“Religion,” Marx writes in his essay on Hegel, “is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” He had a point, of course. But then again, Marx never heard trap music.
In the New York Times Magazine‘s recently published survey of what it calls the “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going,” The Fader‘s Amos Barshad recaps his efforts to meet with Atlanta rapper Future in London and unmask the man behind the trap superstar. Barshad focuses on a track off the self-titled album released in February, “Mask Off,” which he describes as a “song [that] hints at a certain kind of violence and ruthlessness, the kind suggested by a criminal setting off into the night and choosing to leave the ski mask at home.” He then briefly comments on the drug culture on display in the verses:
Historically, M.C.s have treated narcotics as product to be moved; today’s younger, party-happy rappers give drugs a gleeful knucklehead spin. But when Future describes his voluminous intake, he does so with all the zeal of a man popping open a days-of-the-week pill organizer. On the hook to ‘Mask Off,’ Future rattles off drugs, unsentimentally: ‘Percocets/Molly, Percocets.’ For him, sometimes the drugs are great; sometimes, not so much. On ‘Mask Off,’ amid rhymes about how totally fun and good his life is, he calls Promethazine his ‘guillotine.’
It feels reductive to try to pin an artist down on the sins of his persona. Hip-hop’s greatest running trick has been blurring the lines of ‘real life’ and art. But with the rate at which Future was rapping about drugs, one question was inevitably posed: Is this an addiction? If so, it was a new spin on a classic trope. The arc of pretty much every drug movie mimics the whiz-bang of the initial high and the eye-blackening horror of the inevitable comedown. Future’s music acknowledged that drug addiction isn’t that cinematically neat: It’s the high and the comedown over and over again.
Anyone trying to understand why drugs are everywhere in trap — and much of hip-hop music — apparently doesn’t understand the music or the life. It’s called “the trap” for a reason, because those trapping see themselves as having no real alternatives. They’re not going to college and getting high-powered jobs in business, law or medicine — the dream imposed on most middle-class kids with enough resources and access to turn the dream into reality. Kids in College Park or Chicago’s South Side have long abandoned the Great American Myth of decency and hard work being the two keys to success in the United States; they’ve seen too many parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters try to walk the straight and narrow only to end up utterly destroyed by a callous system. Their role models are only the people they know, and they know a lot more pimps and pushers than Barack Obamas and Cornel Wests. For them, there are two roads: the first is practically uncharted, while they see the second being walked every day of their lives. And unlike the first road, which might lead through some faraway college — another world — the road to trapping starts on a local corner.
“The trap” in the lyrics is the trap house, where drugs are cooked up and sold. But the trap is also life itself. When you’re born black and poor, with dropout factories for schools, little to no job opportunities and crime all around, it can feel very much as though someone has set a trap for you and everyone around you. (Queue Nas: “Each block is like a maze/ Full of black rats trapped.”) What are you to do in such a situation? You can try to do the right thing — stay in school, get an education and, hopefully, a good-paying job — or you can move a little product and make some quick cash. The third option is the other, ever-present one: a level of poverty heavier and more real than the Nothing in The NeverEnding Story.
Trap music is an anthem for poor people refusing to remain poor, exploiting whatever ticket out of poverty they can get their hands on. To a hustler, making money is making money, no matter how it’s done; there’s no such thing as being ashamed and rich, according to the hood ethos. (Queue Jay: “Put me anywhere on God’s green earth/ I’ll triple my worth.”) Trap music is about flipping the trap on itself so that you’re finally able, through trapping, to escape the trap and not be crushed by the Nothing. Every poor kid I know, including me, has dreamed of living out the Tony Montana story, minus the floating in a pool of your own blood part at the end. It’s a powerful dream, and if so many of those who chase it didn’t end up how Tony did, there would be a lot more people trapping. It’s only the fear of being shot — or worse — that keeps a lot of people on the other side of the tracks upright citizens.
Still, no one escapes the trap without some scars to show for it; that’s where the drugs come in, to quiet the fears — and the memories. “A lot of white kids, you got things accessible to you like therapy,” Dave Chappelle explained during his interview on Inside the Actors Studio. “[Black kids] don’t have that. We have liquor stores and weed.” And if it isn’t drugs, then it’s video games, TV, sex or whatever gets our mind of what has happened to us and what is still happening to us. Every poor child of color from a broken home and a broken neighborhood who graduates from high school is sent into the world with a diploma that’s practically worthless and a severe case of PTSD. They do drugs because they couldn’t afford doctors growing up, much less a prescription for anti-depressants. So looked to street drugs, which are cheaper and easier to get. Plus, the drugs the pharmacist rations out are a lot more dangerous than the stuff being sold on the corner.
Trap music has gotten me through some hard times. I know how ridiculous that may sound to a lot of people, but some people will know exactly what I mean. The world is harsh as it is, and it’s ten times harsher if you’re born dark and destitute. And in those times when you’re feeling bad about your situation, not really seeing a way up and out, you can pop on Future or Migos and hear the music made by desperate people in desperate places — usually way more desperate than you and the place you come from. These are the celebration songs of the black lumpenproletariat, a fancy socialist word for those whom Galeano referred to as “the Nobodies.”
I come from one of the countless places where society breeds its Nobodies, where the white and Asian kids study hard and the all others train hard in some sport or try to get their lyrics on point. Every Nobody tries to become Somebody the easiest way they know how, and when nearly all of the teachers, doctors, lawyers and businesspeople are white, it’s easy to see why most kids of color start believing the professional world is almost exclusively for white people. Society likes to tell its kids that they can be anything they want to be, but these kids have eyes: they see which kind of people becomes the professionals and which kind becomes athletes and rappers. So while a kid can be anything they want to be in the United States, society will guide each into a certain career — a certain life — depending on who their parents are and how much money they make. That’s the trap.
“Religious suffering,” Marx writes, “is … the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” In a world where God is nowhere to be found, trap music is the sound of Nobodies declaring themselves Somebodies. Which is why, when the world tries convincing me that I’m still a Nobody, as it tends to do on the daily, I turn to trap, because listening to Future helps me face my own.
Featured image: Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz (demxx/Flickr)