Of the many hip-hop tropes appropriated by popular culture, an enduring favorite is “pour one out,” which is the act of spilling a drink, usually malt liquor, on the ground in remembrance of a deceased friend or relative.
This ancient ritual formally called “libation” gained a new level of prominence in the 1990s, following depictions in gangsta rap videos and hood films. It is in this modern iteration that this symbolic expression of grief has been rehashed and parodied in Austin Powers, Scrubs, and, The Big Bang Theory, among others.
Fortunately, popular culture has yet to absorb and sterilize the musical equivalent of pouring one out: the rap eulogy—or, more specifically, hip-hop songs which pay tribute to a departed rapper, producer, or otherwise well-known figure of the genre.
As grief is an overarching human experience, musicians of all genres have composed eulogies to their famed colleagues and idols. Yet hip-hop, the official soundtrack of living through struggle, has been especially effective in planning methods for processing personal and collective loss.
The rap eulogy can generally be divided into three major types, each with its own purpose and emotional hue: the soul-searching dirge; the celebration of life; and the self-eulogy. Below, we analyze notable examples of each type and examine the distinctly powerful ways hip-hop has turned grief into meaningful art.
The Soul-Searching Dirge
The soul-searching dirge reflects a state of mourning marked by shock, confusion, and pervasive sadness. It is a slow-paced, sentimental song, where the mourner reaches deep inside themselves to confront their pain and admit their loss. Reminiscence over shared experiences with the deceased is a constant theme, as is the hope for future closure and resolution.
An obvious example is Puff Daddy’s 1997 single “I'll Be Missing You.” The song finds Puff recalling his relationship with The Notorious B.I.G., from their early recording sessions to the night of Biggie’s murder. Pain is laid out in plain terms, with Diddy alternately helpless (“Give anything to hear half your breath”) and in a state of disbelief (“Still can't believe you're gone”) over his friend's passing. But the main theme is remembrance, the evocation of the past to make the present more livable: “Memories give me the strength I need to proceed / Strength I need to believe.”
Thematically, “I'll Be Missing You” touches on the insular aspect of mourning. Musically, it’s a more communal affair, featuring Biggie's Bad Boy label mates 112 and Faith Evans. Including Evans, Biggie's widow, conflates the nuclear family with the label family, a conscious A&R decision made by Puff. Evans and 112 buttress Diddy’s flow, just as the family acts as a support system in times of sorrow.
The quintessential soul-searching dirge is Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads,” which, like “I'll Be Missing You,” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a GRAMMY thanks to its elegiac qualities. The 1996 song addresses several losses: Wally Laird, a friend of the group; Lil Boo, a member of the Mo Thugs collective; Wish Bone’s uncle Charlie; and the group’s mentor, Eazy-E. This succession of tragedies could have rendered the song deeply melancholy. Instead, it provides a sober and peaceful view of death's unwelcome yet constant presence in life.
The bars about Eazy E, specifically, offer a mix of vulnerability and composure, making “Tha Crossroads” an enduring eulogy. In the first verse, Bizzy Bone recalls visiting Eazy-E on his deathbed, in a way that suggests moving on despite the harrowing ordeal: “I done rolled with blows like AIDS / Looked at him while he laid and prayed.” Wish then acknowledges the finality of the situation, rapping: “Lil Eazy's long gone / Really wish he could come home / But when it's time to die, gotta go, bye bye / All a lil thug could do was cry.” Although revealing in their emotional sincerity, these bars don't convey hopelessness as much as acceptance.
Much of the group’s resilience on “Tha Crossroads” stems from their faith. Repeatedly mentioned as a coping mechanism is prayer, and God becomes a main character in the song. Thus, when Bone Thugs sing, “See you at the crossroads / So you won't be lonely,” they could mean the intersection of life and death, or heaven and hell, or the junction we reach when trying to move on after a loss. Religiousness is also prevalent in the song’s music video, which begins with a funeral and ends with a Reaper-like protagonist leading departed souls—including a superimposed Eazy E— into heaven.
