Rockstar
Many of today's new hip-hop artists respect rock legends more than rap gods.
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

“I’m so happy, ’cause today I’ve found my friends. They’re in my head.”—Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), “Lithium” (1992)

“Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead.”—Lil Uzi Vert, “XO Tour Llif3” (2017)

In recent years, hip-hop purists have still been mourning what Nas uttered over a decade ago: “Hip-hop is dead.” Cause of death? A mixed bag of reasons ranging from skinny jeans, emasculation, lack of creativity, ingenuity, no “early days,” instantaneous fame and lack of work ethic…

Blah, blah, blah…

Meanwhile, the new guard of rap sits at the top of the Billboard charts with candy-colored braids and dreads, donning rock T-shirts and gesturing before the cameras with their tongues out like Kiss frontman Gene Simmons. Yet, in the wake of rap’s elders challenging the youth for killing what took them nearly 45 years to cultivate, hip-hop’s current gatekeepers are rapping about killing themselves. While many suspect it’s for effect, their vocal suicidal tendencies are reflective of their reality; a society soaked in feelings where the only way out is to literally leave the planet. Or at least pontificate about it for millions of fans.

It’s far from an extraneous phenomenon, yet the undercurrent of rap music has always been punctuated with this respect your elders credo. And yeah, kids these days are respecting their elders. They’re just not really the rappers.

Rapper XXXTentacion has consistently credited late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain as his sole inspiration. “I love you Kurt Cobain,” he tweeted on Oct. 12, 2015. Less than two years later, his debut album 17 would land at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, armed with song lyrics that have placed the troubled artist comparatively beside his hypothetical mentor. XXXTentacion recently coming under fire for allegedly abusing his pregnant ex-girlfriend coincides with the rarely acknowledged abusive relationship between Kurt Cobain and wife Courtney Love. Romantic relationships enveloped in drugs and abuse is far from a foreign concept in rock. Lest we forget the horrific conclusion to Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious’ romance with Nancy Spungen, as Spungen was reportedly stabbed to death by Vicious during an extremely violent heroin-induced daze.

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Last spring, Lil Uzi Vert spent $100,000 for a one-of-a-kind diamond-spiked chain with a diamond-encrusted replica of Marilyn Manson sporting his iconic Mickey Mouse ears, red lipstick and eyeliner. The notorious rocker and newish rapper have even become friends and are planning on releasing music together. Uzi has been vocal about both his adoration for Manson and acknowledgment of rock ’n’ roll’s famed 27 Club: “At age 27, I will leave this Earth for this man right here,” Uzi told Nardwuar of Marilyn Manson in a 2016 interview. “He’s the pale Emperor.”

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The aforementioned 27 Club is an unfortunate posthumous society of primarily rock singers whose lives were taken (either by choice or by substance) at the age of 27. Inductees include the Rolling Stones’ original frontman Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors’ Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Art icon Jean-Michel Basquiat also died at 27, although he’s not a part of the infamous club. Some have theorized that 27 is the age when the youthful consumption of drugs and alcohol reaches its breaking point. However, Cobain (being the only documented rock star suicide of the 27 Club) made the age a deliberate departure date for rock ’n’ roll heaven. The first rapper to be inducted was Fredo Santana who died on Jan. 24, from kidney failure stemming from excessive lean consumption at the age of 27.

This past fall, 21-year-old artist Lil Peep died from an alleged drug overdose. Peep, who was described in a New York Times piece as “the Kurt Cobain of lo-fi rap,” had a song titled “Cobain,” where he uttered “Bitches call me Cobain/She can see the pain.” One of his final Instagram posts was captioned, “When I die you’ll love me,” as the artist frequently mused about his own demise in the midst of pill-popping rap references. “[Moments like this] always remind me of this Florence King quote,” explains veteran hip-hop writer Bonz Malone. “[The quote says,] ‘In America, talent is merely a tool for becoming famous in life so you can become more famous in death—where all are equal.’”

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We’ve learned time and time again that it’s not cute to romanticize death, though it currently stews in the underbelly of society, pushing YouTube videos to the surface where kids send index cards of desperation into the camera, explaining how in under 18 years, life has betrayed them and it’s time to go. Social media has made it understandably harder to live as a millennial/Gen Z’er, and with the fluidity of both gender and sexual identities, the pummeling of bullying both on and offline, and the bewildered generation before them, the new youth are full of questions with no answers. So, they look back 20 years for saviors who understand their pain. “The 1990s were filled with crabby, ‘who gives a fuck’ musicians but look at Kurt Cobain. He’s on record saying that he more or less got hooked on heroin because he had chronic stomach pain and suffered from depression…on top of that stemming from the breakdown of his family life during childhood,” says rock journalist and owner of Wolfi eVibes Publicity Kelly McClure. “This type of ‘I’m sad, I’m in pain, therefore fuck everything’ type of lifestyle truly crosses all culture lines. And, I think (on a positive side) speaks to artists and allows them to channel their strong emotions into art, and (on a negative side) can also sometimes be enabling in that it makes it seem cute or edgy to lead fucked up lives, when it’s not."

