“Smoking out, pouring up, keeping lean up in my cup” is one of the most repeated lines of Pimp C’s verse, after its debut on Jay Z’s hit track Big Pimpin’, from his album Vol 3: Life and Times of S.Carter.
This album was released in 1999, which is a daunting 17 years ago, and yet this lyric could have featured on a song by the likes of Future, Young Thug or Migos as recently as this year.
Content about drugs and alcohol is not unfamiliar to hip-hop culture, and rap songs especially, but this line just shows how taking ‘lean’ has remained a constant in rap music, if not grown more and more popular over the years.
Lean, or as it’s otherwise known as ‘drank’, ‘sizzurp’ and ‘purple’, is taken in the form of cough syrup and this concoction is made up of prescription drugs mixed with Sprite (or other fizzy drinks).
The drug is a mixture of promethazine and codeine which creates a high traditionally used for medical purposes to numb excruciating pain.
But for the rappers who take it, this high is purely recreational.
Worryingly, lean is a firm favourite amongst some of the most-loved rappers of America and it is not stopping there.
It is becoming more popular to mix lean with alcohol, such as vodka, which, as you can imagine, makes for a lethal potion.
The purple drink is said to have originated in Houston, Texas, in the 80s and 90s, following on from the predecessors of blues singers who are said to have mixed Robitussin (a brand name for prescription cough syrup) with beer.
One of the earlier rappers known to drink lean and centre his tracks around it is Lil’ Wayne, with tracks such as I Feel Like Dying expressing how he feels like he is “jumping off of a mountain/into a sea of codeine”.
His withdrawal symptoms to lean and other drugs make him feel like he is about to die.
Atlanta, Georgia, is probably one of the most commonly-known places where rappers drink lean and aren’t shy of mentioning it in their lyrics.
With artists such as Future and Young Thug born and raised in Atlanta, this is one city renowned for curating and following hip-hop culture trends.
Future is a key example of an artist who loves lean so much he named two albums after the stuff!
Starting off with Dirty Sprite the mixtape and its follow-up Dirty Sprite 2 (DS2), the plethora of lean-themed songs is enough to fulfil any addiction.
Thought It Was A Drought is a song about inebriation and the love of drugs feeding a heartbreak.
The album was released after the break-up between Future and Ciara, and clearly shows a deterioration in his state linked to his emotions and continued usage of drugs.
Even more recently, G.O.O.D Music signee Desiigner’s song Panda includes the lyrics “Twisting dope, lean and the fanta”.
This is a song which has been sampled on Kanye West’s latest album The Life of Pablo, and quickly rose to fame globally, reaching number one in the Billboard charts.
Unlike the origins of rap as street music, with rap battles and talk of the hardships of life with little money and living in a trapped cycle, rap has evolved from this to a lifestyle that enables bragging rights about making lots of money and the luxuries that come with that.
“Much like girls, money and drugs, lean is an accessory to rap music.”
One of the main recurring struggles in rap music is selling drugs, otherwise known as “trapping” – it’s a lifestyle that is prevalent throughout the history of hip-hop right into the present.
For some multi-millionaire rappers, that’s how it all started – take Jay-Z as a prime example. But, as Kanye once mentioned whilst headlining the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury: “Hip-hop is the new rock ’n’ roll.”
Hip-hop going mainstream hasn’t helped with the glorification of drugs – as Fetty Wap has shown: in the summer of 2015, Fetty’s track Trap Queen stormed the charts, peaking at number two on the Billboard and reaching the top 10 in the UK.
The lyrics are all about making and selling drugs and yet it’s doubtful that the masses of people in the UK tuned into Capital FM were aware that “cooking pies with my baby” wasn’t about baking a lovely apple pie with your loved one.
Or maybe they didn’t even think about it? After all, who actually listens to the lyrics – as long as it’s got a catchy melody, anything goes, right?
“Getting caught up in lean was a lifestyle thing. I was drinking it partly because I thought it was fun, partly because, it’s like a common wave innit?”
Speaking to Dee 93 part of South London music collective Indigo Palace, he says: “Much like girls, money and drugs, lean is an accessory to rap music.”
Lean is the “in” drug according to him, but is it as popular in the UK as it is in the US?
Dee told us: “It’s definitely reached the UK – I’ve never tried it but I know people who do it.” He believes it’s like anything that sets a trend; it starts in the US and the rest of the world follows suit.
Artefact spoke to West London rapper Peaky about his own experiences of using lean, as we were intrigued to find out how popular it is in hip-hop culture in London.
