After the Snow

The mirror crack'd: Last year, a drug and its discontents seeped into books and hip-hop

Faison offers his life as a cautionary tale, but that's not exactly how things have worked out. When Paid in Full was released, Faison was upset that his original script's stubborn, anti-drug message had been softened; he criticized one of the film's actors, the rapper Cam'ron, for his seemingly "rah-rah" offstage attitude toward drug dealing. This year, when breakout star Young Jeezy shot a video for his "Soul Survivor" single, the young Atlanta rapper borrowed liberally from Paid's tragic, rags-to-riches storyline, but not its moral subtext. With the epidemic behind us, crack, for those who aren't still in its throes, has become a clean surface, an impetus for stories retold. New York may have celebrated its 17th consecutive year of declining crime rates, but there is still an odd fixation with broken windows and restless summers.

About two-thirds of the way through George Pelecanos's brilliant 1999 crime novel The Sweet Forever, a couple of characters powwow over chili and wonder what the future holds. It is 1986; street gangs terrorize D.C., but there is still something small-time about it all. "It's gonna get worse," one worries. "You heard about this crack thing, right?" The novel ends before this suspicion is confirmed.

One last book celebrates that now unimaginable moment before the fall, before there existed the dozens of relativistic ways of mentally processing crack and all that followed. Published last June, photographer Jamel Shabazz's A Time Before Crack (Powerhouse) is a poetic, forceful tribute to the 10-or-so-year run-up to the epidemic's arrival—"an intimate countdown to Armageddon," he writes. Each page captures some immaculately fashioned homeboy or girl from around the way, puffing their chests out mid-street and conjuring some reason to smile. Shabazz writes that each time he snapped someone's photograph, he would leave with these words: "Everything you do today will reflect upon your future." Decades later, the pictures evoke their own nostalgic yearnings. We know now what lies around the corner.

photo: Jamel Shabazz

Hua Hsu is a student in the history of American civilization at Harvard. He writes about music for Slate and The Wire.

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