Music has always been about releasing emotions, and recently the mainstream hip-hop world has turned to the dark-side with what I call “Depression Rap.” Different than cut-and-dried hip-hop, this evolving offshoot of rap deals with introspective negative thoughts generally about self-deprecation, grim emotions, and as heard recently on Kanye West’s Ye, suicide.
Although there have been many songs throughout rap history that deal with the topic of depression and mental health, Depression Rap is a genre on its own. For example, Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and Grand Master Flash’s “The Message” have dark themes—an unwanted pregnancy and a rough upbringing—but are very different stylistically than Kendrick Lamar’s “u,” which is about self-hatred.
There’s no question depression has been a factor in hip-hop for a long time. The Notorious BIG has a song not so subtly titled “Suicidal Thoughts,” Tech N9ne has “Low,” and even ruff rider DMX has “Slippin.” Though, few of these songs had the commercial success of modern day iterations of this genre. Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” spent 42 weeks on the chart. XXXTencion has many songs about depression still on the charts as I write this and has the first posthumous #1 song. And of course, Ye and the collaborative project between Kanye and Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts.
If depression has been a subject in hip-hop for so long, why is it resulting in such commercial success now?
In reality, music is a representation of society and the issues people are going through, so it should be no surprise that rappers have had success with tracks focused on mental health.
Depression rates are growing across the country and across all ages. According to health insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield, from 2013 to 2016, there was a 47-percent increase in depression in people ages 18 to 34 and a 63-percent increase in people ages 12 to 17. Damn. It’s important to note that only 4.4 percent of people ages 18 to 34 had actually been diagnosed with depression. But that still means about 1 out of 20 of your friends experience depression, with more going undiagnosed.
So, when Kanye raps, “I think about killing myself/ so you best believe I think about killing you,” you best believe at least one of your friends is nodding along saying, “I feel you, Kanye.”
Only released a week later, Kanye and Cudi address this topic in a different, more positive light on Kids See Ghosts. In “Feeeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” they each sing, “I don’t feel pain anymore/ Guess what babe? I feel freeee.” Not only do they acknowledge their depression, but they talk about overcoming it and the struggle to experience that freedom. Earlier on the album, on “Reborn,” Cudi repeats, “I’m so, I’m so reborn/ keep moving forward,” reassuring listeners that rebirth is always possible with help. Additionally, the idea that he repeats— “keep moving forward”—implies that he knows his fans are also dealing with depression, and this is his way of helping them.
To challenge my own thesis that Depression Rap is rising simply because people are more depressed, I tried looking for other answers. After talking to some people about this topic, I got a great response from my friend James.
“People have been doing this for years. It’s just Emo sh*t. Now that rap is the mainstream, these thoughts and feeling have spilled over into the genre.”
I couldn’t agree more. I remember listening to a My Chemical Romance song, “I’m Not Okay (I Promise),” and jamming out to The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus (I was the coolest kid in middle school). James’s counterpoint showed me how depression as a topic is not new to music at all.
So why now? Why is depression rap so big right now? In this environment, rap is the music of the people. And people are depressed. As rap continues to be the most popular genre, people will use it as a form of self-expression.
Most importantly, music can be a savior, but there are people around you who want to help you too. Please reach out to 1-800-273-8255 if you have suicidal thoughts or thoughts of hurting others. I’ve also heard good things about Betterhelp.com (non-promotional, I promise) a cheap resource for online therapy.