“Lean itself is codeine and promethazine mixed. Codeine gives you the euphoria and promethazine gives you the knockout effect that makes you want to fall asleep.”
It is the “lifestyle” associated with sipping lean that Peaky explained is growing in fascination amongst the youth in London.
“Lean [wasn’t] a big thing before Future and Young Thug made it big. It’s a ‘Tumblr’ thing. Its not a drug that your everyday guy would do. It’s pretty hard to get hold of.”
Codeine on its own, however, is available over the pharmacy counter.
Peaky spoke to us about his own addiction to codeine after getting hit by a bus which left him hospitalised and being “pumped up with morphine”.
He says that as a result of being prescribed codeine as a painkiller, he started experimenting with the intake: “I found new ways of trying them, crushing them up, putting them in drinks. I started enjoying it. I have creative friends; we watch loads of music videos and we kind of got caught up in the hype. I would say there is a lot of hype around it.”
Lean has become a global phenomenon in hip-hop culture. Keith Ape and the Cohort Gang also drink lean and rap about their experiences of the drug in Japanese and Korean.
2015 was the year Korean rap took over and caused a stir. Keith Ape had a huge international hit with It G Ma. If you translate the lyrics to English, the It G Ma rapper talks about taking too much codeine.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t matter that the majority of the song was in another language; the hard trappy bass of the beat was enough for the multinational hip-hop community to relate to.
“Basically, it’s equivalent to heroin – if you get addicted to it, you’re getting seriously, physically addicted to it.”
The scary part about all the hype around drinking lean is how dangerous the drug is for you – Lil Wayne has been known to have seizures from his addiction to it.
Not to mention the fatalities from the drug. It was speculated that both Big Moe and Pimp C died from an overdose of the purple drink.
A particularly influential rapper on the youth today is A$AP Rocky, setting fashion trends, and having a style and finesse that so many young people love to follow.
A member of the A$AP Mob, A$AP Yams, passed away in January 2015, aged 26, from what was deemed “accidental drug intoxication.”
Accidental is questionable, as he probably knew exactly what he was putting into his body, but maybe not aware that this time he wouldn’t live to see another day.
It is widely known that the A$AP Mob drink lean and A$AP Rocky has alluded to it in songs such as Purple Swag, singing “Purple drink I still sip / Everything is purple”.
It was a horrible shock to fans of hip-hop to find out that Yams died, but maybe this still wasn’t the wake up call those who use the drug recreationally needed.
Future even tributes to Yams on DS2 saying “Long live A$AP Yams, I’m on that codeine right now.”
Asking Peaky what he thought about this, being a fan of Yams himself, he admits: “It’s f***ed isn’t it? Lean is an opiate so it turns to morphine in your liver.”
He tells us about Yams’ affiliation with the Black Out Boyz, which includes New Jersey rappers Da$h and RetcH. He says that the three of them were “glorifying Xanax and lean and [Da$h] even pours up for Yams’ death.”
“It’s kind of mad. Personally, I can’t even comment on that because if it was me, and one of my friends died over that, I wouldn’t really be pouring up.”
By “pouring up”, Peaky is referring to the action of creating the drink with the intention of getting high.
The irony of it is, if there was ever a time where you needed to take the pain away, grieving over the loss of a close friend is possibly the most understandable time to do so.
Peaky goes on to point out that: “An addiction to lean is much stronger than an addiction to weed; you’re probably just gonna pour up more.”
Drug advice website Talk to Frank warns of the risks associated with excessive intake of codeine.
These risks include lowering blood pressure which can suppress normal breathing, which increases the risk of respiratory arrest, as does mixing codeine with other drugs such as alcohol.
Speaking to Peaky now, three months after he admitted he had a ‘codeine habit’ on stage at a performance in Brighton, he is very pleased to tell us that he has stopped taking it: “I’m kind of past lean. It’s been a few months since I was doing that.”
“[The] same way people who take MDMA want to go into a club with a couple hundred other people who are doing the same thing and be on the same vibe with other people.”
The fact that there is a substance abuse problem within hip-hop and rap as a culture is undeniable and probably unsurprising.
But the problem at hand isn’t with the use of drugs – let’s be honest, anyone can do that – it’s the extremes that come from engaging in a dangerous and life-threatening trend for the sole purpose of being ‘a part of something’.
Ultimately, it is probably an addiction to the lifestyle more than anything else that is killing these rappers.
Let’s hope that hip-hop can get a hold of this addiction before someone else falls victim to hip-hop’s biggest curse: the rapper lifestyle.
Featured image by Amy Latham