There are a few themes that come up over and over again in popular music. We have all heard the many songs about things like heartbreak and the transient nature of youth that all seem to mirror each other. Another popular musical trope, usually hidden behind code words and innuendo, is drug use. Here are some of the very best songs about drugs.
1. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – The Beatles
Few bands in the history of music have ever been as popular as The Beatles and, as many people know, they became more than a little familiar with drugs in the late 1960s. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, which is a thinly veiled reference to an LSD trip, appeared on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 when the band was at the height of their psychedelic rock phase. John Lennon famously claimed it was innocently inspired by a picture drawn by his young son, but most people don’t believe that story.
2. Purple Pills – D12
Almost everybody knows the rapper Eminem, but the work he did as the leader of the hip-hop ensemble D12 is often forgotten. He formed the band in the late 1990s with friends and fellow rappers from his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. The song “Purple Pills”, which came out in 2001 as the band was surging to popularity, is a fully unvarnished depiction of the highs and lows that accompany drug use. Each member of D12 takes turns delivering their own individual verse on the topic.
3. Under the Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The band Red Hot Chili Peppers has always been known for their chill surfer rock, but each member of the band struggled with very real drug addiction as they toiled in the Los Angeles music scene of the late 1980s. “Under the Bridge” was written by front man Anthony Kiedis after he got clean and the rest of the band didn’t. The song is about Kiedis feeling distant and detached from his band mates and friends as he leaves drug use behind. Released in 1991, it was a huge hit and is arguably Red Hot Chili Peppers’ most popular song.
4. C*caine – Eric Clapton
A lot of songs about drugs hide the reference behind subtle poetry, but that is not the case for the song “C*caine” by Eric Clapton. In this track, the legendary guitar god attempts to convince the listener to try the drug in no uncertain terms. “C*caine” was released in 1977 and helped lead to a surge in the drug’s popularity that would last through the entire 1980s.
5. Breaking the Habit – Linkin Park
Linkin Park has always been known to have a brooding musical style that explores the darker themes in life. “Breaking the Habit” fits this mold perfectly, as it tells the story of drug use from its most bleak and paralyzing aspects without romanticizing it in any way. Coming from the band’s highly popular record Meteora in 2003, lead singer Chester Bennington was famously unable to perform the song in concert for many years due to the emotional reaction he had to it.
6. Time to Pretend – MGMT
MGMT rose to popularity during the late 2000s while indie rock was experiencing something of a revival. Their musical style is assertively groovy and drug-friendly, as embodied by their single “Time to Pretend” from Oracular Spectacular released in 2007. While the song sometimes sounds like it is merely telling the story of a kid on an adventure, references to choking on vomit make it clear that the singer is describing a drug trip.
7. White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane
The timeless rock band Jefferson Airplane was one of the pioneering acts in the psychedelic rock genre. Lead singer Grace Slick personally wrote their biggest hit “White Rabbit”, which came out in 1967 at the height of the hippie culture. The song both narrates and sets the stage for an LSD hallucination styled after Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The song has become legendary for it’s crescendo where Slick repeatedly declares “Feed your head!”.
8. Semi-Charmed Life – Third Eye Blind
“Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind has a noteworthy status as one of the most popular songs that is about drugs but doesn’t sound like it. While it sounds like the type of upbeat pop song about youthful aspiration that was trendy in 1997 when it came out, lead singer Stephan Jenkins has admitted that the song is actually about his own past addiction to crystal meth. The happy-go-lucky beat is supposed to mimic the uplifting effects of the drug.
9. Hurt – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash became world famous for his blend of gospel, rock and roll, and country in the 1950s and 1960s, but one of his biggest commercial and critical successes came just prior to his death in 2003. Released the prior year, “Hurt” is actually Cash’s rendition of a song originally performed by the rock band Nine Inch Nails. The song about struggling with drug addiction sounds perfect coming from Cash. “Hurt” was a huge popular success and won him a posthumous Grammy award.
10. Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix
The Jimi Hendrix Experience were still relatively unknown in the United States when they recorded “Purple Haze” in early 1967. Both the song and Jimi Hendrix would go on to achieve legendary status in the history of American music. “Purple Haze” is known for describing an equally legendary strain of marijuana and its psychoactive effects, but Hendrix himself actually said that it was intended as a love song.