The aesthetic follows: an uptick in vintage rock graphic T-shirt sales over the last five years has led to a price surge where retailers like Urban Outfitters are charging nearly $50 for a ready-faded shirt with a Nirvana logo. It’s homage, yet also showcases a visible shift in the demographic, as even guys like Justin Bieber are sporting Misfits T-shirts. In the fall of 2017, the multi-week domination of rapper-turned-superstar Post Malone’s single “Rockstar ” raised several eyebrows, as the artist—covered in tattoos of rock n’ roll symbolism with grills and braids—was regarded as the top “shotta” of hip-hop. The most sobering moment happened when a European interview with Malone circulated, as the artist explained that when he wants to cry he listens to Bob Dylan and not his presumed genre of origin. The comment sent hip-hop purveyors into a tailspin, though it’s simply another testament to how, categorically, hip-hop artists are not getting high off their own supply.

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While the whole of pop culture is hugging the 1990s era by way of TV series reboots and do-overs of classic films, hip-hop artists like XXXTentacion and Lil Uzi Vert are wearing 1990s-inspired spikes and chain-linked chokers with their rock god T-shirts. Meanwhile, Kendall and Kylie Jenner “honored” The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur by slapping their own makeup-filled faces over iconic photos of the rap legends.

It’s not to say that certain subcultures of rock (particularly goth) have never been inhabited by Black teens; it’s quite the opposite (see Afro-punk and Afro-goth). The shift is more leaning toward categorically “hip-hop” artists embracing the morbid ideals of rock stars and bringing them back into the rap fold. And, it’s even bigger than the gore that White rappers like Necro dropped off in the early aughts with “Death Rap.” This is finding comfort in the finality of death and having a legion of fans that agree.

However, the dark similarities run profounder than that. Prior to Cobain’s suicide, the rock legend often painted intricate portraits of death within his deeper cuts—along with Marilyn Manson’s “death by camaraderie” battle cry, evidenced by their 2000 song “Death Song”:

“We sing the death song kids/Because we got no future/And we wanna be just like you/We wanna be just like you”—Marilyn Manson

In 2017, XXXTentacion’s posted-then-deleted tweet “everybody loves dead people!” arrived just three weeks following a posted-then-deleted Instagram video of him being hanged from a tree—a clip from the then yet-to-be released video for his song “Look At Me!” It soon followed with the intensely controversial full-length cut of the “Look At Me!” video where a small White child is also hanged. In Lil Uzi Vert’s long-awaited video for “XO Tour Llif3,” he drowns in a bathtub beside a bloodied White woman with nothing but whites in her eyes. And much like the song’s hook suggests, all of his friends are dead in the clip. It was never a space occupied solely by rock music. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts” off 1994’s Ready to Die (the same year Kurt Cobain committed suicide) paints a very vivid picture of Biggie fantasizing about ending his own life:

“I swear to God I want to just slit my wrists and end this bullshit/Throw the Magnum to my head, threaten to pull shit”

In 2002, Erick Sermon would release a song titled “React,” where the hook is a sample from Hindi artist Meena Kapoor’s “Chandhi Ka Badan.” The sample translates as “If someone wants to commit suicide, [so] what can you do?” Erick Sermon chases the line with, “Whatever she said, then I’m that,” arriving on the heels of a rumor that Sermon attempted suicide a year prior by jumping out of a window (he’s since dismissed that rumor as false). There’s a wealth of depression in past hip-hop music, yet today’s generation of rappers aren’t connecting to it. Perhaps it’s the way they’ve been “othered” by the rest of the rap community, outcasts of a previously misfit art form where their new spin is not welcome. Their style of dress is yet another point of contention.

However, following the flick of the switch in 2007—when Kanye West beat 50 Cent in their battle for album sales, marking the presumed end of gangsta rap—it’s been a decade build up to now where the outliers are the youth leaders. Internet culture is another culprit. Keyboard confidence both allowed the rap fashion nerds to thrive while having access to every piece of creative history at their fingertips. It was a lot easier for a kid from the inner city to stream Nirvana concert footage from his home, over previously having to venture into pocket predominantly White neighborhoods for a VCR bootleg.

And that bygone era is nearly parallel to this one when it comes to musicians looking to prevail beneath criticism. In the early 1990s, the upswing of Seattle rock catalyzed the grunge era, ushering in the popularity of guitar “power chords”—two-note chords that guitar purists often write off as a facade for true talent. Kurt Cobain became the figurehead for that movement, at times donning smoky eye shadow and eyeliner, even wearing a dress (Cobain’s iconic dress photo often surfaces in the midst of debates over Young Thug’s fluid fashion choices).

While mainstream would consume Nirvana hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Lithium” and “In Bloom,” Cobain’s cult following would ingest “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” and “You Know You’re Right,” an exceptionally sober track where Cobain laments, “Never speak a word again/I will crawl away for good.”

Kurt Cobain’s lifeless body was found at his home in Seattle on April 8, 1994. It was believed that he killed himself three days prior. Soon after, the world was on suicide watch, fearing that his fans would copy his actions. Three years later, the magnitude of his death would reverberate, as two French girls aged 12 and 13 would make headlines for a double suicide in the name of Cobain.

