Mental illness has seemingly always simmered beneath the surface of mainstream hip-hop. In the 1990s paranoia permeated throughout the lyrics of Tupac Shakur. The track ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ closes The Notorious B.I.G’s debut studio album Ready to Die, charting the depth of Biggie’s depressed state through a late night phone conversation, ending with simulated suicide. Mainstream rap’s concern with mental health can be traced back to Eminem’s introspective masterpiece ‘Beautiful’, that charted at seventeen on the US Billboard Chart. Now songs like Logic’s progressive, suicide prevention anthem ‘1-800-273-8225’ and Lil Uzi Vert’s dark, nihilistic breakup song ‘XO Tour Llif3’ have foregrounded mental health’s place in contemporary hip hop.
All too often hip-hop neglects the vulnerable, and the genre’s widespread treatment of mental health is no different. Last year hip hop heavyweight Drake came under fire, as his Kid Cudi ‘diss-track’, ‘Two Birds One Stone’ was perceived to perpetuate the negative stigma rap music attaches to mental illness. Drake’s verse foregrounded his own fragility, drawing attention to the “demons that visit me every night”, whilst appearing to mock Cudi’s mental illness. Many interpreted Drake’s depiction of Cudi’s depressed state as belittling, implying that mental illness was Cudi “just going through your phases” and part of the “life of the angry and famous”. In advising Cudi to “stay xann’d and perk’d up” Drake appeared to attack a fellow rapper who just weeks beforehand had admitted himself into rehab for anxiety and depression.
All too often hip-hop neglects the vulnerable
Drake’s decision to deride Cudi’s for using Xanax and Percocet, antidepressants used to treat depression, emphasises hip-hops complex, dangerous relationship with drug use. ‘Two Birds, One Stone’ evidences hip-hops distorted logic concerning drug use, where recreational drug use is glorified and medical treatment is seen as a sign of weakness. Where Future’s can simply namedrop “molly” and “Percocet” in his ‘Mask Off’ hook and garner massive commercial success, Cudi is ridiculed for receiving treatment and raising awareness about mental health. In mocking Cudi, Drake undermines starkly honest artist who has tangibly changed people’s lives. Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson flagged up the importance of Cudi’s Man on the Moon album, both to him personally and his generation. In an October 2016 interview with New York radio show The Breakfast Club he “would have killed himself” without Kid Cudi, emphasising the importance of knowing “your hero goes through the same stuff you do”. And Davidson’s not alone, breakthrough rapper Kyle in an interview with Rolling Stone testified to the importance of Cudi’s music: “Kid Cudi came out and he was the first person I could relate to that was hurt. ‘You’re not weird for being depressed.’ Kid Cudi has saved lives. He saved my life.”
Kid Cudi’s track ‘Soundtrack 2 My Life’ draws together intoxication and mental health confessing he was “close to go and trying some coke / and a happy ending would be slitting my throat”. This troubling relationship between drugs and depression is central to Lil Uzi Vert’s ‘XO Tour Llif3’. Here Uzi Vert’s stresses he is “committed not addicted” to Xanax, with his lyrics hinting that the anti-depressant both numbs the pain and fills the vacuum left by his failed romantic relationship. Often dismissed alongside other vapid mumble rap songs, ‘XO Tour Llif3’ examines the hollowness of the materialistic world of strip clubs and super cars lauded by mainstream hip-hop. Instead Uzi Vert is left isolated and alone, asserting, “all my friends are dead” and pleading for the personified “Xanny” to “help the pain yeah / Please Xanny make it go away”. ‘XO Tour Llif3’, which charted at number seven in the US, is a mainstream rap song unafraid to challenge showcase mental fragility and permeate beneath the hyper masculine, materialistic tropes of rap music.
a mainstream rap song unafraid to challenge showcase mental fragility
Kendrick Lamar, one of contemporary rap’s most celebrated and successful artists, has consistently focused on depicting both his own mental health and the fragility of others throughout his discography. Addressing his own mental health in an April 2015 MTV interview Lamar stated, “My release therapy is writing music” and on Grammy winning record To Pimp a Butterfly the listener is transported into Lamar’s own interiority. On the track ‘u’ Lamar’s growling delivery, twinned with the grinding repetitively of the track’s hook captures a real sense of isolation, detachment and despair.
There’s a palpable social consciousness that lies at the heart of track’s like “u”. Lamar firmly believes that it is his role “to pimp” his position of influence in a way that benefits others. Real power exists in a heavyweight in perhaps the most materialistic and destructively masculine genres in music being unafraid to showcase fragility. The stark honesty of lyrics like “and if those mirrors could talk it would say, ‘you gotta go’” showcase that like 43.8 million Americans each year, Lamar too experiences mental illness. That beneath critical acclaim and material wealth exists a person that looks in the mirror and contemplates suicide. Kendrick himself states that the importance of tracks like “u” lie in the artist “showing what I’ve come through… showing what I’ve been through and that I still love myself”.
Positivity permeates throughout Maryland-born ‘conscious rapper’ Logic’s ‘1-800-273-8225’. Logic’s emotionally charged suicide awareness anthem grabs its title from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number. Logic traces an imagined caller moving from deep depression, “being on the low” and “feeling out of my mind” and suicidal thoughts to position of acceptance and improved mental health.
The track has had a genuine, tangible positive influence on American mental health awareness. In the first three weeks after ‘1-8000..’ was released calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline jumped up 27%. In truth, Logic’s third studio album Everybody is a mediocre rap album lacking a tight lyrical theme or the sharpness of wordplay to be first rate, and yet the progressive nature of tracks like ‘1-800…’ call into question the role of a modern hip hop artist. Jumping up from 67 to peak at number 9 on the US Billboard Logic has proved there’s a real market for progressive uplifting rap. Logic’s track shows that, perhaps for the first time, mainstream hip-hop really can have a direct and important influence on widespread attitudes to mental illness. Songs like ‘1-800-273-8225’ prove that mainstream rap, now the most listened to genre in the United States, is now mature enough to have serious conversations about mental health. Just like Logic’s progressive, powerful final chorus, mainstream hip-hop finally “want’s to be alive” to the reality of mental health.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, or feel you would benefit from further discussion of mental wellbeing, the NHS’ list of mental health helplines can be found here; the Samaritans 24-hour helpline can be reached at 116 123; the University of Exeter’s Wellbeing Services can be contacted at 01392 724381, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via http://www.exeter.ac.uk/wellbeing/