The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rappers keep dying fast and young. How should we manage our grief?

CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM LEFT: Lil Peep, Juice WRLD, Pop Smoke, Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle. (Washington Post Illustration/Washington Post; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images (Peep); Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP (Juice WRLD); Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images (Pop Smoke); Marlon Correa/The Washington Post (Mac Miller); Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post (Nipsey Hussle))

Every time a young rapper dies, an old OutKast lyric flashes across my brain and cuts across my heart. It’s a couplet by Big Boi, the unflappable half of the great Atlanta rap duo, and it goes like this: “Man, [I] don’t want no trouble, a playa just want to kick back with my gators off and watch my little girl blow bubbles.” Even if you don’t know that “gators” means shoes, it should hurt to hear those words on any day of the week. In this song — in this murderous world — a completely mundane domestic future is something that needs to be wished for, then fought for.

Those lyrics entered the greater rap consciousness back in 1998, one year after the Notorious B.I.G. was killed, one year before Pop Smoke was born — and on Wednesday morning, Big Boi’s lament had suddenly formed a bridge between the two. Like Biggie, Pop Smoke was a bold rapper with a colossal voice, raised in Brooklyn and gunned down in Los Angeles, dead before he even had a chance to think about kicking off his shoes.

The shock of the news felt intense but familiar, like the continuation of a rhythm — the result of having spent the past three years watching rappers die younger and faster. In December, Juice WRLD died of a drug-related seizure at age 21. Last March, Nipsey Hussle was shot dead in the daylight at age 33. In September 2018, Mac Miller died of a drug overdose at age 26. In June 2018, XXXTentacion, 20, was fatally shot in his car outside Miami. That very same day, Jimmy Wopo, 21, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Pittsburgh. In November 2017, Lil Peep died of an opioid overdose at 21.

These were different artists who died under different circumstances. Some were treading water in an ocean of drugs and expectations. Others were murder targets. But cumulatively, their deaths remain bound by a question: Are we living through the most lethal era in rap history?

It feels that way. But regardless of whether that’s the case, the important thing is to truly feel each death individually. Which isn’t easy. When a rapper dies young, we might feel a good-faith reflex to make sense of the senselessness, to learn some kind of lesson or surface some kind of moral. For the bad-faith crowd, it can be an opportunity to superimpose racist stereotypes about drug abuse and gang violence on a fresh tragedy.

Either way, the impulse to figure out what a rap star’s death tells us — about this generation or this country or this music industry or this opioid crisis or the rivers of blood continuously being spilled by our unique American gun violence — can be facile, and it usually only returns us to feelings of numbness and helplessness. So how do you stop that horrible death-rhythm from becoming routine background noise in your mind?

For anyone who considers Biggie and 2Pac to be the twin pillars of the art form, rap music itself can feel as if it exists in a perpetual state of mourning. 2Pac, slain in Las Vegas in 1996, frequently contemplated his own death in song. Biggie titled his 1994 debut album “Ready to Die.” This wasn’t fantasy or melodrama. It was American music at its most clear-eyed. Biggie and 2Pac had no illusions about a society filled with hatred and arbitrary violence, or their place in it. They were doing what great artists do. They were telling us the truth.

It made fatalism and realism go blurry in the music it inspired. “We ain’t making it past 21,” Juice WRLD sang in 2018. “Doing drugs is just a war with boredom, but they’re sure to get me,” Mac Miller rapped in 2014. “Play a Stevie Wonder song,” Nipsey Hussle declared in 2016, leaving instructions for his funeral. Those lyrics may seem eerie now, but they weren’t death wishes when they were being composed. They were hedges against oblivion. It’s a common lyrical trope in rap, and the concept is as simple as it is sobering: Maybe you can survive your darkest premonitions by verbalizing them. Most rappers do. But not all.

Another painful truth: This will keep happening. One reason death feels so incessant in today’s rap music is because our information age never quits. The relentless social media apparatus that brings us so much bad news is the same one that allows us to feel close to so many artists in the first place. By the cruel logic of the era, an increasingly democratic mediascape will bring us more death, more frequently and more intimately.

And as everything gets faster, it’ll be important to grieve slowly. Loudly, too. On Wednesday night, mourners gathered in the streets of Brooklyn, shouting Pop Smoke’s rhymes at the top of their voices. Digital video footage of the neighborhood vigil — a big crowd celebrating a big life with a big noise — felt instructive. Rap music knows the deadliness of this world. Turning it up can feel like an affirmation of life.

Still, no matter how much rap music teaches us about how to grieve, it doesn’t make the deaths of the past three years feel any less harrowing. Instead, each one seems to hit harder than the last. Maybe that’s good. Maybe we aren’t as numb as we thought.

We shouldn’t be. These artists should’ve been able to teach us how to grieve through their music, not through their deaths. They deserved to see the future their songs were shaping. It hurts to know they’ll never get to blow those bubbles with their children. It’s hard to even conjure the image in the first place. Most of them weren’t far removed from being children themselves.

Pop Smoke’s voice was larger than life. It makes his death feel unreal.

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