rap-depression
Graphic by Khristen Wilson

From Biggie to XXXTentacion: Rap’s Grim Relationship with Depression

Earlier this week, the ever-fascinating XXXTentacion announced that his debut album, 17, was on the horizon and that it was “for the depressed ones.” He even claimed that the project may stray away from the reckless sound and attitude that first put him on the map, stating, “If you listen to me to get hype or to not think, don’t buy this album.”

It seems like 17 will be more “garette’s REVENGE,” X’s ode to a lost friend, than “Look At Me,” his breakout song. I have my own reservations about X after his alleged domestic violence incident; I try my hardest to support artists who do as little heinous shit as possible. But his claim that the album will be for the “depressed ones” is intriguing. I deal with my own severe depression on a daily basis and rap music is one of the first places I go to clear my mind. The genre’s gaudy claims and rags to riches tales resonate and remind me that shit gets better, no matter how bad it seems.

It’s no secret that hip hop is primarily dominated by black men, and masculinity is a major part of black male culture. Whether it’s sexual conquests or beating another dude down, that masculinity has been pervasive throughout hip hop since its inception. A large part of that masculinity often involves neglecting to share one’s feelings. Too often, we’re told to keep emotions inside and “take it like a man.” For the longest time, Drake wasn’t even respected as a rapper because he was “all in his feelings.” Back in the ’90s, when hip hop truly began to make its presence known as a force in popular culture, not many rappers could talk about how sad they were feeling or how much they FELT something without being labeled as soft. Whether you liked it or not, that model of masculinity isn’t as ubiquitous as it once was.

In a way, rap music treated depression as if it were some kind of sideshow circus attraction—an odd and unfamiliar experience. Meanwhile, other genres of music opened up to the dangers of mental illness. While grunge bands like Nirvana dominated the charts by singing about depression, rap stayed behind the curve with most hip hop hits speaking about hometowns, fighting and partying. Depression as a subject matter wasn’t popular among hip hop until groundbreaking rappers like Scarface, Pac and Biggie (and, later DMX) changed the norm.

Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts,” which closed out his aptly named debut album Ready to Die, features Biggie calling Puff Daddy and rapping lines like, “I swear to God I want to just slit my wrists and end this bullshit/ Throw the Magnum to my head, threaten to pull shit.” All the while, a bewildered Puff replies with sighs and sentiments like, “Nigga what the fuck?”

The exchanges between the two appropriately represent the disparity between depression and how it’s treated in rap music. Biggie is pouring his heart out about his own self-hate and Puff can only be annoyed by the fact that his time is being taken up by this dilemma. By the end of the song, Big grows tired of all the grievances and takes his own life as Diddy yells out his name.

The first time I heard “Suicidal Thoughts,” albeit nearly 20 years after its release, nearly every line rapped on that eerie beat resonated with me. The same problems Big had in the ’90s at the height of his fame, I could relate to as a teenager now. And in a way, it’s therapeutic to hear someone baring their soul about the same shit that you’re going through.

As times have changed, the world has learned more about depression and the impact it has on a person’s mental state. It became a disability under the 2008 Americans With Disability Act, and as more and more beloved public figures have taken their own lives, the tone of the national conversation around depression has changed. It’s become more accepted to reveal that you are miserable. As a result, more and more rappers have begun to abandon the traditional raps about chains and getting pussy and instead started writing songs about emotional despair.

Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak completely altered his musical sound and became influential in changing up hip hop as a whole. Kid Cudi rose through the ranks as a Kanye protege, humming and rapping about his emotions and insecurities. Although rap’s gaudiness remains, and probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, the inclusion of consistent emotional honesty is refreshing.

But no matter how refreshing the shift towards emotional maturity is to see, ignorance still rears its ugly head. When we lost Pro Era’s Capital Steez to suicide in 2012, we were left with a grimly appropriate final tweet reading “The End.” There was a giant hole left in the New York hip hop community.

With Steez considered the brain behind bringing together the Beast Coast movement, consisting of Pro Era, The Underachievers and Flatbush Zombies, his loss was heavy in the hearts of New York’s new generation of rap.

Back in 2016, Steez’s best friend, Joey BadA$$, got into a beef with fellow New York rapper, Troy Ave. When Joey came for Troy’s low album sales, Troy stooped lower and went right for Steez. In a diss track titled “Badass,” Ave rapped, “Steez burning in hell, my burner’s in my belt/ I’m really killing shit, you niggas killing yourself / Fucking weirdos, off the roof, Steer clear yo!”

