On Hip-Hop, Black Male Youth, and Mental Health

2017 was an intriguing year for music in hip-hop and mental health. From the traditionalists, JAY-Z and Kendrick, to the new school, Logic and Lil Uzi Vert, mental health has been a reoccurring topic in many of the radio singles, album tracks, and mixtapes released this decade.

The obvious starting point is Logic’s Grammy-nominated track with Alessia Cara and Khalid, “1-800-273-8255.” The #3 peaking single derives its title from the official phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.  The song chronicles a protagonist’s journey from suicidal thoughts to recovery and then their spreading the gospel of suicide prevention.

The first chorus reads “I don’t wanna be alive / I just want to die today;” Never before on U.S. Top 40 radio have we heard search blatant and stark lyricism concerning the perils and reality of suicide. There is no sugarcoating here, the message cannot be missed and not only does it hook the listener musically, it also hooks the reader because of the veracity and tone of the lyric. The second chorus of the track reads “I finally wanna be alive / I don’t wanna die today;” showcasing an incremental improvement in the mental health and stability of the protagonist. The final chorus in the song, “I want you to be alive / you don’t gotta die today;” signals the protagonist’s effort to share the vitality of life and the permanent consequences of suicide. Logic has always been an underground rapper and it is particularly interesting that his first mainstream hit is intensely political. “1-800-273-8255” is not political in the context of race, sexuality, or gender, but more in the personal sense of how society can break down a person’s mind, spirit, and will to live.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States; each year approximately 45,000 Americans die by suicide. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that suicide rates among black children in the U.S. doubled in the past 20 years. Suicide rates in the United States are increasing, and black youth have been hit the hardest. What we are seeing in hip-hop today is a direct and accurate reflection of the state of the genre’s core demographic.

Black people have been conditioned to be more stoic and more resilient than anyone else; this was necessary for us to survive in a system specifically designed for our failure. From slavery to Jim Crow, and this current era of racially charged police brutality and mass incarceration, black people have had a history of trauma of being stripped mentally and emotionally. This traumatic history has made it all the more difficult for black people, especially black men, to speak openly and honestly about depression and suicidal thoughts. All too often in the black community are depression, anxiety, etc. seen as weaknesses instead of mental illnesses. This logic taps into the hypermasculinity of African-American culture, thus resulting in these alarming suicide rates. Music has always been a source of healing for African-Americans, so to see this influx of mental health awareness in the most widely consumed music genre is promising. In a decade that has seen hip-hop dominating the mainstream charts, Logic’s success is empowering for the new class of rappers and simultaneously reassuring for the old guard that their legacy of social commentary will live on even after their primes.

Another new school rapper, Lil Uzi Vert notched his first solo top ten single with “XO Tour Llif3,” which contains the instantly memorable lyric, “Push me to the edge / all my friends are dead.” This lyric anchored the song into the lexicon of pop culture. “XO Tour Llif3” is a menacing and brooding trap record about Uzi’s relationship issues and suicide. The hit single places mental health in the context of a toxic relationship. Lyrics in the hook like, “She said ‘baby I am not afraid to die,” signify how pressure from loved ones can affect a person’s mental health. Lil Uzi Vert has rapped about having friends who were killed in his hometown on previous mixtape tracks and the effect of violence and gang activity weighed heavily on his conscious and soul as seen through “XO Tour Llif3.” This song has shown exceptional longevity on Spotify, not only because it is objectively catchy, but also because, subliminally, many people can relate to the darkness and helplessness of the lyrics. Many people dismiss suicidal thoughts of relationship failures as melodramatic, but those feelings are real and scary; “XO Tour Llif3” captures that sentiment in just over three minutes.

Lil Uzi Vert’s second single from his Luv Is Rage 2 release is “The Way Life Goes.” Despite its deceivingly uplifting lyrics, the song touches on the mental health defects that occur because of overworking and overexerting oneself. “I know you’re sad and tired but / you’ve got nothing left to give,” is a stark critique on the detriments of heavy routine and lack of adequate rest. That lyric is actually sampled from “Landslide” by Oh Wonder. Whether or not Uzi realized this, that lyric has a startling pertinence to the African-American experience. Throughout history, black people have been overworked and underpaid, and that’s putting it lightly.

The stereotype of the “strong black woman,” telling our young black men to “man up” when they show any type of emotion, and imploring our black youth to “pray the pain away” are all direct results of the internalization of apathy towards the verbalization of emotional pain. No one has ever had empathy for black pain, we have internalized this so much that we are raising our children in a culture where our inability to articulate our pain is literally killing us.

