By Tara Garman
As I sit down to listen to rapper XXXTENTACION’s debut album, 17, it’s safe to say I have my reservations. The history of X reveals a host of criminal offences including robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and battery of a pregnant woman. This makes for a disturbing introduction but certainly implicates an all-too-familiar aggressive trap sound. However, as I listen to ‘The Explanation’ which X opens his album with its clear that I have been mistaken. The track consists of the rapper talking about the meaning behind his tracks and after learning about his notorious reputation I was shocked to hear X present 17 as his “pain and thoughts put into words.” He further details how he hopes that it can “help cure or at least numb your depression” and prepares me for an album which is much more intimate and authentic than I had anticipated.
The second song on the album, ‘Jocelyn Flores,’ describes X’s experience of a friend committing suicide and the psychologically detrimental effects this has on the rapper. X’s lyrics strike me with a shockingly profound sense of honesty and despair as he candidly admits “I’m in pain, wanna put ten shots in my brain” and claims that the experience has led him to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Tracks such as ‘Carry On’ and ‘Depression & Obsession’ further affirm the themes of mental illness with X noting that despite “the pain inside of my chest, got no choice but to carry on.” X’s acute address of mental health issues and suicide within this album establishes his role amongst the new wave of hip-hop and rap artists beginning to bring these topics to the forefront of modern music.
After his feature on Migos’ 2016 hit ‘Bad and Boujee,’ I was unsure about the longevity of Lil Uzi Vert’s presence in the rap industry. Whilst slightly amused by the boastful nature of his lyrics paired with his uniquely nasal tone, I felt there was no real substance to his lyrics. Despite this, the arrival of Uzi’s debut album Luv is Rage 2 demonstrates a welcome change in tone epitomised by the album’s lead single ‘XO TOUR Llif3’. This dark hip-hop track allows Uzi to resist caricature as he raps openly about his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and the effects of their breakup. The line “push me to the edge, all my friends are dead” rings throughout the song, creating a haunting effect that can only impassion the listener with a sense of apathy. Whilst tracks on Uzi’s album, such as ‘No Sleep Leak’, fall victim to the common tropes of rap music, ‘XO TOUR Llif3’ is a valuable and refreshing asset that successfully merges a catchy hook with an important and intriguing subject matter.
The topic of mental health in the music industry reached the height of discussion back in July with the tragic suicide of Linkin Park frontman, Chester Bennington. In the February before his death, Bennington was interviewed by Los Angeles Radio Station 102.7 KISS-FM and admitted that he “had a hard time with life…sometimes.” Although he spoke openly about his unhealthy relationship with himself, it was only until after his death that people began to take notice of the potency of his words. When considering Bennington’s recent passing, rapper Logic’s latest release, ‘1-800-273-8255’, which features Alessia Cara and Khalid, is especially poignant and reminds people about both the prevalence of suicide in modern society and the importance of offering support to those who need it. Logic directly addresses the issue of suicide as he documents a conversation between a person preparing to take their own life and a phone operator on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Released in partnership with the NSPL and using their helpline number as the title, the track honestly explores the suicidal thoughts of the anonymous caller as they admit “I don’t wanna be alive…I just wanna die today.” The directness of this track urges people to consider the number of people suffering as Bennington did, and in need of help. Often, it is rarely even known that a person has ever even been affected, or at least the extent to which they have been affected, by mental health issues until after their passing. This issue continues to surface across the hip-hop genre and raises questions about how much of an artist we truly get to see through their music.
After joining Cash Money Records at just 9 years old, rapper Lil Wayne has enjoyed a largely successful career. His witty rap style, along with collaborations with the likes of Nicki Minaj, Drake and Chris Brown has made him a prominent figure in the music industry. However, I was shocked to read recently that he had openly spoken about a suicide attempt in a feature on Solange’s track ‘Mad’, which involved him shooting himself at age 12. Whilst Lil Wayne has claimed the incident was an accident in previous interviews, in this feature he directly referred to it as an attempt on his life as he raps ‘when I attempted suicide, I didn’t die, I remember how mad I was on that day’. Similarly, on the track ‘u’ from his 2016 album To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar spoke frankly about his “suicidal weakness” caused by his guilt about leaving Compton and struggling to reconcile his wealthy life as a rapper with his hometown, where many live amongst gun and gang violence. These brief glimpses into these artists’ private lives reflect how the bravado of affluence which rappers exude in their songs may hide a multitude of personal issues often unknown to their listeners.
Over time, the discussion of mental health in hip-hop music has become more common and is currently leading the charts. Whilst creating cool trap beats, rappers are revealing a vulnerability with their music and creating tracks which are relatable to their young audience, more so than those glorifying fast cars and diamonds. Most importantly, the focus on mental health in current rap music is allowing listeners to find meaning in artists’ lyrics and thus helping them to understand the mind behind the melody.
Photograph: Dan Garcia via Flickr