While nothing is off limits in hip hop, especially when beef is involved, Troy Ave’s bars went beyond just mentioning Steez, he belittled and made a mockery of depression as mental illness. Calling Steez a “weirdo” for taking his own life and making fun of the fact that he jumped off a roof highlights the ignorance that still exists in some aspects of hip hop. Later on, Troy reaffirmed his statement, calling Steez a “bozo” and “dickhead” because he had no right take away the life God had given him.

In a way, Troy Ave personifies Diddy’s sentiment on “Suicidal Thoughts” on a much scarier and more dangerous level. He can’t relate to the thoughts that could possibly drive Steez to take his own life, so instead of trying to understand, he shrugs it off as weirdo behavior. This mindset prevents people who suffer from depression from speaking out, leaving them to suffer in silence. This behavior is why XXXTentacion’s album and other releases aimed at an audience of people going through it are needed. Whereas words like Troy’s can make someone feel like an idiot for having negative thoughts, X has the potential to reach someone and prevent them from doing damage to themselves. In a way, this explains why rappers like Tyler, the Creator, XXXTentacion and Travis Scott have shows that involve so much moshing. Having someone who allows you to feel free and relate to puts you in a place of being unburdened and spiritually free, allowing you to say “fuck it” and rage until you can’t anymore.

X’s album isn’t the only one on the horizon that might be for the “depressed ones.” With his now triple platinum hit “XO TOUR Lif3,” Lil Uzi Vert is gearing up for his LUV IS RAGE 2 album. On the hit track, Uzi talks about his unstable relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and his consequent drug abuse and suicidal thoughts. Uzi’s notorious relationship with his ex involves her telling Uzi, “Baby, I am not afraid to die” if things didn’t work out between the two of them. In the first verse, Uzi cries out, “She say I’m insane, yeah/ I might blow my brain out.” On the record, Uzi’s relationship is so toxic that it’s driving him to consider ending his own life so he doesn’t have to deal with it anymore. On the chorus repeatedly yells, “All my friends are dead, push me to edg.” I’ve lost count of how many times I belted out those lines without thinking about the context. For all we know, it could be a cry for help masquerading as a catchy hook.

With more and more artists like X and Uzi dropping songs highlighting their despair and listeners tuning out the lyrics to dance along to the beats, it seems like artists’ pleas are being drowned out by the heavy bass of their tracks. Future has set clubs on fire, time and time again with his Auto-Tune-laced trap music, but most of his lyrics are absolutely depressing. Some of his most popular club songs talk about his substance abuse and his unstable relationships with his family.

On “Codeine Crazy” he raps, “Take all my problems and drink out the bottle and fuck on a model.” Instead of actually taking a look at his issues, he buries them in as much alcohol, drugs and sex as he possibly can. As opposed to viewing this as a potential warning, some of us use it as the soundtrack to make the same mistakes that he does.

In 2015, one of the founding members of New York rap group A$AP Mob, A$AP Yams died as a result of a mixed drug intoxication accident. Hours prior to his death, Yams tweeted out “BODEINE BRAZY” in relation to his codeine high and reference to the aforementioned Future song. Even though Future would go on to reply to Yams’ tweet a week after his death with “#RIPYAMS,” he would continue to rap about his constant substance abuse with the same drugs that Yams did prior to his death. How can we lose the artists and figures we care about and then promote the same things that killed them?

The subject matter of the songs by the likes of Uzi and Future are dreary to say the least, but their popularity shows that the subject matter might not be what people are paying attention to. It doesn’t matter if the rapper is dealing with thoughts of suicide or substance abuse, if the beat is made by Metro Boomin and the flow is smooth, we couldn’t care less. 21 Savage can rap some about of the darkest moments in his life and we might just ignore it. As long as we have the ability to turn up and forget our problems, we don’t give a single fuck about the ones baring their souls on the track.

In no way am I suggesting that every time “XO Tour Lif3” comes on that you should break down crying and ruin everyone’s night. Or that when Future raps “Percocet, Molly, Percocet” over and over that you join the D.A.R.E. program. But lets at least actually listen to the artists whose music we play 24/7. There are subjects brought up that if addressed could help out both the artists and at least some of their fans. The more we can help artists deal with their pain, the more we can find a way to deal with ours as well. We’ve lost so many to depression, whether it be as a result of suicide or substance abuse, that we need to ensure that the cries from this new generation don’t fall on deaf ears—for their sake and ours.

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