(Two beers- feeling fine, if a bit hypocritical with this post.)
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When a rapper becomes as famous as Lil' Wayne has, he inevitably attracts the mainstream media and reading profiles of him in the likes of GQ and Esquire takes on an interesting quality. Occasionally it's frustrating to someone plugged in to the world of rap because, yeah, I know where Weezy's from, I know he gives away a lot of music for free, I know who his daddy is, Katrina, etc. It's the same story a million times. What makes it more interesting than the usual "Weezy doin' his thing" assessment in a rap mag or web site though, is that I kind of see the more mainstream magazines as a cultural institution, and they often write from the same objective point of view.
This point of view, this cookie-cutter Wayne story, usually includes a few references to his drug addiction. For instance, on the new Weezy-covered Blender, writer Jonah Weiner mentions it thusly:
1. "He carries a triple-stack of Styrofoam cups, swigging the sweet, narcotic cocktail of promethazine-codeine cough syrup he's never without--recently, he's been mixing it with Jones cream soda."
2. "This is part of Wayne's genius: He rides free-associative waves, pushes tangents to surrealist extremes, and the results are exhiliratingly odd: gangsta dada. This might have to do with all the codeine cough syrup he drinks. 'It's a narcotic high. It's like he's taking a bit of heroin,' says Dr. Cynthia Kuhn, professor pharmacology at Duke University Medical Center and coauthor of the drug taxonomy Buzzed. 'You can get an otherworldly feeling, and you can be less constrained by your usual thought patterns.'"
3. "...he's an artist beholden to no one but his own codeine-addled muse."
4. "The next day, at his condo, he snaps at T for failing to pack enough cough syrup for the trip to Atlanta."
This portrait of Weezy is pretty typical. The fact that this musician is addicted to a dangerous drug, a drug that killed another musician last year no less, is usually mentioned but not judged. Rather than portrayed as a negative habit, the drug is credited with a large part of the musician's success.
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So countless musicians have been taking drugs for a long time, right? And it's not the magazine's job to police them morally. So how else should media outlets cover the fact that he can't even make videos anymore without swigging from a large cup of cough syrup? What am I suggesting?
Well, compare the Lil' Wayne article with this Amy Winehouse Rolling Stone cover story by Claire Hoffman, the entirety of which focuses on Winehouse's drug and alcohol abuse with a concerned tone, treating every Winehouse quote as a cry for help. Her drug addiction, though a song about it literally made her famous, is seen as a hindrance to her success. "If only she could get her shit together" seems to be the angle of every article. The writing certainly doesn't suggest that, say, crack helps her to be a better singer.
Is Wayne a more functional addict than Amy Winehouse? Clearly. He's not wandering around London half-naked digging in dumpsters. But how much of this stark difference in portrayals has to do with race and gender and our own view of drugs?
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Would the press portray Wayne's drug use any differently if he weren't a Black kid from the projects? The fact that Amy Winehouse is a middle-class jewish girl definitely affects our need to save her from her demons, whereas a man like Wayne--a man probably more responsible for his own success than the Mark Ronson-svengalied Winehouse--can handle his shit. At the same time, suggesting that drugs are the real reason Wayne is a great rapper is condescending and has racial implications as well.
Similarly, how much of this coverage has to do with the drugs in question? I have to believe that people would step in and try to help Wayne if he were actually "taking a bit of heroin" instead of something like it, just as they are with the crack-hitting Winehouse. But as it stands, he happens to be addicted to a street drug that White people know next to nothing about, even if it is an illicit narcotic. So between the drug being a "Black thing" and taking drugs being a "Black thing, no one's going to do anything until it's too late. Who knows where this is going to end up, but it seems as if Wayne is in trouble, and no one's going to say anything as long as he's making money and as long as he is who he is.