11. We Found Love – Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris
Both Rihanna and EDM artist Calvin Harris were at the height of their popularity when “We Found Love” came out in 2011. While it originally sounds like a club anthem, the “yellow diamonds” that Rihanna refers to are actually crystals of the drug MDMA, or ecstasy. She goes on to sing about the feelings of love that accompany the drug’s high, which is also enhanced by the type of bold breakdowns that Harris is known for.
12. We Are All on Drugs – Weezer
The alternative rock band Weezer has touched on every theme imaginable in the 30 years they have been active, so they have a song about drugs, too. “We Are All on Drugs”, released in 2005, catalogs the motivations that lead some people to addiction and the fallout that can result. According to Weezer’s lead singer Rivers Cuomo, the song refers not only to actual drugs, but technology, media, relationships, and the many addictive distractions that exist in the modern world.
13. Can’t Feel My Face – The Weeknd
The Weeknd burst onto the popular music scene in 2015 with a series of hit singles from his album Beauty Behind the Madness. One of these was “Can’t Feel My Face”, which comes off as a song about passionate love affair that may not always be the good kind. In reality, The Weeknd is singing about his struggles with drugs by personifying them as a lover who he knows is bad for him, but he still can’t stay away from.
14. One Toke Over the Line – Brewer and Shipley
It’s odd to think about now, but the folk genre was on the cutting edge of popular music in the 1960s and early 1970s. Brewer and Shipley were a folk duo act at this time, making it big in 1970 with their hit single “One Toke Over the Line”. As member Mike Brewer later recalled, he wrote the song after he spent an entire day getting stoned smoking marijuana with friends and one of them said he was one toke over the line, giving the song its name.
15. Negro y Azul – Los Cuates de Sinaloa
The Spanish song “Negro y Azul”, performed by the Mexican mariachi band Los Cuates de Sinaloa, has a unique origin. It was written specifically for the hit television show Breaking Bad in 2009. It tells the story of Heisenberg, the criminal alias used by the show’s main character, and how his success in the crystal meth cooking business has made him a target for violence by the Mexican drug cartel.
16. Ayo for Yayo – Andre Nickatina feat. Sam Quinn
The song “Ayo for Yayo” by Andre Nickatina and Sam Quinn makes its drug references obvious by the use of repeated drug street slang (‘yayo’ itself is covert term for c*caine). The track is a very gritty portrayal of c*caine use and the downward spiral that can result from the initial well meaning desire to have a good time. Nickatina and Quinn were something of a one-hit wonder, as they went relatively unheard from following the song’s release in 2003.
17. Swimming Pools – Kendrick Lamar
Rapper Kendrick Lamar made global headlines when he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, but “Swimming Pools” came out in 2012 when he was still honing his craft. The sound and lyrics initially convey a party-friendly vibe where alcohol is all part of the fun. However, beneath the surface, Lamar’s poetry describes the peer pressure and futile self-destructive cycles that often lead people to drink to an unhealthy excess.
18. Antidote – Travis Scott
Before he was setting headlines of all kinds with his intense live performances, Travis Scott made his fame on the back of singles like “Antidote”, which was released in 2015 on the album Rodeo. The song outlines various types of drug use, including Scott using marijuana as the cure to whatever negative feelings he may be having and taking pills as a way of life in the hills of Los Angeles.
19. Mary Jane – Rick James
Rick James was still an up and coming young funk artist when he released “Mary Jane” as one of his very first singles in 1978. On its surface, the song is a groovy tune about a woman that James is infatuated with. However, ‘Mary Jane’ is a common slang term for marijuana and the song is truly about James’ love for the drug.
20. Molly – Tyga feat. Wiz Khalifa
Use of the drug MDMA surged in popularity in the early 2010s and the trend culminated with this club anthem about the drug, which is frequently nicknamed Molly. Rappers Tyga and Wiz Khalifa were at the height of their popularity in 2013 when the track came out. It utilizes a heavy EDM-style beat as it chants the drug’s name over and over again, making it clear that it is the subject of the rappers’ affections.
21. Mother’s Little Helper – The Rolling Stones
Drug use is often thought of as either the glamorous subject of adventurous youth or the clearly destructive habit of someone determined to undermine themselves, but sometimes it is neither. In “Mother’s Little Helper” by the legendary British rock band The Rolling Stones, the lyrics describe the phenomenon of housewives being prescribed tranquilizers to deal with their own emotional turmoil, which was an epidemic in the 1950s and 1960s.