An in-depth look at the importance of Lil Wayne's "I Feel Like Dying."In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the nation’s opioid crisis a “public health emergency.”
On November 27, 2019 - without any supporting context, Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. tweeted, “Me, that’s who.” A whip of the tongue lashing out at any revisionist who dared claim HE was not the decade’s most important master of ceremony. I imagine the debate alone antagonized him. Twitter’s trending discussion that day swirled around the 21st century’s most influential MC and Wayne would not have the narrative changed in hindsight.
The debate was sparked by a BBC article which proclaimed Young Thug as the 21st century’s most influential rapper. Chronicling Thugga’s musical journey, the piece praised his “idiosyncratic rhymes and unconventional sounds.” It also spoke of his influence on the emerging Atlanta music scene which, these days, routinely has its clamps on the Billboard charts. In an anthem, on his most recent album So Much Fun, Thug sings in a drug ballad of euphoric ecstasy in the form of pharmaceuticals.
Jubilee, Ostrich (Uh-uh)
Ten a key, we need thousands.”
As reflected in this excerpt from Thugga’s song, the glorification of prescription drug use has become a staple in mainstream hip-hop over the last decade. Artists croon braggadocious about their dependence on substances like Xanax, Percocet, and codeine cough syrup. But before Lil Wayne set this trail ablaze with one leaked song in 2007, that was not the norm. It is for this reason “I feel like dying” may have fundamentally changed the course of music history.
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If you said the Mt. Rushmore of rap in the 2000s was three-headed medusa-like sculpting of Lil Wayne, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. He didn’t just change the sound of rap; in many ways, he changed rap’s culture as well. The most lasting impact, however, might be how he changed the way we view prescription drugs in hip-hop culture. With Wayne, the line blurred between a drug dealer and a drug user - making rap feel more unrestricted and accessible to a broader social scope rather than its fringes. The Louisiana rapper birthed a generation of lyricists who have built upon the sub-genre he created.
Thug openly recognizes Wayne as his idol. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the focus of many rappers was documenting the culture of drug-related crime. Wayne transcended that and coaxed would-be artists to wail about drug-use and addiction. The BBC article reads, “Even someone as revolutionary as Thugger couldn’t have existed without his acknowledged idol, Lil Wayne, whose slurred codeine hexes splintered rap’s possibilities in a thousand directions.” Thug reportedly had plans to name his album Tha Carter VI back in 2014 as an homage to Wayne.
During a 2008 interview with RWD, a lifestyle magazine based in the UK, Lil Wayne was asked about what makes him unique. Wayne replied “I just think I’m different. My thought process is what keeps me rejuvenated. That’s why I can stay in the game as long as I’m in the game with the new artists. Because my thought process is so different to where it's not a style yet. Meaning there’s not too many, there’s not anyone that can do what I do. You don’t have anyone to compare it to. Or you don’t have anyone to put it in line with. Therefore every time it comes out it’s new.”
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Hazy and disoriented odes to pharmaceuticals have become this generation’s anthems. Artists revel in misery and flirt with suicidal rhetoric. The songs not only descriptively dive into a drug user’s state of mind but also induce a transient translucence for the few minutes listeners are lost in the melodies. What has come to be known as “emo-rap” was seeded by Wayne more than a decade ago. His lucid visual imagery painted by the brushstrokes of words excited fans and inspired thousands of copy-cats. It’s fair to argue Wayne’s peak, and his best work came between 2006-2008. Therefore it is no coincidence that the style he fancied at this time produced a generation of rappers looking to mimic the self-proclaimed “best rapper alive.”
Wayne fully and unapologetically embraces this idea in "I feel like dying." He provided this window into his psyche during the same interview with RWD, Weezy described an encounter with a zestful journalist eager to discuss the subject. The journalist revealed he loves when Wayne speaks about drugs in his music. The journalist said, “You make me feel like you are the drug - For a guy that hasn’t done drugs in 10 years when I hear your song, I’m automatically back to that mental mindstate I was when I took that drug [you’re describing]." Wayne continued on after the story to say, "I want to be the drug." He said, "I want people that don’t do drugs to love that song."
“I feel like dying” was leaked in 2007 to instant fanfare. It was here that Lil Wayne proudly and vehemently labeled himself an addict. He seemed to wallow in blissful anguish during the track’s three and a half minutes. Its appeal resided at the cross-section of enchantment and apprehension. The “Once” sample from Karma exclaiming the song’s hook pulls Wayne’s punchlines and double-entendres into a succinct yet casual expression of dependence. In his punch-drunk delivery, Wayne makes you not only hear but feel the terrors of his pain mixed with the majesty of its pleasure. The substance abuse of alcohol and marijuana were vices commonly accepted in hip-hop circles at this time, but pharmaceutical drugs rang taboo in the years preceding the record.
Drug-ladened bars document addiction in a way that captures your mind. Simultaneously giving you chills and tickling your curiosity of a state that far gone. If music is your narcotic of choice, “I feel like dying” is a trippy episode. What makes it unique is the audacity with which he speaks of this experience, ridding himself of the paralysis that comes with judgment. The outspoken approach was truly ahead of its time.
In the song’s final verse, Wayne says, “Psst! I can mingle with the stars, and throw a party on Mars. I am a prisoner locked up behind Xanax bars. I have just boarded a plane without a pilot and violets are blue, roses are red. Daisies are yellow, the flowers are dead. Wish I could give you this feeling. I feel like buying and if my dealer don’t have no more then. (I feel like dying)”
Wayne’s poignancy has allowed the genre to reach a new sector of fanship. A previously untapped market. Everyone can’t sell drugs, and everyone can’t relate to the life of a drug dealer, but transversely everyone can use drugs and relate to the experience of losing yourself in their grasp or the grasp of something you love. Even if you have not done drugs, you know someone who has battled with addiction or worse.
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With so many rappers dying from similar drugs, the issue America is grappling with has been magnified by hip-hop. Mirroring social realities, artists’ access to pharmaceuticals has expanded. So, naturally, it is reflected more and more in music. A grave reality is that prescription drug misuse has risen drastically in the last 15 years, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2016 than in 1999. The recent passing of Juice WRLD further highlights the problem. Several rappers, including Mac Miller and Lil Peep, have died in recent years, and their deaths are connected to opioid use.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the nation’s opioid crisis a “public health emergency.” More than 130 people die from opioid-related drug overdoses every day. The opioid crisis has killed an estimated 400,000 Americans in the last 20 years.
It’s fair to argue whether Wayne’s enormous impact has been good or bad for rap culture. But this hasn’t started nor will it end with him. The glorification of destructive behavior is part of hip-hop. But hip-hop is also confronting the uncomfortable truths about society and framing them on the mount of artistic expression. All art is. Long have dangerous drugs been at the core of music like heavy metal or rock & roll but for rap things are different. Hip-hop is scrutinized to a higher degree. The complexity of art and the artists who make it will always be apart of social discourse. Whether you feel his influence has pushed the culture forward or caused it to stall is objective. One thing that is not, the power of “I feel like dying” can be heard in today’s music and will continue to be a seminal moment in hip-hop.