I’ll never forget the moment I found out my best friend died of a Fentanyl overdose.
I awoke to a bright and vibrating phone at 8:30 a.m. It was an oddly early time for a young person to be receiving a phone call. My social circle slept until noon, and I still lived with my parents, who would rather scream from two stories above me than call.
The voice on the other end, an acquaintance from high school who I could tell just loved the idea of knowing someone who died, told me they’d found him in the bathroom of his girlfriend's apartment. At the time of his death, she was newly pregnant with their first child, who would be born in 8 months. A week before he died, we sat in his dark green Honda Civic and listened to Mac Miller’s debut album, “Blue Slide Park.” It was 2011.
Over seven years later, on Sept. 7, 2018, Mac Miller was found unresponsive in his home. He was dead by the time authorities arrived, with traces of white powder found on his living room table. It was to be three months before the cause of his death was released to the public. He overdosed on Fentanyl that was more than likely mixed into cocaine without his knowledge.
The national opioid epidemic, which encompasses the large uptick in opiate-related deaths in America beginning in the late ’90s, took a turn for the worse when synthetic opiates, such as Fentanyl, became cheap enough to use as a cutting agent for already dangerously impure street drugs.
Although Mac’s music often dealt with themes of substance abuse and depression, his death came as a shock to fans and artists alike. It wasn’t a suicide. It wasn’t an unanswered cry for help. It was an accident — one that feels all too familiar.
At the end of 2017, beloved emo rap star Lil Peep died of an overdose in Tucson, Arizona.
It wasn’t until the next day that I found out his death had been recorded on the Snapchat story of his friend, who had thought he was only sleeping. Even before the autopsy report was released, fans on social media had already played judge, jury and executioner to the 20-year-old Mariah Bons, who bragged about selling Peep the Fentanyl-laced Xanax that killed him. Within a day of his death, text messages sent by Bons began circulating online.
“GBC [Lil Peep] high af because of me and my friend lol,” one message read.
Another says: “He passed the fuck out my brother called and I tried to get him to say hi to my brother but he wouldn’t wake up.”
Lil Peep’s death being unwittingly broadcast through social media is the logical conclusion of a culture built off the accessibility of the internet and the glorification of the kinds of drugs he was taking. In a career built off soundcloud raps and black-market solutions to clinical depression, his passing on Snapchat is almost poetic.
Mac Miller and Lil Peep are both descendants of the internet era. Artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi had enough self-awareness to realize that sometimes what starts out as fun can quickly become a dangerous coping mechanism that adds to their image and artistry, while subtracting from their peace of mind. In this era, drug use became more than just a lifestyle choice for rappers. It became a crutch used to soften the sorrow associated with being young, successful and famous.
Fentanyl has been killing people for years. My friend’s death was nearly five years before the death of Prince, who’s perhaps the most famous person to have overdosed and died on Fentanyl. But the deaths of Lil Peep and Mac Miller have one large difference than that of Prince or Tom Petty: They both ingested the fentanyl on accident.
I’m beginning to see the deaths of both Lil Peep and Mac Miller as a bookend to a generation of hip-hop artists who fell victim to the trappings of pharmaceutical stupors. The same highs that rendered Lil Peep lifeless on a tour bus are now all-time lows for fans who witnessed the overdose on Snapchat in real time.
Rappers are beginning to denounce the type of excess that was championed only a year ago. It seems like once a month, rapper Lil Pump brags about having quit drinking “lean,” a pattern that shouldn’t surprise anybody who’s experienced, or known someone who’s experienced, active addiction. In 2018, J. Cole released an entire album of cleverly woven anti-drug messages that placed an emphasis on telling this new wave of rappers to grow up.
The era of Soundcloud rap has opened doors for younger artists and given a megaphone to kids who aren’t prepared to deal with the trappings of fame. I’d imagine it takes a certain amount of maturity and guidance to tour at the age of 17. It must take incredible restraint to live your life as a young person under the microscope of American culture — where every mistake is broadcast to millions of judgemental eyes and angry parents.
It’s no wonder that the same drugs that helped artists lean into the isolation of misanthropy, somehow making it relatable, now have an added layer of risk. When something unadulterated becomes mainstream, it loses its purity. It’s true for music, film, fashion, etc. It’s even true for drugs, as dealers seek to maximize profits by lowering purity in times of high demand.
I’m not predicting a complete end to drug rap. Hip-hop is intrinsically tied to youth culture, which is intrinsically tied to experimentation with drugs and alcohol. What I am predicting is a change in the way young people and hip-hop fans glorify the use of drugs like Xanax and opiates. It’s no longer cool to overdose on Xanax and steal your parents’ car. It’s scary.
The deaths of Mac Miller and Lil Peep threaten to end nearly 20 years of doomed marriage between hip-hop artists and pharmaceuticals. Because, at the end of the day, loving drugs that make you sleep is only fun if you actually wake up in the morning.