Recently, the soul-searching dirge has gained a sharper sense of urgency and a deeper sense of gloom, compared to its mid-‘90s iteration. This is clear in Juice WRLD’s two-song EP, Too Soon..., released the day after XXXTentacion was murdered in June 2018 while awaiting trial for domestic abuse charges. On both songs, emo-rap anxiety serves as both a sign of Juice's mental disarray and a tribute to the angsty lyricism of his departed heroes.
On “Legends,” Juice reflects on the legacies of XXX and Lil Peep, who passed away in November 2017 from an accidental drug overdose, questioning the value of legacy itself and the valorized concept of dying young: “What's the 27 Club? / We ain't making it past 21.” Unlike Puffy, Juice doesn't accept the memory of an illustrious career as a worthy substitute for physical life: “They tell me I'ma be a legend / I don't want that title now / 'Cause all the legends seem to die out.”
The afterlife provides no solace, either. When Juice asks “Why do we live to die?” on “Rich and Blind,” it feels like a downhearted paraphrase of Layzie Bone's bars on “Tha Crossroads”: “And I asked the good Lord why / He sighed, he told me we live to die.”
The untimely departures become a wake-up call for Juice. On “Rich and Blind,” he admits to self-medicating, but also alludes to Peep's passing while on tour as a cautionary tale: “Take three more, I swear it's worth it / But it ain't no world tour if I'm laying in a hearse.” Juice sees himself in Peep and XXX, so as he laments their demise, his thoughts naturally wander to his own fate. In doing so, he describes the special kind of anguish inflicting an artist following a colleague's death. Through this pain, Juice develops a strong, almost desperate desire to stay alive.
The Celebration of Life
The concept of the celebration of life is relevant in hip-hop; the tribute concert last fall for Mac Miller bore this title, as did Nipsey Hussle's memorial service. Like these star-studded events, songs celebrating a deceased artist's life are often collaborative affairs, where multiple peers express their gratitude for the impact the departed artist had on their life and career.
Hip-hop collectives are well-suited to deliver this eulogy, as evidenced by A$AP Mob's 2016 track “Yamborghini High,” a dedication to the crew's late co-founder, A$AP Yams. While not a musical contributor, Yams’ managerial and promotional efforts, and his stunning creative vision for the group, were crucial to the careers of all A$AP members, who regrouped to pay their respects on this posse cut.
“Yamborghini High” finds five A$AP members—Rocky, Nast, Ant, Ferg, and Twelvyy—taking turns relishing their fame and wealth, casually boasting about expensive cars and copious sex. Rocky uses his verse to give these flexes a unique, albeit subliminal spin. Most of his bars begin with, “Yeah I'm,” which he pronounces like “Yam,” a sonic device to keep his late partner's name constantly in the listener's ears.
Ferg conveys the track’s raison d'être best, mentioning how “Yammy's vision got us rich.” Amid the revelry, Ferg attributes the members’ success to their departed leader. The verse doesn't turn grim, though, as Ferg is determined to keep celebrating in Yams’ honor: “Sippin' the Henny got me gone, now I'm gettin' in my zone, hey yo / R.I.P. to my n----, the gallon goin' to my dome.” He might be pouring one out lyrically, but he lets himself enjoy a drink.
While “Yamborghini High” shows the dynamics of loss in a group setting, it’s very different with duos. Nobody personifies this intimate pain better than Bun B, who has recorded several songs in tribute of his UGK partner, Pimp C, since the latter’s death in late 2007. Pimp’s presence is strewn across Bun’s 2008 solo album II Trill, which includes a posthumous guest verse. One of the album’s high points arrives midway through the record, on the song “Pop It 4 Pimp,” featuring guests Juvenile and Webbie.
“Pop It 4 Pimp” not only functions as a celebration of Pimp C’s life, it describes the celebration. The song takes place in a club, where the three rappers start a party in Pimp’s honor. Between sleazy come-ons, there are constant reminders of the event’s purpose. Bun’s verse ends with one such memo: “You gotta take it off and let me see it, with no delay / So if you miss the pimp let me hear you say.” Juvenile similarly recalls the departed rapper, alongside others gone too soon: “Go on pop it for my n---- P-I-M-P / Busy out there with my n---- B.I., and P-A-C.”
