Lil Wayne's "I Feel Like Dying" Changed Rap's Relationship with Drugs Forever
Illustration by Michael Alcantara
Day 346: "I Feel Like Dying" – The Drought Is Over 2 (The Carter 3 Sessions), 2007
For the past several years, rap has exulted in a culture of prescription drug abuse, with hazy anthems to pharmaceuticals like Xanax, Percocet, and codeine cough syrup. These songs generally not only discuss the mindset these drugs create but sonically simulate the disorientation and amniotic calm they offer the user. As with nearly everything that has happened in rap over the last decade, you can see Lil Wayne's fingerprints all over this trend. And no song was more pivotal in Wayne's own embrace of this theme than "I Feel Like Dying," a leaked 2007 track that instantly became a fan favorite, an essential part of the Lil Wayne canon. To discuss this track's importance, A Year of Lil Wayne today welcomes contributor Briana Younger.
In 2017, naming a song "I Feel Like Dying" is par for the course. Emo rap—the kind that delights in suicidal ideation and props itself up on misery—is at its most popular point to date, with its strongest proponents beginning to make the jump from the loud corners of the internet to the Billboard Hot 100. But a decade ago, Lil Wayne was planting the seeds from which a generation of rap would grow, for better and for worse.
By many accounts, Wayne was peaking between 2006 and 2007. In that two-year span, his output was at prolific levels as he released some of his best work: the acclaimed Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 along with sleeper Lil Weezyana and a mixtape with Juelz Santana (sort of). This was in addition to his liberally handing out indelible features for maximum ubiquity. The Drought is Over 2 was a less celebrated (but exceptional) unofficial release, cemented by the almost romantic and undeniably iconic "Prostitute Flange." Also tucked among the collection of alleged Carter III leaks was a drug-laden rap ballad about the euphoric highs and fatal lows of addiction that would ultimately outlive everything around it.
With "I Feel Like Dying," Wayne stood atop his rapidly growing platform—at the time literally everything he did was an event—as the "best rapper alive" and declared himself an addict. The lucid imagery of the lyrics combined with a chilling sample of Karma's "Once" lurch the brain between concerned sympathy and wanting to climb into the clouds too. Lines like "I can mingle with the stars and throw a party on Mars / I am a prisoner locked up behind Xanax bars" or his chuckles amid the dour hook create a fun house effect that juxtaposes allure and dread. As insidious as addiction, "I Feel Like Dying" is torture cloaked in sheer bliss.
Here, it wasn't just weed or alcohol, which had long been accepted in the hip-hop community, plaguing the rapper. Even codeine use had been somewhat normalized through the late 90s and early 2000s. Wayne's third verse, focusing on the anti-anxiety pill Xanax, and the song's bleak messaging in contrast to the reckless abandon of other drug-oriented music put it in a league of its own. Prescriptions simply weren't the cultural fix of choice at the time (partly due to access, partly due to their taboo nature), but that was soon to end. According to a study conducted by the Drug Slang in Hip Hop Project, 2007 is the point when pharmaceutical drugs—Xanax, Adderall, Percocet, Valium—begin to establish themselves in rap's lexicon. Of course, correlation is not the same as causality. Rap tends to mirror American society in general, magnifying the issues for everyone to see, and between 1998 and 2008, benzodiazepine use tripled. Wayne wasn't exactly creating a trend or new reality on "I Feel Like Dying," but the candid approach was certainly ahead of its time.
In that moment, the dealer became the user, and rap became that much more accessible. Everyone can't sell drugs, but everyone can do them, and the portion of listeners who couldn't relate or find escape in the bravado could now see themselves in the dope sickness, depression, and all-too-common escape of substance abuse. It's a narrative that fits comfortably in Middle America, free of concrete jungle politics or metropolitan airs. These aren't people looking for a good time but a respite from isolation. While party drug "molly" caused mass hysteria in 2013, mitigative Xanax was quietly wreaking the real havoc. "I Feel Like Dying" allowed Wayne to effectively tap into a new market of fans while laying the groundwork of a space where rappers can express the pain of their addictions alongside their pleasures. For the cloud-turned-emo rap scene, the song—from blunt title to melancholic content—is canon.
Writing about her recovery from an eating disorder, poet Blythe Baird said: "I don't know how to talk about the rabbit hole without accidentally inviting you to follow me down it." This has always been the dilemma of art, but hip-hop has faced a particularly sinister form of scrutiny and criminalization. Wayne's catalog is full of moments, like this one, where he blurs the lines between glorification and uncomfortable truths. It's a quality that makes him one of music's most polarizing and compelling figures. Still, one has to wonder how many skeletons Wayne invited out of our closets when he, through his own puffs of smoke, confessed to the world that he, too, felt like dying.
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