The Strange Relationship Between Rappers and Premature Death
It feels like every year the rap community loses at least one artist approaching the peak of their career. Sad to say, but it’s something that I halfway anticipate at this point. In the past two years alone, we’ve lost XXXTENTACION, Mac Miller, Nipsey Hussle, Lil Peep, and Juice WRLD most recently, among many others. These losses are always shocking and disheartening to see, and the days that follow are usually surreal as the circumstances surrounding the death unravel. Fans and peers mourn, numerous thinkpieces arise, and conversation runs rampant for a week or so. This cycle repeats itself once the next artist leaves us. Many of us are left to wonder: “Who’s next?”
When I read that Juice WRLD had passed away last Sunday morning, it didn’t exactly register with me right away. Witnessing the untimely demise of both rising and established artists has become so commonplace over the past few years that I was almost desensitized to the news. The 21-year-old Chicago trailblazer had often foreshadowed premature death in his songs, even going as far as to say in his X and Peep tribute cut "Legends": "What’s the 27 Club? We ain’t making it past 21." and "They tell me I’ma be a legend, I don’t want that title now. ‘Cause all the legends seem to die out." Looking back, these lyrics are even more eerie and cryptic given the circumstances surrounding his death.
Death has been a significant, fascinating motif in hip-hop for decades. In the 90s, Biggie explored this theme in-depth on the two albums he completed during his lifetime: the aptly titled Ready to Die and Life After Death, which was hauntingly released two weeks after his murder. Pac constantly expressed a similar sentiment in his lyrics and videos -- the video for "I Ain't Mad At Cha" features him talking to a friend in the afterlife after dying from gunfire. Big L, shortly before being killed in a drive-by in 1999, said on a song: "I watched all of them, run for they share / And all I can do was stare / I got weak and fell on my rear / Now I can hear the sirens, that means here comes the Jakes / But it’s too late, I’m knockin’ on the pearly gates."
In his last video for "Self Care," Mac Miller raps while trapped inside of a casket. Additionally, death was a common theme throughout Mac's music -- he ruminated about death for the entirety of his cult-classic mixtape Faces (the first words spoken are "should've died already") and his last album Swimming almost feels like a final goodbye. In the video for "Moonlight," X bids farewell to himself at his own funeral. The list goes on -- there are countless other examples of these rappers and many more seemingly predicting their own fate shortly before it actually happens.
"Everybody sayin' I need rehab.'Cause I'm speedin' with a blindfold on. And won't be long until they watching me crash. And they don't wanna see that. They don't want me to OD and have to talk to my mother." - Mac Miller, "God Speed"
"Probably die up in these streets but I'll survive through my name." - Nipsey Hussle, "Welcome Home"
Art is always perceived in a completely new light after its artist dies. It adds a mysterious element of allure to their music that previously might not have been there. For me, going back and listening to the music of deceased artists and hearing death references in abundance is both captivating and slightly disturbing. These prophetic references show the paranoia many rappers have tucked in the back of their minds and the awareness that they have concerning their life. Oftentimes rappers can seem like larger-than-life figures, which makes it that much more difficult to grasp when we are reminded of their mortality.
While these artists dying so early in their careers is obviously unfortunate and saddening, I can't help but think they had a feeling they knew their time was coming. Some may refer to these instances of artists incorporating death so candidly and frequently in their music as manifestation, the powerful phenomenon of speaking something into existence. In any case, the loss of a revered artist will always be jolting and hopefully it won't be something the rap community will have to experience again any time soon.
Rest in peace to all the great artists we've lost over the years. May they live forever.