Ask anyone to list the basic personality traits of a rapper straight off the top of their head and you’ll probably hear things like: brash, exuberant, self-promoting, confident, grandiose or even sinister adjectives like misogynistic, angry or violent. You’d be unlikely to hear words such as introspective, melancholic, self-conscious, anxious or neurotic. Yet with depression affecting an estimated 350 million people worldwide (26% of the population of the United States) and with fewer than half of that number receiving effective treatment for various reasons, it stands to reason that, for all of hip hop’s surface-level swagger, there would be an undercurrent of depression in some of its biggest names.
As a fan of hip hop both classic and contemporary as well as someone currently sorting through a pretty rough period of both depression and anxiety issues, reading things like this thoroughly intrigued me.
It’s pretty staggering how far the game has come since its inception. If you read our interview with the seminal Talib Kweli last week, he contended that ‘hip hop was always meant for you to turn up at the club’, pointing to pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, who helped bring hip hop to the world and spread the original message of ‘peace, love, unity and having fun’.
A lot of early hip hop was in that vein, pure and blissful party music. The only difficulties you’d hear artists like Big Daddy Kane rapping about was the inherent struggles that come with the pimp game.
Grandmaster Flash arguably introduced social consciousness to hip hop at his pissed off breaking point in The Message. Late 80s groups like Public Enemy and NWA would later take that fury and run with it into the mainstream with songs like 911 Is A Joke and Fuck The Police. A lot of hip hop artists like KRS-One and the aforementioned Kane adopted the archetypal hip hop narrative of rising up out of the ghetto, from nothing to something. But this was looking from the inside out, the opposite barely considered, perhaps even looked upon as weakness.
The closest thing I can find to an introspective rap song in the immediate years following its ascent from a primordial ooze of West African poetry and Jamaican toasting was Hard Times by the inimitable Kurtis Blow.
Nestled in as a filler track on his eponymous debut LP, Blow raps about his life being down and needing a thrill, vowing to use his ‘strong mentality’ to break free. Surprising, considering he was known for his biggest hits being party cuts like The Breaks and (one of my favourite jams) Basketball.
The two biggest individual names responsible for the explosion of hip hop from underground to the top of the Billboard were The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. They were some of the first to confront inner demons in the harsh light of international fame, but it was a balancing act that usually always tipped in favour of emotionally impenetrable bravado. For all the anguish and hurt you can hear on Suicidal Thoughts, as Big wonders if his mother really wanted an abortion and whether anybody would shed a tear at his funeral, there were an abundance of guns, money and bitches songs like Big Poppa and Gimme The Loot.
Similarly for ‘Pac, the lonely defiance expressed on songs like Me Against The World was punctuated on the same album by lyrics about being a thug and an outlaw. On a public level, both were viewed as untouchable, immortal titans of the hip hop universe and neither were ever known primarily as being ’emotional rappers’.
And yet, it’s clear that both of these guys were going through personal turmoil that belied their otherworldly public personas. It’s like they were trying to hide some of those feelings, I’m sure plenty of other rappers did at the time too. Perhaps it was indicative of the then explosion of gangsta rap and the competition fostered between its artists on opposing Coasts to cultivate the toughest exterior possible. Perhaps the world, over a decade shy of the reality TV and social media bubbles that brought about a greater acceptance of introspection and mental health issues as a result, simply wasn’t ready to look inwards to that degree.
Fast forward to today and hip hop is barely recognisable. The dogfight for top spot (or rather, spot 1A behind supreme overlord and possible demigod, Kanye West) isn’t between a pair of larger than life criminals as it was between Biggie and Pac, but between a hybrid rapper-crooner who wears his heart on his sleeve almost to the point of cartoonish-ness and an MC who started life in a stable family and getting good grades despite his Compton surroundings and who now finds himself preaching from the highest pulpit in hip hop. That’s Drake and Kendrick Lamar respectively.
Drake’s lyrics are brooding and consistently deal with themes such as heartbreak and loneliness. In response to being labelled ‘soft’, Drizzy responded: ‘I’m not ‘soft’, I’m just not one of those people who is closed off emotionally’. He certainly isn’t afraid of delving into some of the farthest corners of his personal struggles. As meme-rific as he has been warped into by the public at large, there is no denying the rawness of his soul-searching.
Almost universally revered and with stock rocketing upwards, Kendrick’s 2015 smash To Pimp A Butterfly tackles his battle with depression head on. Specifically the ‘survivors guilt’ he feels over making it out of the hood while leaving so many behind. It’s addressed in depth on songs like Hood Politics and no more starkly than on the heartbroken u.
There is an enormous amount of despair on u, Kendrick unfolding a harrowing narrative, addressing himself through a friend’s voice ‘You ain’t no friend, a friend never leave Compton for profit’ and referencing the death of a close friend he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to ‘You even FaceTimed instead of a hospital visit’. It’s important when juxtaposed with the self-loving i, this is a struggle that people with depression often face, cloud nine one minute and rock bottom the next. Kendrick gave an interview about u to MTV:
Other contemporary rappers like Earl Sweatshirt and Kid Cudi have also bared their souls in their music, Earl even going as far as name dropping Xanax as what he takes for the panic. His 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside couldn’t have a more perfect and relatable title for a sufferer of depression. Cudi dredges up a troubled childhood that still effects him today on songs like Soundtrack 2 My Life.
It’s never been more acceptable to deal with mental health issues and personal problems in hip hop as it is right now. And yet the surface feels like it has only just been scratched.
As Talib Kweli observed in that same interview, ‘The popular hip hop in the club is the hip hop that’s easier to sell – hip hop that’s violent and degrades women, and people who sell drugs and stuff like that’. Put simply, it isn’t as easy (well, for anybody not named Kendrick Lamar) or as popular, to push a record that deals with depression as it is to sell one dealing with the familiar and comforting hip hop tropes of money, drugs and violence.
Based on the sheer number of people worldwide battling depression at any one time though, it’s conceivable that there are a whole lot of rappers out there dealing with this who aren’t vocal about it, who stick to the aforementioned tropes and possibly don’t seek treatment or want to talk about it in a public light.
The sad timeline of rappers who have taken their lives might be a testament to that. Maybe it’s because they’re still clinging to the misconception of hip hop culture that to be a rapper you have to be a tough guy, you have to be a gangster, impenetrable to both bullets and emotions. I know how difficult it was for me to come out and admit that I needed help, these guys are enormous celebrities whose every move is scrutinised and whose success relies so incredibly heavily on their public image. For them, something like that must be damn near impossible.
Maybe they feel like they’d face slings and arrows if they came out as suffering depression. ‘How could you be depressed, your lyrics are all about all the money and cars and women that you have. What do you have to be depressed about?’
To be that simplistic about it is to ignore the insidious nature of depression, an illness that has the shit sandwich superpower of being able to manifest itself in just about anyone.
That’s why it’s so important to me that more and more contemporary rappers are embracing this issue and bringing it mainstream. It gives the voiceless a voice and if it encourages some of their hip hop peers to be more open on a personal level than we are all the better for it. Hopefully the status of stars like Kendrick and Drake who are embracing these issues will change the longstanding culture of hip hop. I sure hope so.