Hip-hop has always had a fundamental contradiction.
As a whole, the genre champions realness as one of its core commandments. It’s why growing up in Compton or Brooklyn provided legitimacy, it’s why ghostwriting is a cardinal sin, it’s why cultural appropriation is a sensitive issue for so many. Authenticity is paramount.
But what about emotional realness? What about anxiety? What about depression? What about the times where all that bravado and machismo wasn’t really how the artist was feeling?
“Why you so depressed and sad all the time like a little bitch?” Vince Staples quizzes Earl Sweatshirt on the 2013 track “Burgundy”.“Don't nobody care about how you feel, we want raps.”
Until recently, hip-hop has turned a blind eye to depression and mental illness in general. While it’s obvious that mental illness plagues rappers just as much as anyone else, it’s not the kind of topic that complements the tough-as-nails pomposity that so much hip-hop boasts.
Throughout the past year or so, the slow-building relationship between hip-hop and depression has begun to expand, finally breaking down the longstanding concrete walls. Most notably, 2015 has seen the release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, both mainstream, widely received and critically acclaimed albums that openly deal with each artists’ experiences with depression.
This flourishing relationship has now been well documented, and to better understand it, we must look at cause and effect. As any psychologist might tell you, in order to solve an internal problem, you need to identify the root cause. And so, let’s turn to our history books.
The stigma was there long before hip-hop ever existed.
Hip-hop developed out of a young, masculine culture, with an aggressive new desire to give the streets and society a voice. It also spawned from a culture where mental illness, and therapy in particular, was usually condemned and cast aside. Even if we just scratch the surface of hip-hop’s history, it was loud, proud and celebratory, it was about peace, love, unity and having fun; certainly not self-loathing, hapless existentialism or simply not wanting to get out of bed in the morning.
Of course, this is hardly to claim that hip-hop has never touched on the topic. Eminem, Biggie, Kid Cudi, El-P and plenty more have been open about their experiences with depression and even suicidal behaviour – with some concealing it less than others.
Tupac was remarkably open (for the early ‘90s) about his own mental anguish, and while his occasional lyrical references were fleeting and rarely the focal point of the track, their very existence is so important. “I once contemplated suicide, and woulda tried,” he tells on posthumously-released single “Thugz Mansion”. “But when I held that 9, all I could see was my mama’s eyes.”
In Complex's Feb-March 2013 cover story, Kid Cudi detailed his experiences with antidepressants, depression and therapy. “After the WZRD song “Dr. Pill” everyone thought I was talking about molly or ecstasy. But I’m talking about prescription meds. I had just gotten a shrink. I was having an emotional breakdown,” he revealed. “A year ago I wouldn’t even go to a therapist or psychiatrist. But I gave it a shot.”
On 1994’s “Suicidal Behaviour”, the Notorious B.I.G laments, “I can’t believe suicide is on my fucking mind, I wanna leave, I swear to god, I feel like fucking death is calling me.” Beneath this line is a background voice, which we assume to be a friend on the phone, distantly pleading.
In 2015, hip-hop is surging toward the conscious, analytical, switched-on lyricist – a step back for the stereotypical overbearing masculinity, violence and misogyny that many believe to be hip-hop’s favourite themes. The most on-trend artists recording today – Vince Staples, Vic Mensa, Run The Jewels, Childish Gambino, Chance the Rapper and so on, are turning listeners on with their observations and opinions. And with that openness towards both diversity and intellectualism, comes a space to discuss depression, vulnerability and self-doubt.
Distressing songs about broken relationships, loneliness and abandonment are no longer just the folly of soaring pop ballads. Openly discussing depression, anxiety and vulnerability are no longer just for alternative indie bands.
The changing rhetoric and acceptance is not only found in today’s artists, however, but the listeners too. Emotionally conscious rap spawns emotionally conscious rap fans.
“My release therapy is writing the music,” Kendrick Lamar told MTV when To Pimp A Butterfly first came out. Perhaps the most lauded hip hop album of 2015, not only for the relentless intensity that makes it a difficult listen for some, but for repeatedly honing issues like Lamar’s own struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts.
In the same way that Lamar’s therapy is creating music, an audience can experience the same feeling from listening to it. Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt and more are releasing music that you don’t have to turn up at the club to enjoy; you don’t even need to be at the club. Introspective rap, made by introspective artists, is important and okay.
Interestingly, it’s not just the younger generation of rappers paving the way in 2015. Kanye West and Drake, two of the most powerful men in music today, have made no secret of their emotions, self-reflection, their struggles and anxieties. In 2012’s “Clique” West openly admits, “Went through deep depression when my momma passed. Suicide, what kinda talk is that?“ Today, the baton has been extended to the universally adored Drake, a mainstream rapper with the emotional sensitivity of an ‘80s pop balladist. “Lately, I feel the haters eating away at my confidence,” he croons on ‘6PM in New York’. “They scream out my failures and whisper my accomplishments.”
Even entrepreneurial heavyweight Dr Dre nods to reflection and introversion on the final track of his long-awaited 2015 album Compton. “Talking To My Diary” is undoubtedly one of the most honest Dre tracks on record. That such an impenetrably powerful figure within hip-hop is acknowledging that when he’s staring at the sky, and “you probably thinking I’m high,” in reality he’s having a moment of introspection, is a standalone example of how the hip-hop landscape has shifted.
When hip-hop first emerged, it was an immediate, urgent and necessary voice, a voice that many of us had never heard before. It’s exciting that today, that mark has been made. Hip-hop showed the world something new, something vital.
Now that that first hurdle has been jumped, it’s as if it’s now okay for rappers to let their guard down, as if they no longer have to prove themselves. Hip-hop has impressed the world, and is comfortable enough to remove its mask. One by one, its purveyors are revealing new layers, shining light into the dark, secretive corners of their minds.
Hip-hop has a long way to go in breaking down the stigma surrounding depression and mental health as a whole. Considering the genre’s roots, it’s entirely unsurprising that it’s taken so long. For a genre so intricately connected to the growing pains of youth, hip-hop is an immense resource. We learnt about the realness of an entire culture and community from its songs; perhaps we can now learn about emotional realness too.