Despite its sense of abandon, “Pop It 4 Pimp” points to the participation in activities our loved ones enjoyed as a coping mechanism. When Webbie observes a woman and comments, “Pop it like a firecracker, betcha Pimp will love her,” remembrance takes on an active, participatory shape. Incidentally, UGK heavily influenced A$AP Mob, and Rocky in particular, so it’s possible that Bun’s resilience inspired the collective when penning their own festive tribute.
A celebration of life can also assume a more sublimated form, via stylistic homage to a departed artist’s musical imprint. Common dedicated his 2007 album, Finding Forever, to his fellow Soulquarian, J Dilla, providing a remarkable instance of eulogy in sound. Kanye West, the album’s primary producer, drifts from his patented chipmunk soul sound to incorporate the chopped vocal samples and swinging drum loops typical of Dilla’s style. This sonic tribute is apparent on the set’s first single, “The People.”
“The People” doesn’t include a mention of Dilla’s name, but the late mastermind’s presence hovers over the track. West’s production opens with samples from the song “Long Red” by Mountain, which also formed the foundation for a track on Dilla’s 2006 album Donuts. It’s soulful sonic bed colors Common’s words with Dilla’s memory, like when he raps: “Lyrics are like liquor for the fallen soldiers,” equating the act of pouring one out to his songs’ commemorative quality. At the end of the track, Common delivers another musical maxim: “Sometimes we find peace in beats and breaks.” These lines point to the healing power of music, for both its consumers and creators, and helped turn “The People” into a monument for Dilla.
The nature of incessant creation in hip-hop provides a fertile ground for postmortem musical analyses, as fans and colleagues dig through heaps of recordings to construct a narrative around an artist’s passing. The results are self-eulogies, where deceased artists appear to predict their own demise and offer parting words to the living.
No hip-hop artist perfected the self-eulogy like the late 2Pac. As a living artist, Pac exhibited a morbid fascination that set him apart from his contemporaries. This is evident on his 1995 album Me Against the World. “So Many Tears” gives the notion that Pac is planning his exit: “My every move is a calculated step / To bring me closer to embrace an early death.” On “If I Die 2Nite,” Pac goes as far as envisioning reactions to his demise: “I hope they bury me and send me to my rest / Headlines reading 'Murdered to death', my last breath.”
On all of 2Pac’s officially released posthumous albums, the eeriness of his self-destructive prophecies morphs into an acceptance of his passing and his impact. “Hold On Be Strong,” released in 1997, reads like a summary of Pac’s life: “I never had much, ran with a bad bunch / Little skinny kid sneakin' weed in my bag lunch.” There’s also beauty in the memories Pac shares on the nostalgia-inducing track: “Remember how it was? / The picnics and the parties in the projects.” To console grieving fans, the song ends with a spoken message from the great beyond: “Stay strong, and stay ballin', hold on / I'll catch y'all at the next life, we in traffic.”
This promise of lasting presence is prominent throughout 2Pac’s posthumous discography and in the work of other late rappers who, whether or not knowingly, seem to eulogize themselves. The Notorious B.I.G., for example, began laying himself to rest with his albums’ titles: Ready to Die and Life After Death. His first album ends with “Suicidal Thoughts,” where he airs out his frustration and self-loathing before killing himself, a narrative lead-up to Biggie’s second coming. Intentionally or coincidentally, the second album features some departed rapper’s most celebratory and life-affirming tracks, which also became perennial hits.
Biggie’s enduring presence shows the rap eulogy can feel very of-the-moment, but also gain new meaning as time passes. Earlier this year, Diddy made an appearance with former Bad Boy recording artist Ma$e at Ariana Grande’s Coachella set, to perform Biggie’s posthumous smash “Mo Money Mo Problems.” As Biggie’s verse played, video screens showed images of the late legend. Still not over his friend’s departure 22 years later, Diddy gives a shout out to Biggie and other rappers gone too soon: 2Pac, Nipsey Hussle, and Grande’s former boyfriend Mac Miller, urging the audience to remember these artists.
On that night, Diddy was again pouring one out for the homies.