On the traditionalist front, JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar also explored themes of mental health, albeit through sharper lenses, in their recent releases. “LUST.,” a deep cut from Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning #1 album, DAMN, further explores how routines can destroy a person. “LUST.,” in a musical sense, never settles down, it constantly loops around and restarts; it has an unbearable nervous energy about it. These elements of the production were purposefully chosen to accentuate the effects mindless routines can have on people. “Wake up in the mornin’, thinkin’ ’bout money, kick your feet up;” is repeated numerous times throughout the song as the verses restart, signifying the damning and frustrating nature of an everyday routine. References to the 2016 presidential election comment on the fear, uncertainty, and the hopelessness many felt after the results were verified and finalized.

DAMN. isn’t the first time Kendrick has rapped about themes of mental health; on his 2014 Grammy-winning #1 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, several tracks (“i,” “u,” “Alright”) explicitly tackled these themes. On the Grammy-winning lead single, “i,” one of the most effervescent rap singles in recent memory, Kendrick raps the refrain “I love myself.” The track is used as the antithesis to “u,” which is sonically and lyrically the polar opposite of “i.” New York University professor, Jeff Peretz, puts it perfectly, “In the song “u,” Lamar’s inner critic speaks in a voice that cracks, sobs, and gulps from a bottle, a raw and rare self-assault that’s hard to listen to.” Kendrick is clearly broken on this track; he displays every shade of fragility that black men are conditioned to conceal. Kendrick is almost universally regarded as the best rapper of his generation, and in some circles, of all time. To see a rap “god” revel in the cracks of his emotional armor and bare his soul without fear of retribution is important and necessary. Young black men across this country (and around the world) look up to Kendrick; they need a role model to show them the full extent of blackness and masculinity. Even before To Pimp a Butterfly, on Kendrick’s major label debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, he tackled these themes. Specifically, on lead single, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Kendrick raps about alcohol addiction as a means to “kill [their] sorrows.” The track is a warning of the dangers of alcohol abuse, especially when used to placate clinical depression. All too often, people turn to drugs, in general, to cope with depression because they lack the security, to be honest with themselves and others. While national attention has turned to opioid addiction in predominately white neighborhoods, black people are still being over-stigmatized, over-criminalized, and killed by drugs.

On a more intrinsic level, JAY-Z’s Grammy-nominated #1 album, 4:44, is a study of the consciousness of a black man in the context of fame and love. The lead single (and title track), is an emotional mea culpa to his wife, Beyoncé, and all the other women he has had extramarital relationships with. “I apologize to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions / ‘Cause I was emotionless” is an incredibly loaded and self-deprecating lyric. Because Jay never unpacked his own emotions and trauma, he knowingly inflicted pain upon people that he loved. Jay has spoken extensively about his experience with therapy session saying, “A lot of people going through trauma and are too embarrassed to get help… We’re not dealing with that because it’s not the cool thing to do.” That embarrassment is rooted in a fear of effeminization by our peers in the event that we admit that we need help. In addition, this fear can lead to adultery and/or worse. This is a major factor in mental health that is overlooked. “4:44,” is a stunning song, from its sample to Jay’s delivery, the song is soul-searching, remorseful, and sees a man take accountability and acknowledge where his brokenness comes from. 4:44, as a whole, is forty-six minutes and eighteen seconds of catharsis and accountability, a true lesson in healing oneself.

JAY-Z collaborator, Future, released two #1 albums in 2017, HNDRXX and FUTURE, which went gold and platinum respectively. The albums feature codeine-coated nuggets of admission detailing the loneliness of the gangster/trapper lifestyle. Future raps about his condolences to the mothers of his many children and the perils of fame on “Sorry.” He also raps about how drugs numb his pain and soften his loneliness, it’s a bleak outlook, but it makes a greater statement on the state of our favorite trappers’ mental health. Most people listen to Future’s music at parties or just to vibe to, but Future’s melancholic tone and grimy production reveal a more lugubrious artistic streak.

All this is not to say rap just became conscious about mental health, from Biggie and Tupac to DMX and Kid Cudi, rappers have been real about their pain for decades. The difference now is that the hit records are also the real records. Rap has been an incredible help in changing the narrative and stigmatization among black men in regard to mental health. We have to keep the conversation going; listen to your sons and daughters when they tell you their issues. Look out for the warning signs of anxiety, depression, etc. Make sure your relationships feel safe and secure so these young men and women can feel comfortable sharing their feelings. Mental health is physical health, they are equally as important. As a young black man, I implore you all to listen now, so you don’t regret later.

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