The year Cobain died, Marilyn Manson would release their debut album, Portrait of an American Family. The band members all adopted monikers of classic supermodels paired with serial killers (Marilyn Monroe/Charles Manson), highlighting a fascination with both the beauty of high fashion and ceremoniously violent death. Sound familiar?

It’s a thread woven tighter than the notion that rap and rock can cleverly coincide. In 2004, Jay-Z collaborated with Linkin Park on the mash-up project Collision Course. In 2010, Lil Wayne would sport an electric guitar he barely mastered and release his Rebirth rock album. Even then, it was far from new: Public Enemy and Anthrax on “Bring the Noise,” Run-DMC and Aerosmith on “Walk This Way,” the entire Judgment Night soundtrack. There’s a connection now that eclipses some half-assed movie scene where bomber jackets and biker jackets meet at a bar and somehow end a race war. The rock idols of hip-hop’s current vanguard were similarly ousted from their larger musical community (then labeled as “alternative”) but bowed out as legends. Some willingly left the planet (Cobain, and the recent suicides of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington), while others like Marilyn Manson continue to check in as a smug reminder that they made history when everyone said they wouldn’t.

That entire fragment of rock’s past was also glazed with an overarching opioid addiction. In the mid-1990s, the phrase “heroin chic” was made popular by supermodels and rock stars who indulged in the narcotic, making them gaunt and disinterested and somehow “cool” by proxy. Films like Trainspotting would glorify it even further, despite the drug claiming lives due to AIDS (from contaminated needles) and overdoses that still linger on to this day.

Over the last five years, the opioid epidemic has returned nationwide with a vengeance through heroin, prescription pills like OxyContin and codeine (a key component of lean). That same subdued euphoric feeling that clung to 1990’s rock stars creating music in a heroin coma is now repeating itself in hip-hop music and its audience. As the sonic shift in rap’s slower bpms is a current indicator, the idea that a young artist or listener—in the rehashed opioid era—would seek solace in 1980’s rappers who spoke of the crack epidemic, and late 1990’s rappers who spoke of cocaine dealing sounds ridiculous. It’s a new day. Emotions are OK and so are skinny jeans. Rap’s elder statesmen have no say. Migos being cheekily referred to as “The Migos” (like they’re The Beatles) and Rae Sremmurd releasing their anthem titled “Black Beatles” also indicates that, while hip-hop is only leaving the door ajar for the new kids on the block, they’re busy buying the entire rock venue across the street.

“Rap music will always have its core elements and foundations in the street,” adds Bonz Malone. “The question is, what streets? Where they at? [Rap] has the same attitude as rock and punk—even has borrowed the look of both, since Flash and The Furious Five. It’ll be interesting to see what it becomes next millennium, if it doesn’t kill itself first in a desperate attempt to become famous.”

The critical downfall happens when life imitates the dark side of art, marking a clearly defined bitter end. XXXTentacion retorted via Instagram against his glorified suicide visuals with, “If you thought I would ‘pretend’ to kill myself for a publicity stunt you’re fucking stupid,” though it’s not as if the real-life interpretation is a foreign concept. The suicides of famed music executive Chris Lighty and Pro Era’s Capital Steez, both in 2012, rocked the music community. Not just because hip-hop lost such an integral component in Lighty and a talent whose potential was never fully realized in Steez, but because depression in the Black community is constantly overlooked, whereas in the White community it’s oftentimes glamorized. The Juicy J-cosigned duo $uicideboy$ is steadily rising up the ranks with a mantra seeped in deadly undertones. “Actually we got word Twitter is banning people for tweeting kill yourself,” $lick $loth (one half of the duo) tweeted on America’s dark day of Sept. 11. “Guess they have never felt what depression/wantin 2 die felt like.”

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Neither are idyllic ways to handle mental health, though the alternative is to normalize it. “A lot of artists do try to glamorize depression, and in those cases I don’t think they’re really depressed—like in their actual lives,” McClure says. “Because anyone who’s ever suffered from depression will tell you that there’s nothing glamorous about wearing the same clothes for a week and not even having the energy to wash your face or brush your teeth. Exercising demons is super dark so I think it’s fine to come at these subjects as dark, or as hard as needed, but there’s a fine line between getting your pain out of you creatively and forcing that pain on listeners so they’re left feeling worse than they did before they listened.”

When handled artistically, depression can fuel an entire generation, as it is right now with newer hip-hop artists channeling rock’s yesteryears. While at times it’s erring on extreme (XXXTentacion’s backlash for his unapologetic glorification of violence and death is without a doubt the most prominent), it’s far from a mirror reflection of rap’s past. Maybe it isn’t rap at all. Maybe it’s the artistic result of tortured psyches. Maybe it’s really classifiably rock music, tempered for a new generation of youthful angst. Maybe we’ve all just been listening with our eyes.

Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2018 issue including our two cover stories with G-Eazy and 21 Savage, Show & Prove with Trippie Redd, J.I.DCole Bennett's rise as a music video director, Evidence's thoughts on the future of hip-hop and more.

See Photos from G-Eazy and 21 Savage's XXL Magazine Spring 2018 Cover Shoot