Are today’s emcees still rhyming about the same substances as popularized in the 1980s? Which drugs have faded like fads, and which continue to bounce with the bass of every generation?
Throughout the past 15 years, substances mentioned in the lyrics of rap songs have ebbed and flowed in frequency – some more dramatically than others.
Marijuana, for example, shows inconsistency over the years. Marijuana was one of the less common drugs in the late 1980s, but it then skyrocketed in the early 1990s, and again more recently. The decriminalization and partial legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in the United States most likely played a part in the growing social acceptance of cannabis.
This project gets its data from RapGenius, which gives the prevalence of phrases in rap music over time. Prevalence in this context is the total number of rap songs containing a given phrase in a year divided by the total number of rap songs in that year.
We have opted to leave out certain substances and slang phrases to prevent our results from being skewed by slang phrases that are often used in other contexts. As an example, heroin is commonly referred to as “boy,” but the word “boy” is also used in a variety of contexts that have nothing to do with heroin.
The stacked area graphs below depict the prevalence of different phrases by nature of their height in the vertical direction. Prevalence of phrases is depicted by this height and not the overall distance from the horizontal axis.
Although the overall prevalence of alcohol brand mentions in hip-hop experienced a brief dip in the early 1990s, several different brands took off in the years that followed.
Rappers appear to have stayed faithful to Hennessy (a.k.a. Henny), while their allegiance to Patron and Cristal is tapering off. Despite its starring role in music video culture, the inclusion of alcohol brands in rap lyrics is on the decline. Are rappers cleaning up their act, or are other illicit substances stealing the spotlight?
MDMA is among the least mentioned drugs overall in rap music. However, in 2009 rappers clearly sparked an interest in the rise of “molly.” While users often understand that ecstasy contains additional substances besides MDMA, molly is often assumed to mean pure MDMA. The reality is quite different: Over a four year period ending in 2013, the DEA reported that of all of the molly seized in New York, only 13 percent of it actually contained any MDMA. Many users purchasing molly think they are getting pure MDMA. Are hip-hop artists also fooled into taking false substances?
From about 1996 through 2009, cocaine was the drug of choice for rappers, at least lyrically speaking. Only marijuana topped cocaine’s prevalence in rap music, before and after this time period.
So what caused cocaine’s recent decline after years of increasing popularity? Take a look at the graph at the top of this page that depicts the overall popularity of various substances. The graph shows that since about 2004, there has been a negative correlation between cocaine and alcohol. In addition, as the interest in codeine syrup, or “sizzurp,” grew, cocaine’s popularity decreased.
Currently the most-mentioned substance in rap music, weed began its reign in the early 1990s with a steep increase from years prior. In 1977, 11 states had decriminalized marijuana possession, but then the 1980s brought a time of political hysteria about illicit drugs and prosecution of nonviolent drug offenses rose dramatically. Then during the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton voiced his opinion favoring treatment over incarceration and the fire behind decriminalization was reignited. Rap artists may also be playing to their fans who aren’t ballin’ like them – from 1992 to 2006, the "real price" of marijuana fell by 16% while its potency shot up 53%.
Morphine and Oxy were pretty much the only pharmaceutical drugs mentioned in rap music prior to the mid-1990s. Since then, a plethora of other prescription medications have become notorious for appearing in hip-hop songs. Painkillers, such as Percs, Lortab, and hydrocodone, have risen in prevalence since the mid-2000s. And fulfilling a different void, Adderall’s popularity also surged. Rappers such as Danny Brown, lyricist of “Adderall Admiral,” explain they take the stimulant to help them work, especially to counterbalance the lazy haze of marijuana.
With the start of a new century, we saw the rise of codeine syrup mentions in rap music. Despite a brief dip through the years 2008 and 2009, rappers have expressed a consistent fondness for consuming the homemade substance. Known as “sizzurp” and popularized by rapper Lil Wayne, the purple drank is made with codeine syrup, soda and a Jolly Rancher hard candy. Many rappers also drink the syrup straight up. Purple drank is a dangerous indulgence in all its varieties, but its sale and use has reportedly led to an escalation in crime, pharmacy robberies in particular.
The sheer number of hip-hop songs that mention marijuana and cocaine in the lyrics is alarming, but not surprising, given the aggressive nature of the rap game. Though many rappers are guilty of drug and violence references through the decades, there are two rap artists in the lead for drug-laden songs: Lil B and Lil Wayne. Holding three of the top (dis)honors, Lil B may not want to tout his drug reputation to the athletes he’s apparently trying to recruit in his new role as a sports agent.
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